Saturday, April 03, 2010

Food Revolution

Like JM Carr, I've been watching Food Revolution, but I've been a bit disappointed, as I am with all things regarding public education as reported in the media. There's not enough detail to help explain to the viewer the problems the Jamie's up against as he tries to change the nation's school lunch programs.

First of all, he's not the first chef to try. Alice Waters tried to set up school gardens in the Berkeley public schools, based on the Montessori model of hands-on learning, to encourage kids to recognize their food and to eat the healthy produce they grew. The program continues to expand, but Alice Waters herself has said that just having the kids grow the food was not enough to get them to try it. Now that she's set up a private foundation to support the edible schoolyard, it can be added to the public schools. But on its OWN, as the program was first developed, the Alice Waters experiment was a financial failure.

It's all about finances. Everything. The producers of the show don't even bother to explain the federal program, how it meshes with the "Free and Reduced Lunch Program", or what the difference is between a breakfast and a lunch program. Makes for good TV but very, very poor activism.

To begin to get my hands around this thing, I'll base this off of JMC's post from a few days ago: Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

From JMC:
I was intrigued to see the kids all eating breakfast at school. Despite the fact that the federal government mandates certain administration is state-based, and can vary widely. When I was a kid, back in the dark ages (80s and early 90s), breakfast at school was a relative rarity.
But the breakfast program is NOT a school-based program. Neither is the National Lunch Program. Both are administered BY the USDA. Yes, your department of agriculture designs, funds, and provides pre-packaged foods for the food in your school.

More detail on meal reimbursements later, but the breakfast program ends up costing the schools more money if a large number of students don't participate. (Reimbursement for lunch is different -- you can lose a lot of money very quickly in the breakfast program.) Since participation is dependent on parents getting up a bit earlier to get the kids there (as opposed to lunch where you have a captive audience), a lot of schools don't offer breakfast choice at all. If there's a substantial percentage of the school eligible for a free and reduced meal plan, then it can make sense to simply train the student body to expect to eat breakfast at school. When my eldest attended Berkeley public schools, the students came into the classroom, sat down, and ate a breakfast laid out for them at their desk. (Fruit, milk and cold cereal.) In our present district, none of the schools automatically provide breakfast to the entire student body.

Generally, a large school with a large "Title I" population (low socio-economic class) will provide breakfast to the entire population.

More from JMC:

Another contrast was the menu. Locally, the meal usually consisted of milk, eggs, breakfast meat, and/or oatmeal/grits and/or cold cereal. When Jamie walked into the school cafeteria and saw the kids eating “breakfast pizza”, I thought they were eating some sort of flatbread with eggs on it. No, it was regular pizza. And sweetened milk (strawberry or chocolate). I was horrified. It’s one thing to be a hung over college student eating cold pizza for breakfast, but pizza for breakfast every day? For a five, six, seven, eight year old? That is NOT healthy.
Menu development is where there is SOME local control. However, we now enter the new gray area of offer vs. serve. Never heard of offer vs. serve? It's a real problem.

Let's say you want the kids to eat a healthy breakfast of fruit and hot cereal. You plop it on the tray and then they eat it, right? Welllll, no. Not according to the 1980's USDA "Healthy Schools Meal Initiative." (In my opinion, it is this initiative that is creating most of the headache in school nutrition programs.)

You are no longer allowed to plop stuff on the tray and make the kids eat it. Kids have to be offered healthy choices. It's supposed to help kids balance their calories on their own and it destigmatizes the poor kids eating Chicken A La King slop from the wealthy kids eating a piece of whole fruit and a sandwich. Under Offer vs. Serve, ALL kids are encouraged to go through the lunch line, not just the poor kids.

Each child has an option of 4 to 5 choices (one meat, one fruit, etc., etc.) They must choose three, no more than two from the same category. STAFF MAY NOT REQUIRE a child choose this or that. STAFF MAY NOT REQUIRE that a child finish what is on their plate, and the child may not go back through the line to get an option they passed up before. (This link summarizes the rules pretty nicely: An explanation from a high school's website)

This creates an insane amount of waste. The USDA meal plan does include way too much bread and a fairly small amount of protein, but imagine how annoying it is to find the trash bin full, day after day, of food that the kids had no intention of eating in the first place. Over time, this creates a sense in the lunch room that it's better to give the kids foods they are going to eat. Also, you have to offer a choice. It cannot be "Today is roast chicken. Eat it or go hungry." There has to be a choice of this vs. that, and all the choices have to mesh together in such a way that the meal nutrition guidelines are met.

When I was on the board, I looked over a sample of kid's purchases during middle and high school snack. In a three week period, there was 1 purchase of a side salad, 6 purchases of fruit, and daily purchases of bagels w/cream cheese and pizza along with a purchase of ranch dressing. (Kids dip the pizza into ranch -- that's their choice.) So everyday the schools packed the snack carts with fresh salad, so they could show that they had offered it to the kids, and every two days they threw the fresh salads away. They CANNOT take the option of the pizza away without substituting an equal option of bread, vegetables and protein exchanges. Hard to find something that's cheap enough to fit the guidelines in that situation, so the pizza stayed. (The individual packages of ranch dressing went away though.)

The other bit that's not being addressed in these discussions is cost. Once you have a National Lunch program, the prices you can charge for your meals are directly linked to the federal subsidies for your meals. Free and Reduced lunches can cost no more than X to manufacture and full price lunches can be priced at no more than 50 cents to a dollar more than the cost of the Free and Reduced lunch cost. School lunches are about $2.50 because you are capped at about $1.75 in food cost for the Free and Reduced lunch. Even from the federal government, milk takes up about 50 to 60 cents of that $1.75.

