Roasted cauliflower on a bed of whole-grain rice, served with breast of chicken sans antibiotics, sounds gourmet. The presentation, however, includes a plastic tray (and possibly a hairnet). That’s right, we’re in the school cafeteria.
In the last few years, school lunches have become virtually unrecognizable to someone who sampled them just a couple decades ago. They’re more nutritious, less fatty and salty, largely better for the environment, and in some cases, cheaper for students.
The National School Lunch Program provides federal funding for discounted or free lunches to eligible children (kids from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level eat free). To receive this funding, schools must comply with the program’s regulations, which have evolved much since the initiative’s inception in 1946. The latest update—the first in 15 years—occurred in 2010, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Now the 30 million or so lunches eaten in school every day contain more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
The new regulations, some of which took effect just last year, require that schools serve only whole-grain breads and pastas, reduce the amount of salt by half, and offer twice as many fruits and vegetables—and sorry, kids, French fries don’t count.
Congress, food companies, and some special interest groups, however, are trying to dilute or slow the rollout of the rules (the sodium reductions, for example, are to decrease in stages). The opponents say they’re too prescriptive and expensive. From the other side, the Urban School Food Alliance, a group of administrators from six major cities, is using its influence to bring even more beneficial changes to the cafeteria. Together, the group serves 2.9 million lunches in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Orlando, and buys $550 million in food and supplies every year.
“What the USDA does is regulatory, and it’s a really important floor,” says Mark Bishop, vice president of policy for the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign. “What the Urban School Food Alliance is doing is creating marketplace change. They’re trying to raise the ceiling.”
When the USDA’s new standards passed Congress a few years ago with support from Republicans and Democrats alike (and a significant push by First Lady Michelle Obama), they were largely heralded as scientifically based improvements to school meals. “They make a tremendous difference—it’s night and day,” says Bishop. “Nutritionally, it was a big step up and is an important step for schools and for our kids.”
But the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 workers who plan, prepare, and cook in school cafeterias, disagrees. Although it supports updates to federal nutrition standards, the group says the program forces its members to make food that kids don’t like and won’t eat. Since the new lunches took effect, 1.4 million fewer children are opting for them every day, choosing instead to brown-bag it or buy elsewhere.
And making kids take fruits and vegetables—one of the new mandates—only for them to throw the food away is a waste, the group says. If the meal program loses money, the district as a whole loses money, says Diane Pratt-Heavner with the School Nutrition Association. Congress seems to agree. It eased the new standards in a spending bill that passed at the end of 2014. But the food fight continues.
“The School Nutrition Association has taken a position asking for rollbacks of aspects of these new standards,” says Bishop, “but in the schools where we’ve been working, it has been, for the most part, a positive experience…with realistic frustrations of doing things a new way.”
Food companies are also throwing their tater tots into the ring, trying to get their products (think Domino’s and Doritos) more prominent placement in the lunchroom. Groups like the Snack Food Association and PepsiCo lobbied for the bill to ease the standards and continue to assert their influence by sponsoring events like the School Nutrition Association’s conferences.
Not all improvements to school meals are ensnarled in political controversy. With its millions of dollars worth of buying power, the Urban School Food Alliance can often get what it wants—and for the moment, that’s Styrofoam-free plates and antibiotic-free chicken.
“It’s us saying, ‘Look, this is how we want to spend our money; who’s willing in the marketplace to meet us on this type of transaction?’ ” says Alliance chair Eric Goldstein, chief executive of school support services in New York City. “Companies respond to that. It’s more of a carrot approach than a stick.”
Replacing Styrofoam with compostable trays in those cities will prevent 271 million plates a year from going to landfills. And the group’s most recent move, to buy antibiotic-free chicken only, is meant to prevent the spread of drug-resistant bacteria on meat. That’s healthy for kids (and the rest of us), too.
The law governing child nutrition programs expires at the end of September, so Congress will have to start picking it over again soon. As politicians continue to argue about whether pizza or veggies is better for children—or, er, whether pizza is a vegetable—six cities will be serving up one thing in the lunch industry for sure: more carrots.
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