Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why Do We Feed Children Like Pigs?

It used to be common practice on family farms to collect the kitchen scraps and leavings from the dinner table to feed the hogs. It was called slop. Quick, cheap, effective. No need to throw perfectly edible garbage away. Today most hogs are fed a prescribed diet in an industrial setting. But we saved the concept of slop and re-located it--to the nation's schools.

Through our national school lunch program, children who don't bring a meal from home are offered the leavings from our commodity agriculture system--low-grade meats, processed cheese, factory pizza--plus whatever the local school board cobbles together with some additional small change from the federal government. It amounts to $2.57 for students who qualify for a free lunch. But that has to pay for more than food. Subtract the cost of heating the cafeteria, delivering the meals, paying the cafeteria workers. As a caterer, I can tell you that $2.57 for a meal and all the infrastructure behind it is almost laughable.

Recently, Alice Waters proposed in the New York Times that we scrap the current system and start over, adding things like fresh, local produce to the school menu, perhaps kitchens in the schools to turn these ingredients into meals and a more generous budget--maybe $5 per meal. From the reaction of some food bloggers, you would have thought Waters had suggested serving school meals on gold-plated trays. Kids don't need to eat local produce! It doesn't need to be prepared on site! We can do it for lots less!

The subtext being, Let's not go overboard feeding good food to children. Like Olive Twist, they can get by with less. And we certainly don't want them turning into little aesthetes, do we? (The argument must roll off the lips more easily if you've never had children.)

The overheated blather culminated in a treacly mea culpa from the Times' Mark Bittman, who, writing under the headline "Elitism and School Lunch," propounded that there is "a tendency among all of us who work with food regularly to become more than a little precious about it." Speak for yourself, Mark. The only thing all of this proves is that Alice Waters may be the birth mother of fresh and local food here in the U.S., but she's not the person to lead the charge on healthy school lunches. Anything she touches will be tainted as "pretentious" and "elitist"--even when she is right.

But as my grandmother would say, Waters' critics have it ass-backwards. And fortunately there are any number of concerned parents, nutrition activists, and school agitators who have formulated the question correctly: It's not how much we can afford to spend on school lunches. It's what kind of lunches we should be providing, and how much does that cost? For starters, we can look at what actually comes out of the school lunch program and why any objective observer should be appalled by what our kids are eating in a so-called learning environment.

More than 30 million kids in this country receive a lunch at school on an average day. A study recently published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that this is the kind of mediocre stuff being dished up in the nation's lunch rooms, as summarized on the Lunch Lessons blog:

Milk: Milk is offered in practically all schools. One percent fat milk was the most common milk served, and the majority of milk offered is flavored.

Fruit: Ninety-four percent of schools offered fruit or fruit juices. Only 50 percent of schools offered fresh fruit. The rest offered canned fruit or fruit juice.

Vegetables: This study considers starchy vegetables such as white potatoes a vegetable. By that classification, 96 percent of kids had a vegetable offering at lunch. But note that while 45 percent of high schools offered French fries, only 39 percent of schools offered lettuce salad, 29 percent offered orange or dark green vegetables, and 10 percent offered legumes.

Grains/bread: The vast majority of grain products (bread, rolls, bagels, crackers etc.) were made of refined white flour. Only 5 percent of grain offering was whole wheat.

Combination entrée: The most commonly offered combination entrée depended on age; in elementary school, 28 percent of combination entrees were peanut butter sandwiches, followed by meat sandwiches; in middle school the most commonly offered combination entree was pizza with meat, followed by cheeseburgers and sandwiches with breaded meat or poultry.

Dessert: Those were offered in 47 percent of high schools, 41 percent of middle schools and 37 percent of elementary school. The leading deserts were cookies, cakes and brownies.

From that, the kids choose the worst of the worst. This, according to the study, is what they are actually eating:

Milk: Seventy-five percent of kids drank milk, mostly 1 percent fat, and mostly flavored.

Fruit: Forty-five percent of kids ate some fruit; most of the fruit eaten was canned. Only 16 percent of kids overall had fresh fruit, and among high school kids it was only 8 percent.

Vegetables: Fifty-one percent of kids overall had some kind of vegetable, but that includes French fries. Lettuce salads were eaten by 6 percent of kids, orange or dark green vegetables were eaten by 6 percent, and legumes by 2 percent. French fries were eaten by 34 percent of high school kids.

Grains/bread: Thirty-four percent of kids had grain products. Only 1 percent of grain products eaten were whole wheat.

Combination entrée: 75 percent of kids selected these entrees, the most popular of which were pizza, sandwiches with breaded meat, fish or poultry, hamburgers or hot dogs.

Dessert: Thirty-eight percent of kids had dessert, mostly consisting of cookies cake and brownies or candy.

The problem with this picture, of course, is that the food kids consume on the school lunch plan doesn't even rise to the minimum level set forth in the federal government's own dietary standards. And that's because this "food" is conveniently cheap, cheap, cheap--the very dregs of what our system has to offer.

