TLT Guest Blogger: School Food Advocate Dana Woldow

by Bettina Elias Siegel on October 5, 2010

Last week I first learned of Dana Woldow, a parent and school food advocate in San Francisco, via an interview she did with CNN/Eatocracy.   What I liked about Dana was her frank assessment of some recent efforts to draw attention to and improve school food, even if it meant taking on such sacred cows as the USDA’s Chefs Move to Schools campaign, a part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.

I asked Dana if she had any writing to share with TLT readers, and she submitted this article, in which she daydreams about what school food might look like in a better world.

Even the USDA Needs a Taste of Reality About School Lunches

By Dana Woldow

On September 8th, Ms Audrey Rowe from the US Department of Agriculture visited Francisco Middle School in San Francisco to commend the school district’s meal program for achieving the gold standard of the USDA’s Healthier US Schools initiative. What a difference from just a year ago, when the USDA was withholding all federal money from that same program because of violations found during a routine inspection.

Those violations (since corrected) had nothing to do with the quality or safety of the food, and were entirely about bureaucratic regulations designed to guarantee that every child passing through the cafeteria line is sorted by family income level. When hungry children are eager to get to their cafeteria table and wolf down their lunch, sometimes kids slip past the worker at the end of the line whose job it is to verify their eligibility for free meals. Those kids might accidentally be recorded in the wrong category for government reimbursement. The vigilance with which the USDA enforces the required “counting and claiming” of school meals seems extreme given that it is unlikely anyone is getting rich by scamming a free school lunch for their child, but this is just one of the ways in which the USDA appears out of touch with the realities of school cafeterias.

Addressing the crowd at Francisco, Ms Rowe talked enthusiastically about Recipes for Healthy Kids, a USDA competition for students working with adults to design and test recipes for scratch cooking using whole grains, beans, or dark green and orange vegetables. As she described how the winning teams would have an opportunity to prepare their recipes along side White House chefs, I fell into a daydream of how wonderful it would be if we could actually scratch cook meals right here in San Francisco, instead of having to rely on meals cooked far away and shipped in frozen. But our school district does not have a central kitchen, and most schools lack any kind of cooking facility whatsoever. Some literally serve meals out of a closet in the cafeteria.

Next, Ms Rowe described the USDA’s Chefs Move to Schools program, which connects professional chefs with school kitchens to share their knowledge and expertise. Again, I dreamed of the facilities which would enable our district to cook delicious recipes from scratch right at school, or at least within the city limits. But the few schools which did not have their kitchens turned into needed classroom space when class size reduction took effect in the mid 1990s, are equipped with ancient ovens which only reheat, not cook. When those ovens break down, as happens frequently, there is no money to repair or replace them, because that federal funding stream dried up in the1980s.

Ms Rowe mentioned the commodities, such as meat, cheese, and frozen vegetables, which the USDA provides as part of their support for the school meal program. I began dreaming of an ideal commodities program, which would feature a variety of low fat cheeses, instead of just mozzarella. And there was fresh, delicious looking lean ground beef and chicken, instead of the current offerings which Chef Ann Cooper, formerly head of school meals in Berkeley, and now in charge in Boulder Co., describes as “a facsimile of food….chicken which even when cooked is often still bloody on the bone, and ground beef which sometimes has chunks of unidentifiable stuff in it.”

Finally, Ms. Rowe made a pitch for San Francisco to apply for the “grant” that comes with achieving the gold standard of the Healthier US Schools program.  There were several school board members and top district staff in the room, and everyone’s ears pricked up at the sound of money. The grant is only $2000, barely enough to cover the staff time required to fill out the 13 page application. Still, I daydreamed of every elementary school earning the grant, and each having $2000 with which to purchase a salad bar. Unfortunately, my dream went off the rails with the realization that while $2000 might cover the purchase of the bar itself, it wouldn’t provide anything for the extra labor necessary to stock and supervise the bar during lunchtime. Elementary school children have trouble using the tongs provided for serving themselves, so some just reach right into the raw vegetables with their hands to grab what they want. Without a cafeteria worker there to assist them, a salad bar patronized by 6 and 7 year olds rapidly becomes a health hazard. While the $2000 grant might pay for the salad bar, the ongoing cost of labor would exceed $10,000 per year, per school.

The event at Francisco Middle School was lovely, and it was terrific that the USDA sent Ms Rowe all the way from Washington to honor our student nutrition program, but it feels like the federal government is on another planet sometimes. Do they realize that many schools nationwide (in fact, most) no longer have the facilities to scratch cook, and that chirping gaily about their wonderful Chefs Move to Schools initiative rings a bit hollow in a school district where there is no place for a chef to cook?

These feel-good programs cost the federal government very little; total funding for the Healthier US Schools awards, which are supposed to go to 1250 schools, is just $2.5 million. This drop in the bucket allows our leaders in Washington to appear to be focusing on the nutritional needs of schoolchildren. It would certainly be nice to have school food more closely resemble chef-prepared restaurant food, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, or a tasty school lunch out of ground beef with “unidentifiable chunks of stuff” in it.

To really “fix school food”, our government needs to address the almost criminal underfunding of the school meal program. Does anyone in Congress ever set foot inside a public school lunchroom? At least Ms Rowe was willing to eat school lunch with us at our public middle school cafeteria; one has to wonder whether our Senators and Representatives ever do the same. If they did, maybe the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization still making its way through Congress would contain more than a mere six cent per lunch increase in funding. At current funding levels, after paying for labor and overhead, schools typically have about $1 to pay for the food in each school lunch.

The more I listened to the happy talk from the USDA that day, the more I felt that oversight for child nutrition programs should not rest with a federal agency which contains “Agriculture” in its name, but not “Children” or “Nutrition.” Nor should anyone expect an agency with “agriculture” in its name to suggest that the additional $2 per free lunch, which is what it would take to be able to serve students a really healthy meal with mostly organic and hormone free food, could be easily found if this country were not spending $15.4 billion (in 2009) on farm subsidies, including $7.7 billion to commodities such as wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and cotton.

More than 20 years ago, children’s advocates in San Francisco realized that because children don’t vote, they had no voice at City Hall. As a result, children’s programs – childcare, parks and playgrounds, children’s mental health services, youth jobs, child abuse prevention programs – were always the last things funded and the first things cut. In the late 1980s, Margaret Brodkin of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth led a campaign that established the Children’s Fund to ensure permanent funding for vital services for kids, and the city’s Department of Children Youth and their Families was created, to make sure that children’s issues were handled by a department focused solely on their unique needs.

Maybe what we need is a US Department of Children Youth and their Families. It could oversee programs like child nutrition with no confusion about whether its priorities were the best interests of agribusiness, the best interests of the food industry or the best interests of children.

Dana Woldow is the parent of three children who attended SFUSD schools. She has been a school food advocate since 2002.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Suriano October 5, 2010 at 11:52 am

Excellent and comprehensive look at the core issues effecting school food! Thank you for sharing this!

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bettina elias siegel October 5, 2010 at 1:23 pm

My pleasure! – Bettina

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Maggie October 5, 2010 at 2:24 pm

I noticed in the article there’s an estimate of the cost of operating a salad bar. I think we were wondering about that before.

Disheartening sometimes, it really is. Makes me wonder if school meals have a place at all anymore. Instead of taking funds from SNAP for school meals, maybe put more toward SNAP and let everyone choose and prepare and bring their own choices to school.

(Yes, really just talking off the top of my head with no knowledge of the complex politics behind that!)

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