School Food Reform: Can’t We All Get Along? (We Can and We Have To)

by Bettina Elias Siegel on December 2, 2010

In the last few weeks I’ve been surprised to find myself in the role of School Food Reform Naysayer, which isn’t what you’d expect from someone who serves on her district’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and its Student Health Advisory Council and who is a daily kid-and-food blogger.  If I really thought that school food reform was a nonstarter, believe me, there are other ways I could be spending my time.

The shift began two weeks ago when I objected to an interview with Jane Hersey (over at Kelly the Kitchen Kop) which, in my opinion, too blithely dismissed the difficulties many districts face in trying to bring about school food reform.  But in taking on Ms. Hersey’s position, I found myself in the undesirable (and uncharacteristic) role of saying “No, We Can’t!” to someone else’s “Yes, We Can!”

That post led to a lot of back and forth on TLT about what reform is possible (and what’s not) under current USDA reimbursement rates.  As a result, I decided to ask Dana Woldow, a school food reformer in San Francisco, to guest blog about the realities her community has faced (financial and otherwise) in trying to improve school food there.  Dana’s primary point is that places like Boulder, CO (Chef Ann Cooper’s current district) and Berkeley, CA (Chef Ann’s former district) use outside and/or community-raised funding to bring about change, and her own San Francisco district operates at a deficit that’s grudgingly paid by the school board.  Therefore, she felt, the successes in these districts may not be replicable everywhere in the country.

Dana’s post drew a long string of comments, including some from Ed Bruske (The Slow Cook), who has written extensively about Boulder and Berkeley.  Several people involved in Berkeley’s school food program, including Bonnie Christensen, executive chef in Berkeley’s school district, were also kind enough to stop by and leave their thoughts.  And the debate may continue to rage on in the comments section of that post.

After all this back-and-forth, what’s my own personal takeaway?

I wholeheartedly agree with Dana Woldow that we have to continue to fight hard for increased funding at the national level.  If we rely on local communities to raise funds to improve food, we’ll soon have a patchwork of wealthier (or more committed) districts with good food, and poorer districts (where, I would note, more children are reliant on school food) with less healthful offerings.  As Dana succinctly put it: “I worry about what happens to the poorer parts of America when the wealthier communities take a ‘I’ve got mine, now let everyone else go get theirs’ attitude.”  So as discouraging as it can be to try to bring about change in Congress, we can’t give up.

That said, I’m deeply impressed by the people of Berkeley and Boulder who are willing to put their money where their mouth is to fix school food, and the dedication and ingenuity of the people they’ve hired to do it.  Bonnie Christensen described in a few comments the financial and professional sacrifices she’s made to take on her current job (after working in prestigious restaurants) and the challenges she still faces — regardless of funding — in improving school food.  She also praised the professionalism of her well trained staff in dealing with those challenges.

I guess my conclusion would be, then, that we don’t have to pursue one path to the exclusion of the other.  Those who live in commuities fortunate and forward-thinking enough to self-fund school food shouldn’t forget those in less affluent districts for whom such funding is a pipe dream — nor should they neglect to mention that funding when they tout their achievements, lest they create false expectations.  Similarly, those who live in districts dependent on federal reimbursement should learn what they can from more successful districts — the reduction of inefficiencies, etc. — that may be replicable even without additional funding.  Successful school food reformers, even if they are working with more money than most, still have much to teach us.

The bottom line, of course, is that we all want the same thing: fresher, less processed school food for our children.  Debate over our differences shouldn’t be squelched — we learn from that debate — but neither should we let our differences divide us or distract us from the task at hand.

So, with that said, I place myself firmly back in the camp of “Yes, We Can.”

And now, back to work, everyone!  :-)

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Susan Rubin December 2, 2010 at 8:19 am

YUP. Welcome to my world, Bettina.
You’re seeing the crunch between money, cupcakes and legislation.
There is even more division out there when it comes to food.
The vegans, low-fat omnivores and full fat Weston Price pals also clash heads repeatedly.
Its kind of like organized religion….. that whole “my god is better than your god” kind of undercurrent that causes many to miss the whole point.

We all must focus on what unites us. Its safe to say that we all care about declining children’s health and the environment which is declining as well.

If you can find a way to unite all the peeps from all the factions on this point AND get them to all take some meaningful action, then we’ll be onto something!~
Lets all try to give Peas a chance!

