penniesTwenty of these won’t even get you an apple a day to keep the doctor away. As most readers of the Grist food section know by now, school lunches draw a meager share of the national budget. The federal government reimburses school cafeterias at a rate of up to $2.68 per student per day–a level that leaves administrators with well less than a dollar to spend per kid on ingredients.

It’s no wonder that, to supplement the program, schools resort to offering all manner of “competitive foods”–e.g., chips, candy, corndogs, soda. It’s also no wonder that the quality of school lunches tends to be scandalous. For inside looks at just how bad things are, see Ed Bruske’s great recent series of posts; or the Fed Up blog, which features snapshots of the daily offerings at a school in Illinois. Or contemplate the “pink slime” scandal.

Overall, the government spends about $11 billion per year on the lunch program. That sounds like an impressive figure–but it’s well less than to what we spend each month on our adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Spencer Ackerman, “Obama is spending more on defense than Bush.” The Pentagon will burn through $166 billion in war cash in fiscal 2010, Ackerman reports–about $14 billion per month. (And that figure does not reflect massive future costs like VA care.) For a single month’s mayhem in Afghanistan and Iraq, we could more than double the school lunch budget!

For those hoping for such a thing, President Obama’s budget, released Monday, offered bitter news. Reports Kim Severson:

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The president is proposing an additional $1 billion a year for 10 years to be divided between school food programs and WIC, the program for low-income pregnant women, women who have recently given birth and children up to age 5.

So Obama’s plan would award lunches an additional $1 billion per year–to be shared with another vital nutrition program, WIC. How much would that add to cafeteria budgets? Here’s Severson:

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Quick calculations show that at best, the president’s plan might offer less than 20 cents more per school lunch.

That’s not meaningful reform; as pioneering school lunch advocate Ann Cooper told Severson, that’s not even enough to provide an additional apple per kid per day.

This is depressing news, because the (less than!) two dimes Obama is flipping to cafeteria operators would seem to represent a ceiling on any budget increases. In other words, I can imagine any number of “fiscally responsible” Congress critters trying to whittle down this Dickensian allotment; but I can’t picture anyone in either chamber who has the clout to push through a more substantial increase.

That’s tragic. Stiffing the school lunch program–enshrining it as the site where the food industry dumps cheap processed crap and shapes the tastes of kids–is the opposite of “fiscal responsibility.” It’s saddling millions of future adults with hefty medical bills they won’t be able to pay–and with lives diminished by chronic bad health.

I hope I’m wrong that Obama’s budget proposal amounts to a death knell for meaningful school-lunch reform. I’ll be trying to get advocates and school lunch analysts to comment below on what Obama’s plan means for school kids.