Jan Poppendieck: Rethinking School Food for the 21st Century

Feb 23, 2011
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
This meal contains a passing calorie count, but may be failing in every other nutritional category. (Photo via Flickr/Ben + Sam)

Jan Poppendieck teaches sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York. Her book Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010) is a comprehensive overview of the mess our nation's school lunch program is in today.

Free for All explores the history of school lunches in America, documents the financial and policy constraints that determine what kids eat, and presents her vision of a system that provides healthy, affordable and fresh food for the nation's students.

TakePart spoke to Poppendieck about her work, and tried to stump her with reader questions about steps parents can take to improve their schools and communities.

TakePart: Who decides what's put on a school menu? Is it a chef? Is it a cook in the kitchen? Or is it a school district bureaucrat with a bunch of charts? 

Most districts have a director of child nutrition or a director of school food service, who has the ultimate sign-off on the menu and the obligation to make sure that that menu complies with federal guidelines. Many districts have recently hired chefs to participate in the process of menu development. In some school districts, those chefs are the food service directors. 

So you see the high profile Baltimore school district under chef Tony Geraci; he was both the executive chef and the food service director. There’s a chef now in Los Angeles—I think he’s more a consulting chef. In New York, Chef Jorge Collazo has a whole department that develops recipes, and does tests with the kids and tries to make school food more attractive—but he is not the managing director. 

In most communities in the United States, [the decision maker] is not a chef. 

TakePart: You describe a lot of taking food out of the freezer, separating food on trays, and a lot of heating and reheating—but not a lot of actual cooking. Was there ever cooking done in these cafeterias?

Workers during the Great Depression were cooking with fresh ingredients in school cafeterias, right on up to the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. The conversion to reliance on bulk, convenience foods—which is the defrost and reheat stuff—began in the ‘70. The big conversion to that approach was in an effort to cut costs [in the ‘80s]. In the years since that conversion, many schools failed to replace kitchen equipment when it died; so many schools no longer have the equipment that would permit a lot of scratch cooking. They are largely equipped with convection ovens that are suited for the defrost and reheat approach.

It’s a matter of money, equipment, and skills. 

When you convert from fresh cooking to using things that have been cooked elsewhere and need to be defrosted and reheated, you can employ a lower skill-level at a lower wage. That’s who you have in your kitchen: people who know how to defrost and reheat, how to wield that box cutter. Although wonderful experiments throughout the country are training people who are doing defrost and reheat, and it turns out they’re enthusiastic about learning to cook.

TakePart: Ultimately, does this system—as it has developed over time—work? Does it just need to be tweaked? Or do we need to completely blow up the model for future generations of kids?

We need to go back to square one and rethink school food for the 21st century. There’s a lot of anachronism in our approach to school food, and that’s what I’ve argued in the book—that it’s time for a paradigm shift. 

We need to make school lunch part of the school day, integrated with the curriculum. It needs to be something everyone participates in. In the same way as when you go to summer camp, and everybody goes to meals, and [meal time is] an important part of the social experience of camp. 

The current situation—where we’re selling food to children, and some children get to eat free—is problematic because of the stigma that attaches. But the kids paying full price are the ones in the driver’s seat, in the way customers are always in the driver’s seat. Their preferences have pushed school foods in some very unhealthy directions.

I’m not talking about force-feeding children gruel. But if we were to move toward a universal free [meal] approach similar to what they do in Sweden, we would have a lot more degrees of freedom about serving healthier meals. Eating lunch at school would be the norm if parents were paying for it through the taxation system. [Parents would] be less likely to give kids a lot of money to drive to the nearest convenience store—which is what happens in far too many communities. They’re driving to the nation’s worst nutrition supply—the gas station convenience store.

TakePart: This would require investment at various levels of government. How do you pay for that?

In the context of what’s happening in Washington right now, I expect a certain amount of ridicule for suggesting that we need to invest another $14 to $15 billion a year in school food—and that’s what I calculate it’ll cost to do this. 

If we want to harness the potential of school food to address the widespread obesity and diabetes epidemics that are rooted in the way we eat, we need to revamp [school meals.] We will save money in the long run. 

