Earlier in my career, I tackled the troubling issue of school cafeterias. As the Chair of the Education Committee of the Council of the District of Columbia, I quickly realized that the contractors who ran the school lunch program were just terrible. They served prepackaged food; some of it moldy and some inedible.
The parents explained they were piecing together food because their kids were coming home hungry. Instead of trying to negotiate with the food contractor, we set up a committee of staff, teachers, and parents. After conducting research and participating in several hearings, during which students testified, a new contractor was hired. We were able to take bold steps to directly address a serious problem that still exists in many of our schools today.
School cafeterias provide a significant portion, if not all, daily meals for a large percentage of our kids, especially in high-poverty areas. The Child Nutrition Act, in attempting to address this issue, identified a direct correlation between food and good nutrition and the capacity of children to develop and learn. We know that a hungry child is unable to participate fully in the learning experience. Yet, years later we are still trying to get it right.
Let’s face it. The food in a large number of schools is not up to par; it is overprocessed and it under-delivers. But the food service industry is big business fueled by money, personal relationships and long-term contracts; not by what’s best for our kids—healthy food options so that they can focus on learning.
Instead of ensuring that proper nutrition is available in our schools, nutrition that our kids need to grow and learn, many continue to play the blame game; blaming difficult contracts with food serving companies, blaming irresponsible vendors and blaming school budget cuts.
Students are treated as customers whose business is to be won by the top few food corporations selling genetically modified fat-laden food.
In her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, Janet Poppendieck explores the deep politics of food provision from multiple perspectives and reveals the forces that are determining how lunch is served. Poppendieck contends that that the new paradigm of school lunches is a business model where students are treated as customers whose business is to be won by the top few food corporations selling genetically modified, fat-laden food.
Typically, fast-food operations and vending-machine products are provided through exclusive contractual agreement between school districts and food companies. School districts do not have the funds to change the system, and as a result, the system remains the same.
Providing school kids with healthy and tasty meals is not a phenomenon. A recent article by Chico Harlan in the Washington Post highlights how Japan is doing just that. In Japan, childhood obesity has continually decreased thanks to a no-vending-machine policy, staff nutritionists and locally grown, not frozen, food. As Harlan points out, Japan school lunches are a point of national pride, not a source of dismay, as it has been here in the U.S.
So how do we ensure our kids have fresh and healthy food during the school day? Well, we can start by acknowledging the critical relationship between health and nutrition and academic performance.
Everyone can play a part in shifting this paradigm. State legislatures can support bills that improve access to and quality of school meals; school boards can develop action plans to meet short- and long-term goals related to ensuring nutritious foods in our schools; and school administration can enforce wellness policies that ensure healthy food environments, adopt vending food policies and incorporate nutrition education—which is a core component. We must teach our students the value of good nutrition as part of the education process.
Furthermore, we need to place more emphasis on collaborating with parents, students, and yes even dietitians, so that our kids will have healthy food options at school and put less emphasis on long-term relationships with vendors and food-service companies.
There is also one radical thing we can do: Get rid of the free and reduced lunch program. At least the designation for who qualifies. It has become an administrative nightmare for principals and cafeteria staff to manage who qualifies for free and reduced lunch. Why not provide free food for all school-age kids?
We throw away good food every day in this country. Frankly, the administrative savings alone could probably pay the costs associated with feeding every child in every public school. More than that, we could then better ensure that our school-age kids eat well and eat right. And it is easier to teach a well-nourished child.