For the past couple years, kids around the U.S. have been sharing pictures of their gross school lunches on social media. These images are often accompanied by the hashtag #thanksMichelleObama, since the first lady has been trying to make school lunches healthier. The rationale is that these efforts are actually making the lunches yuckier.
The thing is, raise your hand if your public-school lunches were delicious. Didn’t think so. It’s a clever political dodge to focus the dissatisfaction with student lunches on the reformer-in-chief, because disgusting school food has been a dependable reminder that we live in America for as long as most of us can remember.
Sure, there are growing pains that come with the reforms. Schools have already cut budgets to the bone, and now many are having to provide money to the nutrition program. It makes no sense that we have to choose between educating kids and feeding them. Still, students blaming Michelle Obama for bad school lunches is like prisoners blaming a reform-minded warden for putting the guards in a foul mood.
For years, the U.S. has been funding school lunch programs at a level that pretty much only allows for disgustingness. And that hasn’t changed. But the USDA is now parceling out money to help various pilot programs and projects around the country. On Dec. 2, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went down to Common Market, a sustainable food hub in Philadelphia, to announce a new round of Farm to School grants (details here).
Since 2009, the USDA has provided $160 million for school kitchen equipment, $15 million for making the connections between farm and school, and $5.2 million for training and technical assistance.
Common Market is one of the grant recipients. The money will allow it to do more work with public charter schools. When I asked the co-founder, Haile Johnston, if he thought the money would make student lunches better, he didn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt,” he said.
“When we are able communicate where and how food is grown, students get more interested in it,” he said. “Also, the food we are working with is not processed. It comes from local farms. So it’s fresher, it tastes better, and it has more nutrients.”
Turning to local food can save schools money in the long run. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, Scott Soiseth has managed to make school lunch popular enough that it’s become a money-making operation. It’s important to note that California provides more money for school lunches than many other states, but for most schools in California that doesn’t translate to radically better lunches or profitability. Soiseth is proof that local food can strengthen the bottom line.
If reforms go forward, someday the disgusting school lunch — that constant in American life — might actually vanish. Maybe, just maybe, we could be a little more like the French. If that happens, you can expect the same people protesting school lunches now to begin lamenting the loss of mystery meat, and “hot dish” under the hashtag #FreedomLunches.