Saturday, January 16, 2016

Complicating the School Lunch Issue - We aren't France

School lunches are definitely a problem in terms of their overall impact on student health. And, the federal guidelines that made them less appealing to many - but in some ways healthier - haven't done much turn them into the brilliant culinary masterpieces that other countries' students seem to enjoy. However, the problem with school lunches in American cafeterias is much more an issue with our country's entire food industry, as opposed to simply the failure of schools to put appetizing meals on the ... tray.

And, that's the issue that Bettinas Elias Siegel seeks to expose and expand our understanding of in her insightful and informative piece in today's New York Times titled "The Real Problem with School Lunch."

Let’s start with money. The federal government provides a little over $3 per student per lunch, and school districts receive a smaller contribution from their state. But districts generally require their food departments to pay their own overhead, including electricity, accounting and trash collection. Most are left with a dollar and change for food — and no matter what Mr. Moore says, no one is buying scallops and lamb on that meager budget. Contrast this with France, where meal prices are tied to family income and wealthy parents can pay around $7 per meal. Give that sum to an American school food services director and you may want to have tissues handy as he’s likely to break down in incredulous tears.

And what about the students on the other side of the serving line? Nothing in our nation’s food environment primes them to embrace fresh, healthful school meals. The top four sources of calories in the average American child’s diet are grain-based desserts, pizza, soda and sports drinks, and bread. One-third eat fast food every single day. More than 90 percent don’t eat enough vegetables. And each year, our children are bombarded by around $2 billion in child-directed food and beverage advertising, much of which promotes the least healthy products.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the past two years developing a plan to re-organize our cafeterias, I can attest to Siegel's claims. We have problems getting healthy food consumed by our young people. But that's a problem with our culture and food production system, and that's not readily going to change. As natural food icon Alice Waters says,

"I don't want to force kids to eat healthier foods. I want to win them over to making healthy choices."

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