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Ed Bruske December 2, 2010 at 9:20 am

You didn’t mention the most cogent thoughts expressed in this exchange, those from Kate Adamick, the only participant who makes a career of evaluating school food operations, who continues to maintain that there’s already enough money in the system. It’s rather pointless to pour more scare funding into the front end, when schools are just wasting it on the back end. Just asking for more money is not a smart strategy, or even politically viable. There has to be a more sophisticated approach that embraces school food reform from many different angles, using all of the available resources. And I have yet to hear school food reformers articulate a clear vision of what school meals should look like.

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bettina elias siegel December 2, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Ed: That’s a whole separate topic (what the end result should look like) and I may have a great guest post on that in the works. – Bettina

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bettina elias siegel December 2, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Ed: Kate didn’t actually comment here, did she?

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal December 2, 2010 at 9:21 am

it’s easy to feel like the naysayer when you start peeling back the onion and finding out that this solution or that solution isn’t feasible because of this obstacle or that obstacle. it’s nice to hear from districts who have made progress, but also prudent to know that school food reform is not apples to apples in all districts.

at present I “won” a small victory when SBISD CNS approved a one week pilot to serve only the hot breakfast item and plain cheerios as the only dry cereal option. no cinnamon toast crunch or frosted flakes will be available during the pilot. other suggestions like offering fruit instead of the fruit or juice option – most kids pick juice (too expensive, juice costs less), and including oatmeal or hard boiled eggs (too labor intensive not enough resources to cook for breakfast), were not approved.

this sounds good on paper, but one week I’m afraid isn’t long enough to change habits. changing habits takes time. understanding of why added sugar isn’t ideal for a school kid about to start their day of learning and the function of oats as a good fuel for brain power PLUS the taste acceptance of say a bowl of plain cheerios sweetened with a banana slices (which means the kids couldn’t pick juice) is a lot to ask a 5 or 8 year old to accomplish in 5 days.

CNS denied my request to have the pilot run for the remainder of the year. I’m curious to see how the 5 day pilot goes, but at the same time I’m prepared for it to “fail”. If it fails I will point the finger at too little time to really give kids enough time to embrace the change and adopt better eating habits.

I’m fully confident that kids can and will adopt better eating habits when enough “interventions” like tastings, opportunities to cook/grow food and classroom instruction are available to them. Without these interventions (and the funding to do them) all the scratch-cooking and quality wholesome ingredient changes to the menu won’t drive necessary participation in the school food program. Participation has to remain constant or increase for the improved menu changes to be sustainable.

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bettina elias siegel December 2, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Jenna: It’s pretty great that your district at least lets you try a pilot, though I agree that the short time frame works against you. At least they seem open to exploring change. Let us know how it goes! – Bettina

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Dana Woldow December 2, 2010 at 9:54 am

I’m always amused when people try to characterize me as a “naysayer”, given the number of times I have been told “no” to my ideas, and the number of times I have been ultimately able to turn those denials into acceptances. Back in 2002 when I first got involved with fixing school food, there were 3 top level SFUSD bureaucrats who plopped themselves down in the way to obstruct our work; they tried everything from secretly rewriting the wellness policy we had efficiently hammered out as a committee, to demanding that the student nutrition committee be thanked for their work and dismissed. They were the true naysayers – they tried to say we couldn’t get the junk food out of the schools, that no one would be able to get more families to fill out the free lunch application, and that students wouldn’t want to eat fresh fruit or salad or healthier entrees.

I’m happy to say that as of this year, I have outlasted all three of them, and I did it not by saying no to change but rather by getting behind change and pushing and pushing until it got done. At the same time, I have called for honestly and accuracy in the fixing school food movement. It doesn’t help anyone when people think that change comes easily or without cost. There is always a cost, and talking about that cost does not make one a naysayer – it makes one a realist.

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal December 2, 2010 at 12:04 pm

dana – i would like to hear more from you on the obstacles you’ve come upon (what specifically you heard no about) and how you got over them (how you eventually got a yes).

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Viki December 2, 2010 at 4:56 pm

So many good points and so much I want to hear more about…From Dana, Kate Adamick (who sounds like a winner Ed!) and of course Susan, you have been in the trenches for a long time fighting this fight and sometimes I feel like we are just like toddlers jumping and popping bubbles but the bubble machine just keeps making the bubbles…Eventually it isn’t any fun At All, it is discouraging and you just want to sit and cry.

It has been a long day maybe I just need a pep talk.

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