A seventy cent meal which includes lots of fresh produce is a tricky thing to pull off.

AND, there's the added issue that many districts are prohibited from producing food in bulk. Small district, small school kitchens -- transportation of hot food stuffs from central kitchen creates health code problems. (Yeah, I know it's stupid, but a few districts in my area have stopped offering spaghetti sauce and chili because they can't keep the vats of sauce at the right temp -- outdated equipment and no $ to upgrade.)

How do you make a 70 cent meal? Never fear! The USDA will provide food for you and will coordinate the food with their own menu plans. Government cheese, government canned beans, government frozen product, government breads and meats. All for pennies.

Our central kitchen is HUGE and is mostly made up of freezers and dry storage space. There is not a single saucepan in site. No one's used the burner or the steam cauldron in years. It's all hotel pans, racks of them, for heating up chicken nuggets and frozen beef patties of the approved nutritional content.

In terms of shifting the program over to healthier eating, there's one other little fly in the ointment. If you want to buy really cheap beans and really cheap meat and really cheap cheese to produce a healthy bean burrito at your central kitchen, that's fine. You just have to place your order in the form of "chits" one year in advance. Over the next year you send in your chits and the government sends you your allotment of frozen ground beef. Make a mistake in ordering? Decide to try a new menu? Too bad, there's no ordering until next January. It's not a matter of blowing your budget by ordering from restaurant supply houses. If the meal costs more than 70 cents to produce, you've violated federal guidelines and you can't serve it.

Professional chefs know how to manage food costs and how to produce healthy cheap meals. Mostly they make everything they can in house and make one sauce that can go on three or four different dishes. Make stuff in bulk. Experiment. Be creative.

School lunch personnel have been locked into a system where it ends up being easier to use the prepackaged junk produced by the government to meet the needs of the government nutritional and budgetary requirements.

Our schools have very little money left to pay teachers and support staff, or to implement innovative programs. Proper nutrition is critical. However, the USDA has created a completely counterproductive and ultimately unworkable system. It's not the school's fault. It's not about local choice; it's about the federal government's willingness to feed poor people food waste and call it nutrition.

I wish, I wish, I wish, someone would do a "Food Nation" on the USDA's guidelines and meal plans. Horrible stuff.


Beth said...

This is pretty much the most educational thing I've read in ages. Seriously. Thank you.

I've been watching the show, too, and though I've got some big problems with it, I'm hooked. And outraged The pizza for breakfast thing is just un-fucking-believable). Though it would be great if they'd at least explain the basics of the reimbursement system (and you know, maybe they'll get there - it's only been 3 episodes), I've already gotten the point that the biggest problem is the USDA guidelines. Got it in the first episode, actually, and got it reinforced in the other two. Enough so that I've spent some time glaring at the info on Mrs Obama's child obesity initiative, because there's nothing about changing the goddamn guidelines - and writing letters to bitch about it to various and sundry. Not that that's any big help, but I figure I can't be the only one shouting about it and the more noise, the better.

So they must be doing something right, if they got across to me the point that the guidelines are the biggest culprit. Granted, I am a touch more activisty than most and have a tendency to aggressively hunt for the proper place to lay blame. And if they were REALLY set on a "revolution", they'd hammer the point home with constant repetition, because that's what TV show-makers always think has to be done to make even the faintest point. They aren't doing that. Fookin reality TV.

End of rambly comment.

jmc said...

Thank you for sharing all of that information, Suisan! It's fascinating. I had grasped that the diet was tied to the USDA standards, but didn't realize the funding was separate. My post was based primarily on my gut response to the first two episodes and my almost 20 year old memories of school lunches.

I caught the beginning of last night's episode. Between the piles of fries shown and my recent viewing of King Corn, I'm feeling demoralized about the food industry generally.

Suisan said...

Thanks, guys.

There's more to it -- I only was able to scratch the surface in that post. The main issue is that the USDA is talking out of both sides of its face. They use the nutrition guidelines when speaking to the public to say that we should be eating lots of whole grains, beans, and vegetables, and the USDA makes up these neat posters to hang in school lunch rooms about the new and improved pyramid. But then the USDA designs a breakfast and lunch program that is completely dependent upon highly processed foods, and LOTS of fat and white flour, in order to meet those same guidelines. Guess who's making the processed foods? Why Tyson and Armour and Pepsi-Co and IBP beef and all those other huge American agricultural giants.

Most of the school lunch program does not benefit the kids -- it goes into big agra's pockets.

Really, really, frustrating.

And then people want Ms. Millie, the local cafeteria director to fix it. If she did she'd be breaking federal law and bringing a district-wide audit down on her head.

But you can't throw out the school lunch program either -- it is absolutely true that in some poor communities, free or reduced lunch is the only meal school aged children eat.

But I've heard that if you starve the poor, they don't reproduce and then all of *our* test results will go up, so maybe doing away with the USDA program is a good idea.

Paul said...

I agree - very valuable post. If you decide to go into more detail, I'd read that too.

B. Strong said...

Thank you so much for writing this. The school lunch program is consistent with the US approach to any benefit to poor people: be as stingy and cheap as possible, even if doing so is penny wise and pound foolish. (Come to think of it, "penny wise and pound foolish" is entirely appropriate!)