Sometimes a blogger bites off more than she can chew: I promised to review Kate Adamick’s book Lunch Money over the summer but it’s taken me longer than expected to get through my reading pile! But I did finally have time to read Lunch Money and I’m glad to tell you about it here.
For those who don’t know of her, Kate Adamick is principal of Food Systems Solutions LLC and a well-known school food consultant committed to bringing back scratch cooking to America’s schools. Through her Cook for America® culinary boot camps, she provides school food personnel with culinary training in hopes of turning them from re-heaters of processed food into what she calls passionate “Lunch Teachers.” (You can learn more about Adamick from my interview with her back in January, 2011.)
Lunch Money is Adamick’s effort to dispel “the myth that school food reform is cost prohibitive” by providing “effective money-saving and revenue-generating tools for use in any school kitchen or cafeteria . . . . [including] examples, diagrams, charts, and worksheets that unlock the financial secrets to scratch-cooking in the school food environment and prove that a penny saved is much more than a penny earned.” As you can guess from the foregoing description, Lunch Money is meant to be a highly practical resource for managers of school food services departments, and it is they, not lay readers, who are addressed directly by the author in this book.
The book opens with a pointed but often humorous discussion of the food found in many of America’s school cafeterias, prompting readers to ask themselves questions like, “Is the chicken masquerading as a dinosaur?,” “If I melt down the cans from which the food came, will I have enough metal to build a small submarine?,” and my personal favorite, “Would I be able to see the bread in a blizzard?” :-) She then makes a compelling case, one which will be familiar to most TLT readers, of why improving school food is so important to the health and future of our children. Adamick’s passion and dedication to the cause of school food reform really come through in these opening chapters, which will have every concerned parent nodding their heads and saying “Amen, sister!”
The main sections of the book do indeed provide the promised diagrams, charts and worksheets, with each chapter asking food service directors to consider a different means of saving money in their operations. These ideas include serving fewer desserts; cutting out flavored milk; using whole proteins instead of sending commodity meat to processors for conversion into nuggets and patties; reducing variety and choice on the menu; offering in-class breakfast; trading in disposable flatware for metal flatware and several more. While the discussions of these ideas are quite technical, they’re not likely to sail over the head of a dedicated parent. In fact, I would recommend Lunch Money to parents precisely because it serves as an excellent tutorial regarding the many challenges — financial, cultural and regulatory — faced by most school food programs.
That said, I did have some questions as I read through the book. For example, when describing the additional funds a district can reap from instituting an in-class breakfast program, the book’s worksheet doesn’t have a line item for expenditures associated with implementing such a program. Yet here in Houston, when we instituted our own universal in-class breakfast program, there was a significant outlay to purchase multiple rolling, insulated carts for each of our 300 schools. Similarly, as has been noted elsewhere, when touting the savings to be gained by switching from disposable cutlery to metal flatware, the book doesn’t ask food service directors to factor in the increased labor and utility costs of washing that flatware on a daily basis. It may well be that there is still a savings to be gained there, but without those line items the worksheet feels incomplete.
The biggest issue looming in my mind as I read the book was the sticky problem of student participation. Nothing in any of the worksheets takes into account a possible sudden drop in participation in the lunch program if students dislike the changes implemented, a consideration which seems especially timely right now when we’re hearing so much negative feedback surrounding the newly improved federal school meal regulations. My guess is that Adamick would say, as I have said so often here, that we simply must ride out any initial negative student reaction and take the long view when it comes to improving school food. But a food service director “on the ground” still needs to factor in potential lost revenue into his/her calculations, even if that revenue loss is (we hope) only a short term problem.
But perhaps anticipating these concerns, Adamick offers this disclaimer right at the outset of Lunch Money: “While not all of the tricks and tools presented here will apply to all school districts, every district should be able to identify at least one strategy to increase the revenue, or decrease the expenses, of its own school food services department.” She also acknowledges that the success of her strategies depends on “the size of your district, the percentage of your students who are eligible for free or reduced meals, the prevailing market rate of labor and food in your region, and your current operating practices.”
It’s to Adamick’s credit that she realizes there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in school food reform, and her disclaimers should be heeded by lay readers. That is to say, Lunch Money is a really great way for parents to get up to speed on how school lunch programs operate and areas where there may be clear room for improvement, but no parent should assume that just by reading Lunch Money he or she fully understands the challenges faced by their own food services director. As we’ve talked about many times on The Lunch Tray, school food reform will only be successful if parents and districts work together collaboratively, each respecting the concerns and expertise of the other.
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