A school district in Minnesota has made news for removing seven problematic ingredients from its school food: artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, artificial preservatives, trans fats/hydrogenated oils, antibiotics and hormones in meats, and bleached flour. As a result, kids there are now eating entrees like grass-fed beef hot dogs on whole grain rolls, with the ultimate goal of bringing more scratch cooking, and fewer “carnival food” entrees, to their lunch rooms.
That’s great news, of course, but these menu improvements come at a cost — reportedly, 35 cents more per meal per child, a deficit that’s being privately funded by an outside organization, the Lifetime Fitness Foundation.
Thirty-five cents might not sound like a lot to most people. But after paying their overhead, school districts are usually left with about one dollar per child per meal from their federal reimbursement to spend on food. This means that “real food” meals with “clean” labels, like those in this Minnesota district, can cost over one-third more than the school meals containing more highly processed food.
This funding gap is why, at least in my observation, districts doing the best job of feeding kids healthfully almost invariably rely on outside funding, including Chef Ann Cooper‘s district in Boulder, Colorado and the Orfalea Foundation-funded school meal program in Santa Barbara, California.
But, as I noted in my recent piece on the New York Times Motherlode, relying on outside funding is not a true solution to improving school food in this country. Instead it creates what I called “a nationwide patchwork of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,'” in which the kids who most need healthful school food — the ones living in economically impoverished areas – may be least able to round up private money to help pay for it.
Yet it’s sobering to realize that, in most experts’ estimation, Congress hasn’t yet fully funded school meals as they’re currently conceived, replete with all kinds of highly processed, heat-n-eat foods. So before we ever see federal funding levels adequate to finance “real food,” “clean label” meals like those in this Minnesota district, it’s going to take a truly seismic shift in how our nation thinks generally about food and the feeding of its school children.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure it will happen in my lifetime.
[Hat tip: School Nutrition Association newsletter for alerting me to the Minnesota story.]
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