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School Lunch and seasonality

September 11, 2009

There has been a lot of chatter around the blogosphere and sustainable news orgs about reforming the National School Lunch Program. I, for one, am wholeheartedly for reform and I thought I’d give my views on kid eaters and how to get them to eat healthily without having to cajole and in a way that they won’t even miss chicken nuggets and french fries.

First and foremost, I think that while it is the responsibility of parents to teach healthy eating habits to their kids, they cannot accomplish this difficult task if public schools are dishing out terrifically unhealthy processed lunches. And, given the rising number of children who are qualifying for free lunch – and in some school districts, free breakfast – it stands to reason that often busy parents of lower-income children either cannot afford to feed their children fresh food and/or do not have time to cook it. So, much like public schools for many children fill in where parents cannot in areas such as sex education, it is time for schools to step up to the lunch plate and do right by kids.

Of course, they cannot do this without help from the Federal government. And they certainly cannot do it without getting rid of the agribusiness leftovers that permeate lunchrooms across the nation to the wealth of major corporations (Tyson, I’m looking at you!) and at the expense of the health of our future generations.

There are two ways for our nation’s children to eat healthier and more happily: 1) introduce them to a broad range and variety of quality fresh whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and 2) make school lunch offering seasonal.

The case for variety
It has been my personal experience that if a child or young adult is offered a choice between, say, a Red Delicious apple and a Gala or Braeburn (or really, any other apple except crabapples!), if they have ever eaten anything else besides a Red Delicious, they will choose the other option. If they get a choice between steamed white rice and a creamy yellow polenta, probably half or so would still go with the white rice, but they would be curious about it, perhaps even want to taste it, and they might make a different choice next time.

School lunches can be monotonous. Many school kitchens have a fixed number of dishes they are able or willing to cook and while 40 different entree options may seem like a lot, but when there are 180 or so days in the average school year things can get a little repetetive. Having a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and spices planned into the menus means that you could serve a version of rice and beans maybe 40 days during the school year, but because you’re using different beans and grains and/or adding different vegetables and spices to them, not one dish is exactly the same. Same with raw fruits & veggies – you could serve apples as a fresh fruit every day for a month or two and as long as you changed varieties at least weekly (Honeycrisp one week, Northern Spy another, then Empire, etc.) you wouldn’t really be serving the same thing. Your students might eventually get sick of apples, but there are lunch rooms where the only fresh fruit seen all year are Red Delicious apples, bananas which may or may not be ripe, and underripe navel oranges. If they’re lucky, the occasional bunch of red or green grapes and underripe strawberries. Anything is better than that. Which brings us to point number two.

Seasonality – it tastes good
Children and young adults like things that taste good. Which is why pizza, chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and macaroni & cheese are all popular lunchroom standards. But those things taste good mainly because they are full of fat and salt. Eating seasonally not only introduces children to a wider variety of fresh fruits and veggies, it helps them realize just how good healthy things can taste.

Take fruit, for example. If you gave a child the option between a chocolate pudding cup for dessert or some perfectly ripe peaches sprinkled with a little sugar and topped with a bit of whipped cream, which would they choose? Some might still go for the pudding cup, but they might also end up being disappointed when hearing how good the dessert is from their more adventurous colleagues, still more if someone manages to be generous enough to give them a taste.

Eating seasonally tends to mean that the food you are eating is of a higher quality. Seasonal produce ripens easily, is fresher than produce shipped from far-flung nations, and often tastes better. Not to mention that it is less expensive (I’m looking at you, Federal penny-pinchers!). If children were to eat seasonally (and if there was a good food-education program linked to the school lunch program), they would learn these things about fresh produce: it’s fresher, more delicious, and less expensive than eating out of season. Training children young that certain foods can only be had at certain times of the year would not only give them insights into how food is grown and harvested, but also nip that urge for instant gratification that has spilled over into our food system in the bud.

I chose these two issues (variety/biodiversity and seasonality) as my main arguments for reform because I feel that other points that have been suggested by others – mainly that all school lunches should be organic and that schools should have gardens – while definitely worthwhile, are not always possible and might pose insurmountable obstacles for schools trying to reform from within. One other commonly suggested reform is that schools buy produce from local farmers, which I support, particularly with “universal” items like potatoes, onions, apples, carrots, etc. However, I feel that buying local-only can be extremely limiting (for example, clementine oranges are in season in January, but no farmer in Minnesota or New York is going to be selling them).

Whole foods (not Whole Foods) are important in this equation because not only are they often less expensive (particularly regarding produce purchased in season) than processed foods, they are 99.9% of the time going to be better for you than processed foods. And by “processed foods” I mean pre-packaged, pre-cooked, ready-to-eat products found in the center aisles of supermarkets. I generally exclude bread and cheese from this umbrella term.

