TLT Guest Blogger Dana Woldow: What It Really Takes to Fix School Food (Hint: More Than Six Cents)

[Ed. Note:  The House of Representatives is expected to vote this week (and possibly even today) on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Senate bill that reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act and which will, if passed, increase school food funding by 6 cents per meal.

The bill has met with opposition in Congress in part because it presents the terrible choice of increasing school food spending at the expense of SNAP, i.e., the federal food stamps program.  Much has been written about this “rob-parents-to-help-kids” scheme, including the compelling essay by Raj Patel that I posted last week, and today’s blog post by New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, which proposes a soda tax to fund the bill.

But if, for better or worse, the bill passes as written and districts get the additional six cents, is that increase going to be sufficient to “fix” school food?  Will that additional money empower food service directors around the country to at last trade in their fried nuggets for brown rice and stir fries?

Shows like Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” and school districts like Chef Ann Cooper’s former district in Berkeley, CA and current district in Boulder, CO, are often held up as examples of what’s possible in school food reform, yet it’s seldom ever mentioned that in each of these cases, far more money is being spent on those meals than the current federal reimbursement rate — and far more than that rate plus six cents.  (See here for a critique of Jamie Oliver’s show on these grounds.)  Instead, the misperception persists that if only stubborn food service directors would start “scratch cooking” or demanding better food from suppliers, everyone’s district could look like Jamie Oliver’s or Chef Ann’s.

That this fallacy exists was amply demonstrated by my much-commented-upon debate with Jane Hersey two weeks ago, and I was particularly interested in the comments left by Dana Woldow, a school food reformer in San Francisco.  Dana has intimate familiarity with what it takes to make significant changes in a large, urban district like my own, and she is less-than-starry-eyed about the ability of any other district to follow suit without outside funding — over and above the current USDA reimbursement rate, OR that amount plus six cents.  I asked Dana to guest post today on this topic, and she agreed.]

What It Really Takes to Fix School Food

by Dana Woldow

While I have heard some people claim that it is possible to “fix school food” using only the current government allotment of $2.72 per free lunch, I have never seen this happen. The districts which have been able to offer something better either have extra funding, as is the case in Berkeley, CA, or outside funding/fundraising, as is the case in Boulder, CO, the two districts with high profile school meal programs redesigned by Ann Cooper. Or, like my home district of San Francisco, the school meal program just runs an enormous deficit and the school district grudgingly covers the cost.

Where does that extra funding come from? Thanks to an obscure funding stream in California called Meals for Needy Pupils, Berkeley gets an additional $1.24 for every free and reduced price breakfast and lunch it serves, on top of the $2.72 from the feds. Without that extra money it is unlikely that Berkeley could continue its program, and that extra funding is not available to most other districts in California (nor, of course, anywhere outside of California), meaning the Berkeley program, laudable as it is, is not replicable in other school districts which lack that generous extra funding.

What’s more, the scratch cooking done in Berkeley is only possible because ten years ago the citizens of Berkeley taxed themselves via a bond to build their school district a fabulous central kitchen in which to cook. Hats off to Berkeley for doing that, but it is important to acknowledge that not every community can afford to tax themselves this way to help provide their schools with a place to do nutritious scratch cooking.

The price for a paid lunch, for the 60% of Berkeley students who don’t qualify for free/reduced, is the highest I have ever seen – $3.25 for elementary lunch, $3.75 for middle school, and $4.25 for high school. Again, not every community could afford to send their kids to school with this much lunch money each day, even for those kids lucky enough to come from families which don’t have to rely on free school lunch. In Boulder, the extra money to pay for kitchen upgrades and staff training to enable scratch cooking is coming from massive fundraising efforts by parents, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Again, hats off to the generous (and relatively wealthy, with just 18% of student qualified for government paid meals) citizens of Boulder for getting this done, but not every community could raise that kind of money, no matter how badly their school food needed to be “fixed.” It is worth mentioning that the new meal program in Boulder still needs at least 1,000 more students to eat school lunch every day before it will come close to breaking even.

After eight years of work to “fix school food”, I am convinced that while on paper it may be possible to draw up a budget to operate a school meal program, including all of the expenses – food, labor, overhead, kitchen facilities, equipment, staff training, office expenses, everything it takes to run a meal program – with nutritious scratch cooked lunches for $2.72 apiece, no district of any size is, in fact, doing it, despite the best efforts of many capable people like Ann Cooper. It depends on too many variables, most of which are not fully within the control of the person running the meal program – getting more paying kids to buy the school lunch, keeping volatile food costs under control (remember the spike of 2008? Our food costs here increased 40% in one year!), and weeding out unproductive labor (a near impossibility in a union town like San Francisco).