But members of congress don’t get elected in the long run—they run every two years, and they’re facing constituents that have been, I think, miseducated about taxation in a free society. We’ve developed a kind of allergy toward taxation that isn’t consonant with doing things well that need to be done. 

TakePart: So if someone says, "I really care about the quality of food the kids are getting in my area, I want to do something to change the system, and I want to get rid of the stuff they’re serving now. But I believe we have to do it within the current budget," is that possible?

There are examples of wonderful transformations of terrific school meal programs. Take a look at the school meals in St. Paul, Minnesota, or in Portland, Oregon, or in Burlington, Vermont, to see some very good meals made available within the context of the current system.

The fact that some systems can break even, at the current rate, does not mean all systems can. But a lot can be done. It requires a kind of heroic effort. Someone has to go in and provide the expertise and leadership and lead this process.

TakePart: Your book recommends universal free lunch for all students. What else needs to change fundamentally? What would the system look like? 

Universal free would take us out of the need to treat children like customers, and we’d have more freedom about what to serve. Lunch could become a cafeteria classroom, and a real part of the school day. 

I would love to see schools serving lunch in locations other than the cafeteria. Many schools would agree to do that if all students ate at the school. There are library programs where children pick up their lunch, bring it to the library, and the librarian would read to the children during lunch, with the literary lunch club. I can picture schools with lunch club activities. We begin to value that period of the day as an opportunity for both building social bonds and for teaching students about healthy eating. 

We’d need a big change in attitude by school administrators. They would need to see the school food service staff as educators. And school food service staff would need training and investment in them to rise to that. 

TakePart: The book also points out that our school lunch policy is largely tied to our national agricultural policy. Is that a smart relationship to be continuing?

The original arrangement—the federal government’s primary form of aid to school food meals was to donate commodities—is not true anymore. 

The federal government does donate commodities. Last year it was about $0.17 a meal worth of donations for the lunch program. It makes a difference, but it’s not a huge difference. I mean, food service directors will tell you they couldn’t break even without it; so it’s a crucial difference. 

But it’s not a situation where the federal government is dumping unhealthy surplus commodities on those schools. Schools have a very long list of commodities from which they can order. Unfortunately, it goes through a sort of bottleneck at the state level. 

While a particular school may want to order a very healthy form of commodity, the state may bundle the orders so they can’t make healthy choices. Lean meat, for instance, is available now. But if their state orders a full fat variety, not all schools effectively have access to it.

The more important relationship between school food and agricultural policy is that federal subsidies for corn and soy and wheat have made snack foods and manufactured food artificially cheap. If you look over time, at what it costs to buy manufactured junk, versus what it costs to buy fresh food and vegetables, it’s no wonder schools have trouble affording fresh food for children. 

We need to transfer a lot of that subsidy out of the basic commodities and into the foods that Americans need more in our diets—fresh fruits and vegetables. If we were subsidizing fruits and vegetables with the kind of money we’ve been putting into corn and soy, those products would be more affordable to schools just as they’d be more affordable for consumers out in the community. 

TakePart: Who’s getting it right? You mentioned St. Paul and Burlington and Portland…

There are wonderful programs here and there in America. 

In Healdsburg, California, the food service director has reestablished a lot of fresh cooking on-site. That’s certainly an example people should take a look at. 

There’s a school in Davenport, California, where the fifth graders prepare the school lunch; it’s a course called Food Lab. About 20 fifth graders divide into five teams, one for each day of the week. They scale up the recipes and fix the lunch. It’s obviously something very difficult to replicate in a large system. 

The federal government has a publication called Making It Happen: School Nutrition Success Stories. People can look there for some wonderful stories of improved meals—Baltimore is another example. 

TakePart: Why don’t we see more schools growing their own vegetables? We could teach kids about gardening and important life skills, and make the schools healthier…

School gardens are becoming very popular, and it’s a wonderful movement. A school garden is a wonderful thing. But it’s a long, long step from a school garden to any substantial supply for the cafeteria. Many schools don’t have anyone on staff who is equipped to grow food in large quantities.

