Last week, I attended a conference which included a presentation by a neighboring district touting its school meal program.
This district is doing a lot of things right – a Salata-like salad bar line, scratch-made ranch dressing, attractive fresh fruit cups and more – but take a look at what’s offered as a breakfast option* in its high schools on a daily basis, in its middle and elementary schools on a weekly basis, and on its lunch a la carte line daily:
Probably not what most of us have in mind when we think “nutritious school breakfast” or “nutritious a la carte snack.”
If I’d seen these slides when I first got involved in school food reform back in 2010, I would have been astonished and angry. But now I only felt depressed and resigned, fully aware of all the perverse incentives that drive decisions like this one:
You Serve Donuts Because You Can
As discussed in my recent Civil Eats piece, “Why There’s So Much Sugar in Your Kid’s School Breakfast,” the nutritional standards for school breakfasts, even after the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act overhaul, are surprisingly weak. Schools aren’t required to serve any protein items, such as eggs, cheese or meat, and there’s no upper limit on sugar in school food. As long as a grain-based breakfast entree is “whole grain-rich,” meaning it contains at least half whole-grain flour, the item counts toward a federally reimbursable breakfast no matter how sugary it might be. (And these donuts actually have less sugar than a lot of other sweetened grain items served for breakfast by schools around the country, at least before the frosting and sprinkles are added by the district.)
You Have to Please Your “Customers”
Because only a small percentage of students in this district qualify for free or reduced priced lunch, the district views the student body as “customers” – a word used frequently throughout the presentation – rather than as beneficiaries of needed nutrition. And if students are customers who must be pleased at all costs, lest they spend their dollars elsewhere, it only makes sense to emulate the off-campus food outlets which might drain away those coveted dollars.
Starbucks and the local donut shop are these kids’ favorite breakfast hangouts, according to the presentation, so it was a no-brainer from a business standpoint to start serving federally-compliant donuts at school. This logic also explains the district’s practice (one I’d never seen before) of luring high schoolers to the breakfast line with free coffee, even going so far as to source special Starbucks-look-alike cups and figuring out the right ratio of cream and sugar to make the coffee Smart Snacks compliant for those buying it a la carte:
You Have to Keep Your Business Afloat
All of this reflects the fact that school food programs in this country are expected to operate like independent businesses, facing the same high food costs and overhead as any restaurant, but further hindered by inadequate funding, reams of regulations (no food operation is more heavily regulated), often grossly inadequate infrastructure and a notoriously fickle clientele.
As I wrote in my 2015 post, “School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?” (see also my January New York Times op-ed, “The Real Problem with Lunch“), if you stand in the shoes of a school nutrition director for about five minutes, you’ll see all the incentives that drive a school food program toward “better-for-you” junk food, sacrificing nutrition – and the even loftier goal of nutrition education – just to stay afloat.
Oh, and here are a few more items this district includes on its lunch menu, just to lure more students into the cafeteria:
And as I sat through this district’s presentation, school food professionals in the audience were eagerly asking for more details about all of it: the cost of the coffee cups, whether the lid and cardboard sleeve were included in the price, which extra-brightly-colored Trix were used in the treats shown above (apparently Trix Swirls is the more eye-catching choice).
And when someone raised their hand and asked where the whole-grain donuts came from, you could literally hear pens scratching on paper as they all furiously scribbled down the name of the supplier.
* The district offers several other breakfast entree options during the week, including Pop Tarts, breakfast burritos and its version of the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast – eggs, pancakes and breakfast meats.