So, what has to be done to get to this point?

1) Outdated rules regarding nutrition should be revised. Apparently in some states there are school lunch rules that favor certain food industries. Here’s an exerpt from an article recently published at Grist.org:

For example, to be permitted to serve a simple but healthy dish of red beans and rice in a school cafeteria—according to Iowa City Schools food service director Diane Duncan-Goldsmith—kitchen workers must add meat or cheese.  Doesn’t matter that the dish is already a complete protein.  Regulations, serving no one but dairy and beef interests, insist that main dishes must contain meat or cheese.  This raises the cost and the calorie count, but adds little to the nutritional value of the meal.

Another Grist article explains how flawed the USDA dietary guidelines are. Vegetables and whole grains should be the focus here, not meat and dairy. Fruits, starches, meats, and dairy are all important, but the bulk of the meal should come from whole vegetables and whole grains (meaning brown rice, quinoa, bulghur, barley, etc. Not “whole grain white bread” which is a complete oxymoron). Meat and cheese/sour cream/butter should be condiments and flavor accents, not the focus of the meal. Bread and refined starches (pasta, I’m looking at you) should be small side dishes. Fresh raw or lightly prepared fruit should be dessert.

2) Lunchroom staff and “lunch ladies” should be better trained. In many lunchrooms around the country, the highest level of culinary training most staff members are required to have is to know how to open a box, bag, and/or can and sometimes reheat its contents. Salads are bagged, veggies are canned or frozen, meat comes pre-formed and pre-cooked, potatoes come out of a box, etc. Cooking well does not require a great deal of training, but cooking well on a budget and for 200-2,000 students daily can be extremely challenging. Which is why at least one well-trained head cook or chef should steer every school kitchen and existing staff should be better trained. For a successful example of how a single trained individual can train a kitchen of inexperienced staff, see: Jamie’s School Lunch Project.

3) Improve lunchroom recipes and cooking techniques. Cooking for a crowd has been done successfully by church basement ladies, caterers, and military cooks for decades. Luckily, many of the healthiest dishes out there are also either very fast or so easy it doesn’t matter that they take a while because they’ll stay put. For a few examples of fast – stir fry, quick-cooking grains like quinoa, lightly steamed or blanched fresh vegetables, poached fresh fruits, and all kinds of vegetable-based salads (though those often benefit from marinating overnight). These are the kinds of things that can practically be made to order, and almost should be because they don’t keep all that well. For a few examples of slow but easy – beans, rice and other cooked grains, roasted root vegetables, braised greens and meats, soups and stews, slow-cooked casseroles of all kinds, etc. These can all be started early in the morning the day of or even the night before (if slow ovens are to be had). The great thing about taking time to make foods slowly (through techniques like braising, roasting, baking, simmering, etc.) is that you do not need high-quality ingredients. They should still be fresh ingredients, but lesser cuts of meat can be made tender and moist and blander vegetables can be made flavorful.

Different ethnic cuisines (or versions of them) should also be introduced. After all, most school lunchrooms’ ideas of “ethnic” food is the occasional taco, despite the fact that their students come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and are increasingly exposed to foods from around the world. I’m not saying lunch ladies need to be sushi chefs or be experts in the many cuisines of India, but new spices, vegetables, and flavor combinations should be introduced. And old recipes could stand some updating. For instance, even fast food places like Qdoba and Chipotle understand that a “taco” doesn’t mean greasy orange ground beef with lots of cheese and a little iceberg lettuce anymore. And “Italian dunkers” (basically a hotdog bun toasted with mozzarella on it and served with tomato dipping sauce – a favorite among students I grew up with) could be exchanged for bruscetta or panini caprese (fresh tomato, basil, and mozzarella). Spaghetti could be updated with whole wheat noodles and a chunky vegetable marinara sauce.

And all that meat? Well, meat should be the flavor accent, not the focus.

4) Stop buying up agribusiness leftovers. This one should speak for itself. More and more it seems that school lunch is just another way for the Federal government to keep pumping money into agribusiness. Federal subsidies make the common products of processed foods artificially cheap, and then when companies produce too much, they convince the Feds to buy these processed foods up and give them to our children. So it’s a win-win situation for the corporations and a lose-lose for taxpayers and children. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was actually created by Harry S. Truman in 1946 as a way to prevent the malnutrition found in many young soldiers during WWII, and also to help the nation’s poor. However, the darker side of this story is that post-war, highly mobilized agriculture was burdened by surpluses, especially after Europe started producing its own food again. The solution? Feed those surpluses into the NSLP.