The first school gardens often found there were barriers to getting their food into the cafeteria. The food service director was worried about liability issues, or the menu has been planned a year in advance. They had trouble getting their food incorporated. 

Many models are adjusting the regulations so that food grown on the school premises is used in the cafeteria. In urban settings, especially, you’ve got to have the soil tested and make sure that the food grown in the school garden is healthy enough. 

If parents are persistent, they probably can get [a program started]. In New York City, we call it a Garden to Café program. Last year, 24 schools were participating; this year, 40-some schools are participating. That’s not a lot out of our 1,200 school sites, but it’s going in the right direction.

TakePart: If students and parents demand that healthy food is served in the cafeteria, is that bound to create problems for kids who “don’t have that kind of money”?

This issue is working at the national level because the latest legislation—the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act—required that the paid lunch price rise over time to match the level of the federal reimbursement. 

If the federal imbursement is $2.75, let's say, and the paid lunch is selling for $2, then isn’t the free lunch subsidizing the paid lunch and wouldn’t the free lunch be healthier if the school had all of that $2.75 to spend on preparing it?

One of the reasons I ended up coming out for universal free meals, is because if you are one dollar over the eligibility level for reduced price meals, then you move directly to full price. A lot of families can’t afford the full price. 

If the full price rises to $3—not uncommon in affluent communities—a lot of kids who aren’t eligible for the reduced price can’t afford full price; so they’re not getting any benefit from the program. Their parents are likely to give them a dollar. They’ll stop by the corner store and show up with a soft drink and a bag of chips. 

Food service directors told me the main thing they needed was more money. But all kinds of nifty experiments are going on around the country. People were able to serve better meals by making changes in menu planning, the management of the program, the amount of waste in the program—in some cases even by getting rid of the a la carte.

TakePart: What can parents do at a local level to change things?

The fact that people are asking is a hopeful sign. In all school districts, there is required to be a wellness policy committee, and in many individual schools, there is a wellness committee. So one of the first places to turn to find other parents who share their concerns is to the wellness committees. 

Start with a plan that they’re going to cooperate with the food service director; don’t start with the assumption that this is an adversarial relationship. Start with the assumption that pretty much everyone wants the same thing here, which is healthier food for the children. 

Meet with the food service director and find out what the local challenges are. See if there are ways to mobilize parents to help.

Procuring more locally has been a big step in improving not just the quality of food, but also the sense of investment of the program and ownership of the program. So very often wellness committees or parent advisory committees can get the ball rolling for local procurement. Sometimes parents can do some fundraising to provide a salad bar. There’s been a small revolution in salad bars, developing what we call low riders, so salad bars are the right height for elementary school children. 

Parents need to find other parents. It’s almost never something that one parent acting alone can have much impact on. They need to engage school principals, school administrators, and make clear that they care. 

TakePart: If someone is looking for a meal with locally sourced greens, with grass-fed protein, is it possible to get that on a mass scale in a school lunch program?

If we want that, we need to be prepared to invest more. On the one hand, the larger the market for organic [products], the more people will get involved in producing it, and the cost will come down. If you think about those 7 billion meals a year in the school food program, you think, "Wow, if we could shift this whole sub system toward organic, sustainably produced, humanely raised, we could shift the whole system." Ultimately, the answer is to push the food system in that direction, which will lower the prices and make it more feasible. 

The quick answer is that, in general, the prices that schools can reasonably charge children are not sufficient to cover an all-organic and grass-fed meal.

TakePart: What responsibilities do parents and families have to change the way kids eat at school, by changing the way they eat at home?

That would be great if families would change the way they eat in a more healthy direction, and kids would come to school accustomed to healthier food. That would be their preference, and they would want it. That’s when I start thinking "pie in the sky."

The tools of public policy are cumbersome. We don’t have a way of re-educating families and changing the way they eat. We do have children for a substantial number of meals a year in school, with taxpayer investment. It would be more realistic to think that we could change what’s available at school. Maybe some of this would filter back to home or influence what the next generation of parents feeds their children. 

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