By comparison, those vile French spend three times as much on their shcool lunches. And listen to this account account of what the French kids eat:

"At one school, students were served a choice of salads — mâche with smoked duck and fava beans, or mâche with smoked salmon and asparagus — followed by guinea fowl with roasted potatoes and carrots and steamed broccoli. For dessert, there was a choice of ripe, red-throughout strawberries or clafoutis. A pungent washed-rind cheese was offered, along with French bread and water. Yes, the kids took and ate the cheese.

"French schoolchildren eat in brightly colored lunchrooms. Lunch hour includes exercise and lasts for two hours. Our second meal was a little simpler, but then, the kids were younger, too. Children served themselves a butter lettuce salad from a bowl set on the table. The main dish was mashed potatoes with a sauce of ground beef (delicious!). Bread and water again were offered as well as the pungent cheese, and a choice of fresh strawberries or a little pastry."

In France, the schools have their own kitchens, their own pantries, their own fresh ingredients. (But of course, the French also think people are entitled to free health care and we wouldn't want to be caught doing anything the sissy French way--would we?)

So what would it cost to change the dismal U.S. menu to meet even minimal standards--cut back on the sugars, the refined starches, the salt and canned goods and introduce more healthful protein, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, whole grains? That, of course, is the million dollar question. But does it really matter? Could we swallow $5 a meal if that's what it took? Or $6? Or $8?

No, the ingredients for wholesome meals don't have to arrive fresh off the farm. But agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack has said that introducing more fresh, local food into school meals is a goal of the Obama administration and he is supported by a broad segment of farmers and food activists. There are many good reasons to support local agriculture. Using it to feed school children is just one of them. Could the meals be cooked off-site? Certainly. Schools could go on as they are, serving mainly as heat-and-serve stations. But obviously the French manage to do it and the British think in-house cooking is important enough that they have mandated cooking classes for all secondary school children by 2011. There are even programs right here in the U.S. that take food and children seriously. As someone who regularly teaches kids about food--where it comes from, why we eat what we eat, how to cook it--I can tell you that children are keenly interested in the subject. You might be surprised how many routinely watch Food Network and Iron Chef.

Do we care enough about our kids to feed them good food? The old axiom applies: garbage in, garbage out. If we feed our kids slop, we should expect them to continue eating slop when they grow older. No, what we feed children does matter, and we should stop training them to be our future diabetics and cardiac patients. (Many of them are already showing the symptoms: 40 percent of the children in the study cited above were overweight.) It's not only time we fed them to be healthy, but taught them about food as a life lesson they will carry with them into adulthood. If President Obama is serious about children and school lunches, he should make revamping the school lunch program a priority. Appoint a White House commission to draw us a blueprint for doing exactly what Alice Water suggested: scrap the school lunch program and replace it with something our kids deserve.

Then tell us how much it will cost.


Katie said...

Hi, Ed,

Lots of interesting info in this post! Thanks for adding your voice to this topic - it's mind-blowing how important this is. A whole generation of little chicken nugget eaters are about become in charge of their own food choices. Kind of takes your breath away.

Editor in Chief

Unknown said...

I was happily reading along in complete agreement with the author -- and Alice Waters's proposal -- until I reached the comment, "the argument must roll off the tongue much more easily if you've never had children." What an unnecessary and insulting thing to say.

I don't have children but I'm all for food quality and equality in the schools and in homes. The discussion might go a lot further without the broad generalizations (including the section about French school food) and the snark.

Ed Bruske said...

Katie, this is far more important than the policy makers want to recognize. I shudder to think what we might find if we really lifted the lid on the school lunch program and looked inside.

Anita, sorry you were offended. I can't imagine why you thought any of these comments were directed at you. I think the bloggers who've been pontificating on this subject and know nothing about what goes on in the schools know who they are. I love the comparison with the French schools. They make us look like utter barbarians. There are a few subjects like this one that call for a full-on snark. In fact, I thought I was rather restrained. You should hear me on the subject of our unholy government/agribusiness alliance. But really, school lunches deserve more of our righteous indignation.

rich (them apples) said...

The same thing happened here in the UK a couple of years ago. The chef Jamie Oliver exposed the poor quality of most school lunches and ran a campaign to improve matters, which has borne fruit. Meals these days, at least the ones my kids get are really quite good - good value, balanced and nutritional. For more background on how bad things were in the UK, Google the term 'turkey twizzler'...turkey twizzlers are as bad as food can get.

There will be opponents. The story of the mother taking orders through the school fence for McDonalds takeaways because the kids didn't want the new healthy school meals is legendary.

The French have always done this sort of thing much better. They have an in built respect for food, so the excellent state of their school meals comes as absolutely no surprise. You can always eat well in France, no matter how old you are.

There is also another angle. Well fed kids achieve more and are better behaved. Eating a good meal at lunchtime is good for their education, as well as their health.

Ed is correct - more righteous indignation is needed, and it works.

Ed Bruske said...

