Can Michelle Obama make the math work for better school food?
Launching her anti-obesity campaign — “Let’s Move” — last week, First Lady Michelle Obama vowed to add 1 million kids to the 31 million already being served daily by federal reimbursable meal programs while cutting back on the foods kids like most — refined grains, potatoes, sugar, salt — and adding things kids like least — vegetables and whole grains. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama offered to split $1 billion per year over the next 10 years between schools and other meal programs, an amount school food advocates say isn’t enough to add even an apple to kids’ cafeteria trays.
Sound like a winning strategy?
Impressively, Michelle Obama has rounded up a bevy of national interest groups and corporations to attempt yet another transformation of school meals. A program that started as a convenient way to dispose of farm surpluses during the Great Depression and turned into an anti-poverty weapon in the 1960s would now become, with the Obama imprint, a teachable moment in the country’s battle against swelling waistlines. But success could hinge on whether the government antes up to pay for it, and whether kids will actually eat it. Skeptics are yet to be convinced.
“Michelle Obama is leading a grassroots effort to try and bring the country along. But I don’t think the USDA or the White House have the ‘clout’ or the political will to make the hard changes,” said Ann Cooper, nutritionist for schools in Boulder, Colo., and a leading advocate for improved school food. She said “true change” would require at least another “$1 a day” per child in federal reimbursements. The federal government currently pays $2.68 for each fully reimbursable school lunch.
Much of the “Let’s Move” agenda turns on nutrition standards recommended last October by the Institute of Medicine at the behest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The IOM found that kids are eating too much pizza, french fries, and candied cereals. But it warned that replacing Tater Tots with fresh broccoli is bound to raise the cost of school meals considerably, including the addition of kitchen equipment and skilled staff to prepare attractive, palatable meals.
Specifically, the panel making the recommendations called for adding five servings of fruit each week in the subsidized breakfast program as well as seven or more servings of whole grains. The panel recommends adding two to four servings of fruit at lunch (six to eight servings for high schoolers), and two to four additional servings of vegetables (four to six servings for high schoolers), especially dark green and orange varieties, and legumes.
“A change in the meal requirements could have a major effect on the cost of food to school food authorities (SFAs) if there are large changes in the types and amounts of foods required by the standards for menu planning,” the IOM panel reported. The panel said it could not predict exactly how much food costs might increase. But the IOM estimated that if students actually select the increased offerings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products when they are in the meal line — which is, after all, the point of improving the standards — the cost of breakfast would likely rise 23 percent, lunch by 9 percent.
Replacing refined-grain products with whole grain foods, for instance, would result in increased costs of between 3 and 20 percent. But the cost could be higher as there are few whole grain products readily available for school meal programs. They would need to be developed. The IOM recommendations are potentially years from being implemented by the USDA.
Cooper, who previously teamed with Alice Waters to introduce school meals with freshly cooked, local ingredients in Berkeley, Calif., said that while the average cost of food in a school lunch runs around $1, she spends about $1.20 in Boulder, and the budget in Berkeley is around $1.30.
Raising the cost of school food by improving quality is just half the picture, however. The other half of school food budgets is taken up by labor, and Michelle Obama’s action plan runs exactly counter to the trend of the last several decades. To cope with tight budgets, schools and their contracted food providers have moved away from skilled kitchen workers and replaced them with “warmer-uppers” who don’t work enough hours to qualify for benefits and whose primary qualification consists of being able to re-heat highly processed, precooked meal items shipped from industrial food factories. Introducing more vegetables and other whole ingredients to school menus and making them palatable, the IOM warns, would certainly require more qualified chefs — as well as improved kitchen equipment to work with.
“One possible approach to offering school meals that meet the recommended standards for menu planning is to introduce more on-site food preparation,” the IOM states. “This approach requires greater managerial skill, often requires substantial one-time investment in equipment, and most often would require more skilled labor and/or training …”
The IOM panel cited an analysis of data from 350 Minnesota schools suggesting that “healthier” meals required higher labor costs, but lower expenditures for processed foods. “The authors call for funds to be made available for labor training and kitchen upgrades.” But if these kinds of improvements are made on the front end, and lower food costs offset higher labor costs as a result, an increase in federal reimbursement rates might be unnecessary, according to this analysis. Many schools do not have kitchens at all, but could fit within a different model in which meals are prepared fresh in central kitchens and then distributed.
“It’s really hard work,” said Cooper of the kinds of changes envisioned in the IOM recommendations. “You need to change the menus, change your procurement system, train the entire staff, get more equipment, find more money, do fundraisers, train the staff some more, market to parents, market to teachers, market to kids, retest recipes, work with unions, figure out the budget … It goes on and on. I’ve often said it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Where would the money for kitchen upgrades come from? The IOM report suggests there might be some in the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” [PDF] program instituted last year by USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Merrigan has said that nearly $1 billion in federal grant funds used in the past for building rural fire stations, hospitals, and community centers could be allocated to food-related projects, such as building storage facilities for locally grown produce, food markets, and school kitchens. But schools would need to apply for the money.
The IOM panel also warns that implementing the standards it proposes could attract more children to the federal school meal program — or drive them away. Kids notoriously don’t like vegetables when they are overcooked and slapped on cafeteria trays. As I found while observing the kitchen operations at my daughter’s elementary school recently, kids will refuse the standard vegetable offerings when given a choice, and the IOM acknowledges that while new standards might result in more vegetables being served in school cafeterias, that doesn’t mean kids will actually eat them. A 1996 nationwide survey of school cafeteria managers found that 42 percent of cooked vegetables — along with 30 percent of raw vegetables and salads — ended up in the trash.
Kids also don’t like whole grains much. Nevertheless, Michelle Obama said several national school food suppliers — Sodexho, Chartwells, Aramark — have “voluntarily committed” to meet the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations within five years to decrease the amount of sugar, fat, and salt in school meals, and increase the whole grains and double the amount of produce they serve within 10 years — a rather long time frame, as far as advocates such as Ann Cooper are concerned.
In fact, the Obama plan proposes a model of school wellness that incorporates fresh, local produce, school gardens, and nutrition education at a time when most school administrators seem incapable of focusing on anything but reading and math scores. “Let’s Move” sets worthy goals for school food, but whether those are achievable within the confines of the Obama budget proposal is anybody’s guess.