Playground bullies aren’t the only ones shaking down kids for their milk money.

Despite lots of recent fuss about the poor quality of school-cafeteria fare — and mounting evidence of widespread diet-related maladies among kids — corporate interests are still lining up for their cut of the cash the federal government and families spend on feeding kids at school.

Did you want fries with that?

Photo: iStockphoto

The new hot “opportunity,” The Wall Street Journal reported last week, is breakfast. The school market is “pretty saturated as far as lunch goes,” a Kellogg marketing flack explained to the Journal. Translation: After decades of pushing, the food giants are generating plenty of profit selling processed lunch products to schools, but the market has stopped growing. Breakfast, though, remains fertile ground.

The calculation goes like this: 29 million U.S. children eat federally subsidized lunch every day, while only 9 million eat breakfast. “Those 20 million unserved breakfasts translate into nearly $2 billion in federal money that could be claimed from school-feeding programs, but has been left on the table each year,” the Journal reports.

To capture that $2 billion, corporate marketing departments are cooking up some predictable schemes. Here is the Journal again: “Earlier this month, Kellogg Co. began selling its own breakfast-in-a-box to schools, which includes cereal, a Pop-Tart or graham crackers, and juice. Tyson Foods Inc. is adapting its popular lunchtime chicken nuggets and patties into smaller sizes for breakfast. Scores of other companies also are pitching breakfast items to schools.”

One entrepreneur, Gary Davis, may have the giants beat. Davis’ company, East Side Entrees, “was already a player in the school-lunch program, supplying products like SpongeBob SquarePants milk and Batman cheese pizza,” the Journal reports. Now, East Side Entrees hopes to bring in $100 million in the 2006-2007 school year alone selling “Breakfast Breaks” — ready-made boxes of processed juice, crackers, and cereal, made by the likes of General Mills — to school districts nationwide. To do so, Davis (described by the Journal as a “former food broker”) has lined up a formidable phalanx of anti-hunger NGOs, lobbyists, and industry groups to promote his product.

At a press conference promoting his “Got breakfast?” marketing push last winter, Davis flexed his might. Share Our Strength and the Alliance to End Hunger, a pair of well-heeled D.C.-based nonprofits to which Davis has pledged a cut of his breakfast take, showed up in support. Farm-state worthies Bob Dole and George McGovern offered platitudes about breakfast’s status as the day’s most important meal. The California Milk Processor Board blessed Davis’ twisting of the iconic “Got milk?” slogan to his own use. The USDA, which oversees the federal school-lunch and -breakfast programs, sent Kate Coler, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, to applaud the effort. Before swinging through the USDA’s revolving door, Coler served as chief lobbyist for the Food Marketing Institute (a trade group for supermarket chains) and as legislative liaison for the American Bankers Association in its dealings with USDA officials and congressional agricultural committee members.

Let’s Do Breakfast

Undeniably, getting kids to eat breakfast is a worthy goal. The USDA reckons that in 2004, 13.9 million U.S. children lived in households that lacked access to an adequate, balanced diet throughout the year — up from 12.7 million in 2001. With real U.S. wages stagnating, more and more parents not only struggle to find money for breakfast, but also to find time to prepare it. Lower hourly wages mean more hours at work just to maintain household incomes.

But that’s no excuse for liberal politicians like McGovern and other anti-hunger advocates to sign on as shills for state-subsidized industrial food. The obesity rate has tripled since 1980; the Centers for Disease Control warns that 30 to 40 percent of kids now in first grade will form diet-related diabetes in their lives if present trends hold. Distributing a bunch of empty carbs and high-fructose corn syrup through profiteers like Gary Davis hardly seems like a wise policy.

To be sure, figuring out a good way to feed the nation’s 55 million schoolkids is a knotty problem. In a Sept. 4 New Yorker profile of crusading chef Ann Cooper, who’s currently in the process of reintroducing freshly prepared food to Berkeley’s public school system, Burkhard Bilger lays out the tawdry recent history of the nation’s school-food program. The Reagan administration, it turns out, did more than slash the school-lunch budget by $1.5 billion and attempt (unsuccessfully) to redefine ketchup as a vegetable. It also ended grants for replacing kitchen equipment, forcing most of the nation’s schools to abandon the food-preparation business altogether. Rather than cook, they now reheat food processed elsewhere. According to Bilger, fewer than half of all public schools have proper kitchen facilities — and fully one in five have surrendered altogether and sell fast food.

Against this backdrop, there’s little wonder that kids have reportedly grown attached to industrial fare and rebel when a cook like Cooper presents food made from fresh ingredients. It also helps explain why politicians like McGovern revel in industry-friendly but dubious quick fixes to childhood hunger. It’s much easier to find a way to spend $2 billion in already-appropriated funds than tackle a multibillion-dollar project like restoring the nation’s ruined school-kitchen infrastructure.

Yet as Cooper is showing in Berkeley and activists are showing across the country, given time to adjust, kids will happily eat well-prepared fresh food if given the opportunity.

Efforts to cajole kids into eating better have been derided as uncontrolled social experiments. Yet the school-lunch program as it is, with its reliance on reheated industrial dreck, has been an experiment itself — a terribly successful one, if your goal is to create a society of people who don’t know how to cook, struggle endlessly with weight issues, and rely on a robust pharmaceutical industry to ameliorate their various health complaints.

According to Bilger, the French spend $8 on each school meal, while a new program in Rome runs $5 per student. The U.S. spends less than $3, which translates to an annual $7 billion budget. To put that number in perspective, the U.S. government is now spending $1.4 billion per week propping up a friendly government in Iraq. Forgoing just five weeks of mayhem in the Persian Gulf, we could double the school-lunch budget.

And in doing so, as I’ll show in a Gristmill blog post this week, we could revitalize local-food economies throughout the nation.