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.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Apple-picking time

The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.

Mama Madison: Baby feeding recommendations

I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?

Heartland Farm Sanctuary helps animals that help kids

Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.

Mama Madison: Back-to-school confidences

Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.

Mama Madison: Does back-to-school really mean a whole new wardrobe?

This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"

Mama Madison: Next generation of bloggers

Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.

Mama Madison: Returning to the workforce

This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.

Triathlons raise money to teach kids healthy habits

"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.

Mama Madison: Kids will find their own passions in their own ways

"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."

Vital work is being done at the Lussier Community Education Center, from community-building to STEM skills

"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.

Mama Madison: What a mother fears most

All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.

Mama Madison: Summer stress solved by yoga

The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.

Mama Madison: The greatest fans of road repair

Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.

Mama Madison: The alarm sounds

As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.

Mama Madison: My summer book list

For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.