Ed Bruske recently spent a week in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in the District of Columbia observing how food is prepared. This is the last of a six-part series of posts about what he saw. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Cross-posted from The Slow Cook. And check out the rest of the Cafeteria Confidential series.

When I asked to spend time observing the kitchen operation at my daughter’s elementary school, I thought I was going to see people cook. The food service provider for D.C. Public Schools, Chartwell-Thompson, had recently ditched the old method of feeding kids with pre-packaged meals from a food factory and replaced it with something they called “fresh cooked.” Being one of those folks who’s trying to return to cooking from scratch with fresh, local ingredients, I was anxious to see how Chartwell’s plan would play out.

Was I ever in for a surprise. As I soon discovered, there wasn’t much “fresh” about the food being served at H.D. Cooke Elementary School. When I passed through the doors of the “Kid’s Stop Cafe,” I walked straight into the maws of the industrial food system, where meals are composed of ingredients out of a food chemist’s lab, where highly processed food is doused with all sorts of additives and preservatives in distant factories, then cooked and shipped frozen so that it can be quickly reheated with minimal skill and placed on a steam table.

Like many of the parents who’ve been reading this series for the last five days, and communicating with me via our school listserv, I was perplexed by the sheer banality of so much processed, canned, and sugar-injected food being fed to our children on a daily basis; disappointed that no one seemed to take issue with this sort of food service; chagrined that pizza and Pop Tarts and candied cereals were being served so routinely alongside Mountain Dew masquerading as milk — and all of it here in the nation’s capitol, right outside Michelle Obama’s door.

Are these really the lessons we want our kids to learn about food?

While other parents and I were feeling a little let down by what this witness account revealed, it would have come as little surprise to any of the thousands of school food service directors around the country. What I saw in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke reflects a culmination of trends that have been converging for decades in school cafeterias, a perfect storm, if you will, of industrialized food methods, meager school food budgets, and federal government policy.

The National School Lunch Program traces its roots to the Great Depression, when cash-strapped farmers were happy to have Uncle Sam buy their crop surpluses and donate them to schools. In the 1940s, this turned into a formal policy of ongoing federal support for school lunch. But Southern senators insisted on states’ rights when it came to deciding how federal dollars were spent, and for years resisted efforts to make school lunch a poverty program or increase funding to extend it into poor, black, urban schools.

School lunch has always been subject to regional — and even racial — politics.

In the 1960s, however, the nation was rocked when it learned there were actually poor and hungry children about the land. When Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty, the school lunch program officially became a primary means of fighting hunger. Subsidized breakfasts soon followed. Then Ronald Reagan arrived on the scene. He may not have succeded in his famous effort to have ketchup declared a vegetable, but he was able to gut the budget for school lunches. Schools are still dealing with Reagan’s “smaller government” legacy.

In the budget squeeze, schools turned to brand-name fast food giants such as Taco Bell to supply lunches. They enlisted commercial food service companies to bring economies of scale to the school routine and to schools that did not have their own kitchens. They attacked the biggest cost of food service — labor — by letting skilled cooks go, cutting back hours so emplyees no longer qualified for benefits, hiring people at lower rates who knew only how to heat and serve — the so-called “thawer-outers.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continued to supply schools that qualified with free commodity products — truckloads of beef, poultry, cheese, potatoes. But schools found they could make better use of these commodities if they were shipped directly to large food processors. Now the schools trade those raw commodities for finished products that come with benefits: Not only do the schools not have to pay for skilled labor to process raw foods, they face much less risk of the diseases that sometimes accompany raw products. Liability issues transfer to the big processors, and what the schools receive is a finished, precooked, frozen meal item that only needs to be heated in an oven before it can be served to students. Furthermore, large processors can design on a grand scale foods that fulfill the nutritional requirements set forth by the federal government.

So who needs to cook?

That’s a simplified explanation for why the scrambled eggs you see on the steam table at H.D. Cooke for breakfast are actually a manufactured product with 11 different ingredients cooked in a factory in Minnesota and delivered 1,100 miles frozen in plastic bags to the District of Columbia. There are many other reasons why prefabricated, industrial convenience foods have so completely insinuated themselves into school menus.

In her book Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, Janet Poppendieck, a sociology professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, says most school food service directors are convinced that kids come to school wanting the same foods they eat at home or in fast food restaurants. That’s why so many kids crave pizza, french fries, and hamburgers. This puts schools in a bind because of the way federal subsidies are structured for the lunch program: Schools only receive reimbursements for meals they actually serve.

Schools now treat students as “customers,” designing menus around things they think students will buy. That’s not so much an issue in an elementary school such as H.D. Cooke, where everybody eats from the same steam table. But as kids get older — middle school, high school — they start looking for more options. They might refuse the reimbursable meal. They might eat off-campus. That’s why schools introduced “competitive foods,” either at “a la carte” stations separate from the reimbursable lunch line, or in vending machines. And that’s how it’s possible for kids to eat pizza and fries every day at school — or maybe just chips and soda. Healthy or not, schools need the revenue from those sales to fund the overall food program if the reimbursable meals aren’t being eaten.