Rich, I do know a little about food--more every day--but I am constantly humbled by how much I do not know. I was aware that Jamie Oliver was on a tear to improve school meals in the UK, but I did not know the details or where, exactly, things stood now, except for the initiative to start cooking classes in school. I had never hear of "turkey twizzler." We have twizzler over here as well, but its a candy, a red strawberry-flavored verision of a licorice stick. The world's nations have economic summits on a regular basis. Maybe it's time for a school lunch summit, or at least a comparing of notes on best practices for addressing school wellness.

Anonymous said...

Education is one of the three top priorities the Obama administration is working on reforming (the others being healthcare and energy), and I think school lunch would fall into the education category. If our kids are expected to learn and have the energy and stamina to take in all the information we give them, then they should be fed the best food possible. Seriously, its the only way. Why be stingy? Give the kids good food.

Steven M. Vance said...

The food served in most schools is (and has for a long time been) abominable. I grew up in the mountains of SoCal - I remember one time when they switched sources for school lunches, and the food looked so bad we were all joking that we knew what they did with all the roadkilled squirrels and other animals. That contractor didn't even last one school year. No one wanted to eat the food.

I was lucky enough to have homemade lunches, as were our children. I somehow got through school without there being vending machines, too.

We suffer from a vast number of misplaced priorities in this country. Far better to spend untold billions on warfare and skimp on things like childhood nutrition and education. But then they (and we) aren't really "people", just "consumers" and (eventually) "workers" in the vast industrial machine.

We, the people, need to help the new administration understand what its priorities are...

Ed Bruske said...

Chef, education, health, agriculture--school lunches seem to touch on many areas of the government. Maybe that's why they're so screwd up. But the government, like adults in general, tend to wish that kids would just go away. Maybe the crisis we're in presents an opportunity to change that. But of course Obama would need to seize on the opportunity.

Sun Bear, when I was in elementary school we walked home for lunch. The school was just up the block. Later I took my lunch to school--literally in a brown bag. But you're probably right. School lunches have always been awful. Why do we think kids will be good learners when fed rotten food? Now the administration is talking about directing farm subsidies to programs for kids. Maybe we could find a few billion more in the defense department. You're right: it's all about priorities.

Steven M. Vance said...'re right. Elementary school, I walked home for lunch, too. The roadkill specials were in Junior High. My elementary school was, I suspect, at least halfway decent back then...but compared to homemade lunches, I was having none of it.

It is about priorities. Unfortunately, since Americans have decided to let corporate leaders be the "people" mentioned in that whole 'of, for and by the people' thing in the Constitution, they are the ones who decide priorities the vast majority of the time. Until we change that...

Anonymous said...

A lot of adult also don't know much about preparing fresh food that tastes good, is nutritious and result in a balance meal. For the 15 years I commuted to Washington DC, taking my lunch with me almost every day (my work place had a fridge and a microwave, so I could indulge in 3 course meals!), I could see what some of my co-workers brought. Pretty dismal! It would be hard for those parents to pack a healthy delicious lunch for their kids. And I can pretty much guarantee you that not only was I eating vastly better, but also cheaper than most of my coworkers. There is a lot of eduction without preaching to do both for adults and children.

One of the challenges for school meals, is going to be the insane calendars that some schools have, when children don't even have the time to eat a proper meal - let alone being served one. and yet... time to eat right is good for social skills, for general health and well-being, for academic success as well as extra-curricular activities. Another challenge will be the rethinking of our school lunch room and "kitchens": for example. many kitchen staff are not knowledgeable - or do not have the time - to prepare fresh vegetable or fruit from scratch, i.e. the type of food one gets from the local farmers. I know that in my school district, that's an issue. One day last fall, the school served an all local lunch. But it was made possible because volunteers came to help the kitchen staff prepare the fresh fruit & veggies. They was not enough staff otherwise (or - another way to look at it - they did not have the time to do it).

It is indeed a shame to feed crap to our kids whether at home or at school! It is a shame to feed ourselves crap too, just because it's cheap! But the lure of the bargain is powerful...

Anonymous said...

Parents can learn more about healthy lunches at When Congress renews the Child Nutrition Act it must encourage schools to serve healthier meals. Low-fat, cholesterol-free vegetarian foods need to be more affordable, and schools that serve nutritious foods (fruits, vegetables, vegetarian options) should receive additional funding. There is a group that is collecting signatures to try to get vegetarian options in school lunches. You can find it online at

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, great comments. This is why I tend to agree with Alice Waters: we need to scrap the current lunch program and start over. We need to reframe the debate around wellness and examine from every angle how children are being nourished in order to create healthy minds, bodies and habits. It's also time to re-examine the nutritional guidelines.

Julia said...

I heard Ann Cooper (from Lunch Lessons) speak, and one thing she talk about is how our children are going through puberty much younger than children 20 years ago. Is this a function of hormones in the meats?

Ed Bruske said...

Julia, I don't know what is behind kids going through puberty earlier. Could be all kinds of environmental factors, no? I wonder when kids went through puberty 100,000 years ago. Seems to me it would be advantageous in that kind of world to be bearing children at an earlier age. Maybe we're just reverting to our Paleolithic selves.

Mrs.B said...

Where's Jamie Oliver when you need him? He's proven it can be done.