Moreover, an unexpected labor strike can devastate a program which previously had a balanced budget, as can an unexpected site visit from the USDA prior to a full review of the program; if they find serious flaws, they will withhold funding for the entire meal period on that day, costing a district thousands of dollars. Bad weather can bring a power outage and thousands of dollars of food can be lost. A food recall or E. coli outbreak in a community can cause a giant dip, even if short lived, in participation in a school meal program. All of these things and more have happened here, and elsewhere around the country, at one time or another; all of them wreak havoc on a budget which was “balanced” when committed to paper the previous spring, but which falls to pieces once real life intervenes during the school year.

The districts which have been able to offer something better either have extra funding, as is the case in Berkeley with their Meals for Needy Pupils revenue, or outside funding/fundraising, as is the case in Boulder.  I feel it is essential that we keep a spotlight on that extra money as part of the discussion, because too many people already believe the fallacy that school food can be fixed with the existing funding, when there is no proof of that at all. I hear from angry parents every month who want to know why we aren’t able to do here in San Francisco what they do in Berkeley; they read about school food and get the idea that Berkeley faces all the same challenges that everyone else does, so how come they are able to have grass fed beef and scratch cooked meals and we aren’t? These folks are furious that the “incompetents” in San Francisco  are not able to do what they believe was easily accomplished across the bay. Now they are hearing the same thing about Boulder. But neither of those places is doing what they are doing on the same funding that we have here!

That’s not to say that school food can’t be “fixed”, or that we should all just give up and go home. I’m just saying, we need to continue to emphasize that the small number of schools and districts which are providing significantly better food for their students are doing it with extra resources. As Congress moves forward with that proposed extra 6 cents for school meals, parents need to keep the conversation honest about what it will really take to “fix school food”, and 6 cents isn’t it.

Why Hungry Kids Sometimes Still Go Hungry in American Schools

A reader recently sent me a Reuters article describing a study from Canada which demonstrates (not surprisingly) that adolescents from food insecure households perform better academically and have better behavior in school when the schools provide meal assistance.

The study reminded me that way back in July (and then again in August!), I promised to explain how it is that hungry children in American schools often still go hungry — and how the Obama administration is trying to increase their participation in school food programs.  Under the heading “better late than never,” here’s my post on that subject.

Some children who are eligible for free/reduced price meals choose not to take advantage of the program because of the stigma attached to such meals, especially when there’s an “a la carte” line in the same lunchroom offering such “cool” foods as Papa John’s pizza and fruit slushies.  That’s a critically important topic worthy of separate examination, and I’ve discussed it here previously (“A La Carte – A World Apart?”).

But as Janet Poppendieck discusses in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, many kids who qualify for free/reduced price meals never get those benefits in the first place (regardless of whether they then use them to get the “uncool” meal).  She cites four major obstacles to children’s participation in the free/reduced price meal program:

Application:  Parents of hungry children may not always apply for free/reduced lunch.  The reasons can include being unaware of the program; feeling a sense of stigma at having to rely on government assistance; finding the forms too daunting to fill out, especially in the case of new immigrants; or a (misplaced) fear of the form being sent to immigration authorities.

Certification: Innumerable errors can (and do) occur in the processing of applications by schools which can result in a child never getting certified by the program, even if a parent has tried to apply.

Verification:  A subset of applications will be selected for random verification, in which the parent must provide documentation of household size and income.  This can be daunting for many parents, including the new immigrant or the parent who is paid in cash at work (such as a cleaning lady or nanny).  According to 2002 data cited by Poppendieck, 50% of those parents from whom documentation was sought simply didn’t respond and their child’s meal benefits were terminated.

Price:  Parents who don’t qualify for free meals may be able to receive reduced price meals for their children.  However, the reduced price can still be unaffordable to a family in that income category. Poppendieck lays this out well in her book, showing how, after normal household expenses, such a family could struggle to come up with the reduced price each day, five days a week, for their children.

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, up for a vote as early as today, would attempt to fix some of these problems through a variety of means, including allowing schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to all students without any paperwork, making foster children automatically eligible for free meals, and giving incentives to states that improve their certification rates.

Until we fix this problem, however, we’re confronted with the sad paradox of hungry kids enrolled in schools offering food, yet still going hungry.  And as the study cited above makes clear, the resulting consequences — poor academic performance, behavior problems and school absenteeism — hurt us all in the long run.