As if there were not already enough complications, school food service providers also have a gun to their head where the contents of the meals are concerned. For instance, they are supposed to provide a minimum number of calories at meals, but also restrict the level of fat in meals to no more than 30 percent. As I described in part four of the series, meal planners end up replacing fat calories with carbohydrates, often in the form of sugar.

I’ve tried not to interject my personal views into these posts, but here I will make a prediction: One day we will regret what Poppendieck calls the “war on fat” and what it has meant in terms of removing flavor and succulence from school food and adding too many starchy and refined foods to kids’ diets. The focus should be less on the amount of fat we eat, and more on what kind of fat.

The human body is a remarkable mechanism that can metabolize all kinds of foods. It requires only two macro-nutrients for survival: fat and protein. Kids these days are being bombarded with polyunsaturated, omega-6 fats from corn and soybeans. Both of these crops are subsidized by U.S. tax dollars, which makes them abundant. But while they may be great for feeding livestock, making high-fructose corn syrup, or providing the fat content for nearly every prepared food on grocery store shelves, their oils are something humans never evolved eating. What’s sorely lacking in school meals — as well as meals in general — are healthy fats such as the mono-unsaturated fats in olive oil, canola oil, and nuts, and the omega-3 fats from oily fish, pastured meats, eggs, and flax seed. 

(In defiance of popular diet pronouncements, some Americans have embraced coconut oil, a saturated vegetable fat with a bad rap. Coconut oil is not your typical saturated fat: it consists of medium-chain fatty acids that are quickly metabolized for energy. Half the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acid, a potent antimicrobial also prominent in mother’s milk. It may not be politically correct, but coconut oil has been sustaining tropical natives for thousands of years and probably deserves a closer look.)

Meals without enough fat are bland. And we know that too much sugar can’t be good for an epidemic of childhood obesity. Industrial food has amply demonstrated that kids can be overfed and malnourished at the same time. As one food service director quoted by Poppendieck says, “you cannot base the school lunch program on what is the cheapest and what’s the easiest to get them to eat. That is a recipe for obesity.”

But can we really serve “fresh cooked” food in schools with all of these issues at play? Ann Cooper, the “renegade chef” who famously teamed with Alice Waters to introduce meals cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients in Berkeley, Calif., schools, and now presides as nutritionist for schools in Boulder, Colo., says it really boils down to working harder, being more creative, and having the will to do it.

In my own classes teaching “food appreciation” to kids in the after-school program at a private elementary school in D.C., I’ve seen children try and enjoy all sorts of foods — including vegetables — when they have a chance to handle them and prepare them themselves. Kids will happily peel potatoes, grate carrots, and chop onions all day if you give them the tools. We’ve been on a world food tour for the last year, currently sampling the cuisine of Africa. Last week we made a signature stew from Angola — muamba de galinha – with chicken and lots of vegetables — onions, tomatoes, garlic, okra, acorn squash — and palm oil. This was something none of us had seen before. But the kids wolfed it down and begged for seconds.

I know it sounds like just the sort of program that has earned Alice Waters an “elitist” tag. But I’m here to say it really works. “Healthy Schools” legislation pending before the D.C. council calls for a strong education component to go with a farm-to-school program, as well as demanding that schools serve local farm products “whenever possible.” Now there’s talk of building a facility with capacity to process and freeze enough local produce to serve the entire school system.

But don’t creative meals using fresh ingredients cost more? And wouldn’t that mean hiring skilled chefs, another cost item?

Perhaps what it comes down to is a couple of simple questions: What kind of food do we want to feed our children? How much are we willing to spend? The French, who really care about food, spend triple what we do on school meals. The Italians spend double.

Not all food service authorities are convinced that cooking from scratch is the answer. “If the kids are not eating home-cooked meals at home, then they are not going to want those in school,” Poppendieck quotes one as saying. “The issue is we have to give kids what they are used to eating. We have to give them what they are familiar with. And we can’t be the trendsetters and go back to home-coked food if that’s not what they are getting at home.”

I wasn’t one of those millions of fans who cheered Michelle Obama on when she started her vegetable garden. I thought she should have located the garden at a needy school instead of on the White House grounds. But I’m happy to admit I was wrong. The First Lady proved that she wields enormous influence. She captured the world’s imagination with the simple act of planting seeds. She embraced foods grown locally and sustainably as the foundation for a healthful diet, and declared child wellness her personal mission. She may deliver the National School Lunch Program to yet another pivotal transformation — more than a commodity program, more than a battle against hunger, but school lunch as a teachable moment. She deserves our full attention.

Can she really undo what it has taken decades of persistent industry effort and government policy to put in place? Can she really get kids to think differently about food? She certainly has her work cut out for her. School food, says Poppendieck, “is simultaneously tasked with alleviating poverty, ending hunger, reducing waste, controlling spending, and overcoming childhood obesity, along with its original goals of safeguarding the health and well-being of the nation’s children and encouraging the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities. It’s a tall order, to say the least.”

After spending a week watching how school food is prepared, I certainly don’t claim to have a magic solution for all the issues bedeviling the school lunch program. But I do have a suggestion: Michelle Obama can’t do it alone. Adults — all of us — need to take responsiblity for the food kids eat.