Agribiz also has a monopoly on the NSLP simply because it can produce so much, so cheaply, and so uniformly. Alas, those foods have hidden environmental and health costs which beg the question if whether the few pennies saved per child are worth it. Getting rid of agribiz monopolies and enabling school districts to purchase produce and food from multiple suppliers would enable them to buy from multiple local farmers, who would not be able to fullfill the school’s needs individually. This also lets schools comparison shop to get the best deals and the best quality for their buck.

5) Increase funding per student by at least $1. While it may be possible to feed the nation’s children on about a dollar a day (sounds pretty third world, doesn’t it?), it is difficult to feed them well, particularly when your kitchen staff is not well-paid. A little extra money could go a long way toward feeding our children healthier meals, putting money back into the local economy instead of the pockets of big agribusiness, and making “lunch lady” a career title with dignity again, instead of just another low-paying hack job.

Well, that’s pretty much it. School Lunch Reform is an important topic, in my opinion, and I don’t even have kids. But I do have friends and family with young children. And I care about children who get stigmatized for eating school lunch instead of pizza or burgers or chips from the “a la carte” menu. Growing up we didn’t qualify for free lunch, but my mom certainly wasn’t going to give me extra money to throw away on junk food. I got the staple school lunch or nothing. Luckily, not very many kids at that time (the mid-90s) were surviving on nothing but Diet Mountain Dew and Cheetos. We did eat a whole helluva lot of pizza, burgers, greasy “tacos,” institutional macaroni and cheese, and other terrible-for-you refined-sugar, refined-starch, meat-heavy meals. In fact, I don’t really remember vegetables at all in elementary school, unless they were hidden in a hot dish…

But I digress. Here are some cool links about the NSLP and School Lunch Reform:

The Food Museum’s Exhibit on the History of School Lunch

Slow Food USA’s Time for Lunch Project

A great article on school lunch from Mother Jones – Six years ahead of it’s time

Meet Chef Ann Cooper – Renegade Lunch Lady

Meet Chef Jamie Oliver, who’s trying to revamp school lunch in the UK

And here’s a whole host of article’s over at Grist.org all about school lunch reform

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Linnea permalink
    September 11, 2009 7:32 PM

    Oh, a post after my own heart! I also am very anxious for Sept. 30 and hope that the increased $ passes. The current Child Nutrition Act has archaic nutrition standards and we wonder why 20% of American children are obese? It’s really a no brainer. With the proposed increase, serving fresh, minimally processed foods will be a reality. I’ve been apart of some interesting conversations with some school foodservice directors through my job and the director from St. Paul says that while the whole food product is maybe cheaper, many foodservice directors must buy processed foods simply because they run on such tight margins that they cannot afford the labor to prepare scratch foods. Thus the cheese and meat-laden fatty convenience foods and canned fruits and veggies. However, there are some great front-runners in turning around school foods at least here in MN… Wilmar has its own greenhouse which students grow vegetables year round for the foodservice and there is a great farm-to-school network that links directors to local growers to supply their districts. You should check out http://www.farmtoschool.org – you can see specific state’s efforts to add local foods to their menus.

  2. vintagejenta permalink*
    September 11, 2009 8:28 PM

    Yay food and nutrition reform!

    Actually, after I posted this, I thought that while not every school can garden year round (unlike California), it would be really cool if they hired middle school and high school students to garden during the summer and run a farm market. They could get paid not very much money (face it, it’s a high school job) and get school credit and maybe free lunch year round or something. The profits from the farm market could go straight into the kitchen – buying new equipment, training or hiring new staff, etc. – and the stuff that could be stored long-term (root veggies, cabbage, dried beans, onions, etc.) and possibly preserved (canned tomatoes, I’m looking at you) could go almost exclusively for school use!

    Of course, then you’d have to have cold storage, but if you’re not going to serve everything frozen and pre-cooked, you’re not going to need all that freezer space, are you? Lol… But I digress.

    Did you know that some schools do not even have stoves? How is it a kitchen if it has no stove?

    Also, the kids should work in the kitchen. They used to, back in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. There would be a kitchen manager/head cook who organized menus and recipes and such and maybe one other adult and the kids would do all the grunt work. Goodbye kitchen illiteracy!

    I know that schools are really tied up in industrial and government surplus food. It’s hard to resist “bargain” ground beef. Unfortunately, rice & beans would be cheaper and a whole helluva lot healthier. Read the Mother Jones article if you haven’t already. It’s long, but really good!

    I think the tide is turning, and we have our current recession/depression to thank for it. That an imminent global climate change and peak oil and the impending healthcare crisis. It’s kind of an exciting time to be alive. Lots of bad stuff might happen, but lots of good stuff might, too.

    P.S. I miss you, Linnea!

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