The problem with school lunches

It's time to rethink what the government is feeding our kids

A fascinating recent piece in The Capital Times by Mary Ellen Gabriel delved into the Madison Public Schools' hot lunch program. Most parents have no idea how the district's centralized food service department manages to feed 19,000 kids on a minuscule budget. So it was truly educational when food service head Frank Kelly took Gabriel on a tour of the district's giant kitchen on Pflaum Road.

Kelly described the huge vat of cheese sauce, the assembly line where workers in plastic gloves assemble the tacos, and the stacks of cheap, canned peaches. ("Nutrient-wise, it's the same" as fresh fruit, Kelly said.)

Welcome to hot lunch. Many of the parents Gabriel quotes were appalled to discover the USDA-funded meal program serves deep-fried french toast sticks and syrup for breakfast and hotdogs and fries at noon. As people become more health-conscious, the ketchup-is-a-vegetable theory of school lunches is under increasing pressure from parents.

But Kelly has his own take on complaining parents - they are kindergarten moms who "really just don't want to give up control."

You have to kind of sympathize with Kelly. He is running an operation that has been in the red for the last two years. He comes across as a down-to-earth guy who's kind to his employees and practical.

"Kids gotta eat," he says, explaining why school lunch has to appeal to his "customers": kids who must inhale their food in as little as 10 minutes, while wearing coats so they're ready to bolt outside.

And you know what he means about those pesky parents. Food is a cultural minefield. The image of a bunch of soy-latte-drinking, Whole Foods-shopping suburbanites looking down on the folks who eat at McDonald's is extremely off-putting to a large portion of Madison's public school community.

Unfortunately, the nutrition issue is real. The epidemic of childhood obesity is evident on any given playground.

What doesn't meet the eye is the toll poor nutrition takes on learning. Kids whose diets are composed almost entirely of sugar, fat and refined flour are sick more often, have trouble paying attention and, increasingly, suffer from health problems once associated with a lifetime of hard living.

The Institute of Medicine reports that the incidence of obesity has more than doubled for preschool children and adolescents since the 1970s, and tripled for children ages 6-11. And the Centers for Disease Control says type 2 diabetes, once diagnosed almost exclusively in adults over 40, is a "sizable and growing problem" among American kids between 10 and 19 years old.

In response, Alice Waters, the famous chef who founded Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, has been on a mission to get the Obama administration to address the woeful state of the USDA hot lunch program.

Waters - the goddess of soy-latte-drinking, local, organic, gourmet eaters - may be Frank Kelly's nightmare vision of an over-involved mom. But she has helped transform school lunches in Berkeley by adding local, organic farm products to the federally subsidized fare.

According to Waters, it would cost $5 per lunch for truly wholesome meals, compared to the $2.57 per child subsidy the federal government now pays for every free hot lunch served. This healthy lunch program would hike the feds' cost from $9 billion to $27 billion. Maybe Obama could tap some of the bailout money for AIG.

Meanwhile, there are some incremental steps worth taking now.

Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, a UW-affiliated group, provides healthy snacks once a week for schools that raise the money. That comes to about $2,400 per year at my daughter's elementary school - for the entire school.

The program is an eye-opener. Every time I help deliver snacks, students run up yelling "Yay! Healthy snack!" and "Can we have more of that kohlrabi?" Maybe it's because the healthy snack is unusual and interesting, and there is no scolding "eat your vegetables" message attached.

Now, the USDA has launched a fresh fruit and vegetable program, funded by the Farm Bill. It provides grant money to schools to offer free fresh fruit and vegetable snacks to children in grade schools where 50% or more of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

The program allows schools to get healthy snacks to kids three or four times a week. For some kids, it's the only fruit or vegetables they'll eat. I can't think of a better investment in their well-being.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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