Why I Just Rained on Someone’s School Food Reform Parade

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 18, 2010

I feel a bit like a heel this morning.

I just discovered a great new blog (well, new to me), called Kelly the Kitchen Kop, devoted to “healthy cooking, traditional food, vibrant health” and “busting ‘politically correct’ health and nutrition information.”   What caught my eye was this morning’s lead post, entitled, “Jane Hersey: Improving School Food Is Not That Difficult – Here’s How.”

As a member of Houston ISD’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee (and now also HISD’s Student Health Advisory Council), and as someone who is very much “in the weeds” on this issue, meaningful school food reform seems nearly impossible to me on my darkest days.  On my more optimistic days, I feel like we can get there — but only when so many young people are dropping like flies from obesity-related diseases that even the most fiscally conservative Congressperson will cough up more funding (and I’m not talking about a paltry 6 cents) to improve school food.

So, as you can see, even on my most optimistic days, I’m still quite the downer.

Maybe that’s why I snorted my coffee when I saw the headline promising that school food reform is “not that difficult.”  ‘Cause if it’s not that difficult, we’re all doing something very wrong.

I read the post about Jane Hersey, who is the director of the Feingold Association, an organization that helps families feed their children healthfully.  In Kelly’s summary of her interview with Jane, she says that Jane believes that

if a school wants to keep using convenience food from distributors, they can get it with natural ingredients if you ask and make them look for it, and chances are it won’t cost any more money.  (Tell them for example that you want a fruit drink actually made with fruit.)

or that

Some schools are doing a lot of food prep from scratch and finding that it saves them big dollars!

Here’s an excerpt of what I said in reply:

I have to say — and I’m sorry to be the wet blanket here — that when you’re dealing with a food service management company like Chartwells, Aramark, Sodexo, et. al (in our case, Aramark) — some of what Jane is saying strikes me as pie-in-the-sky. For example, I think it’s patently untrue that “chances are, [food with natural ingredients] won’t cost any more money.” Nor do I believe that doing prep work from scratch is also likely to save a school district money — what about the significant labor costs associated with all that scratch prep?

Please know that I’m not trying to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for school food reform — I’m out there trying as much as anyone to get it done. But I fear that Jane may be creating false expectations that much can be achieved with a mere snap of the fingers when — at least in a large, urban district like mine, with a FSMC to boot — I’m finding that it’s a much slower, more painful battle. And anyone who wants to join the fight needs to be prepared for that.

Afterwards, I felt that maybe I’d been unfair to Jane Hersey, so I took the time to actually listen to the one-hour audio file of Kelly’s interview with her.   In the interview, Jane points out how movie theater popcorn costs so much more than the actual corn itself, or that a box of prepared rice pilaf mix costs more than a bag of rice and a handful of spices.  From this premise, she extrapolates that schools which rely on prepared food from distributors are could be saving money by cooking from scratch.  But what her argument seems to miss (as noted in my comment), is that food preparation from scratch means labor, and labor means significant money.  Why do we think Aramark, the most ruthlessly cost-cutting enterprise you’re likely to come across, would choose to buy boxed, pre-scrambled, preservative-laden eggs vs. paying a happy assembly line of workers to crack fresh eggs into a vat?

I don’t disagree, however, with another point Jane makes on both the blog and in the audio interview, which is that serving children subpar food can result in costs on the back end, and she’s not just talking about healthcare costs but the higher costs of educating a child who can’t concentrate or pay attention.  The problem is, it’s very hard to convince a school district to connect those dots, especially when food services groups operate as self-sustaining entities with a budget unrelated to the rest of the district.

We’re all comrades-in-arms here, and we’re all trying to reach the same goal.  I appreciate all that Jane is doing on her end and hate to rain on anyone’s parade.

But I do I think it’s important to be realists about what we’re up against.  In the words of my old buddy Sun Tzu:  “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”

[Ed. Update:  Jane responded to this post, and I replied to her response, and then she commented back, and meanwhile a whole lot of other people chimed in, and  . . .  well, you get the idea.  All of that can be found here.]

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy November 18, 2010 at 11:34 am

I’m sure it’s like moving a mountain Bettina. My question though, is what research have you actually done? Have you asked Aramark? Have you done the actual CBA between prepping fresh foods & purchasing prepared foods? If you have actual data to back up your assumptions, then you have a point. If you are thinking this way because you’ve been around a long time & have seen things this way for a long time…then I’m sorry–you’re just too tired & set in your own ways.

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bettina elias siegel November 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

Tracy:

You may be new to TLT (or not?), so I’ll give you some background on me.

I’ve been involved directly in school food reform for about one year – certainly not long enough to be a war-weary veteran, by any means. On the other hand, I promise you that I’m not a clueless dilettante. I’m a Harvard-trained lawyer who takes seriously the need to be fair and balanced on this blog and to research what I talk about here.

My sources for most food reform issues are, most notably, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, by Janet Poppendieck, but also countless other books, articles, blog posts, and phone conversations with other school food reformers around the country. And yes, of course we’ve talked to Aramark. They have been making improvements, and those are always duly noted here on TLT, as I believe it’s important to give credit and encouragement when we see any positive changes.

But, for example, when the PAC asked if we could remove all HFCS products from HISD, the answer was a flat-out “no” on cost grounds. Same goes for salad bars. Furthermore, even with a brand-new, $51 million dollar central kitchen, only about 50% (at most) of our food is cooked on site, and even that food is often made up of highly processed components shipped from far and wide. Why? Labor costs and the higher costs of fresher, less processed food.

All of that said, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from getting in there and joining the fight. Indeed, the louder our collective voices, the more we will be heard. But, as I said in the post, I felt that Jane’s take wasn’t grounded in reality, at least not the current reality in my district or the reality I hear about from others around the country, particularly in the larger, urban districts, and particularly those managed by FSMC’s.

Thanks for commenting here, and I hope you’ll continue to read TLT and share your thoughts. I welcome all views, even when they differ from my own! :-)

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Dana Woldow November 18, 2010 at 3:43 pm

We have done the cost analysis in our school district and determined that the cost of doing the meal prep ourselves is vastly higher than the cost of getting our meals from Preferred Meal Systems (PMS). For the time being, while a study is being done to determine whether and how we can get a central kitchen funded and build here in San Francisco, we have settled on just trying to get the most nutritious meals we can afford onto the table for our students even if they do have to come from a big meal provider.

PMS has been willing to work with us on that; they removed trans fat from all their meals long before it was required; they have almost completely removed the HFCS that many of our parents find so objectionable (I believe it is now only present in a few of the condiments but that is essentially all). We don’t want any artificial flavors or colors, and they accommodate that.
It has certainly limited the variety of some things (like crackers) that we offer our students but we feel it is worth it.

But I would never claim that these improvements came without added cost! Au contraire, each improvement has added to the cost we pay for our meals. The idea that a 100% fruit juice would cost the same as one of the “juice drinks” that contain maybe 10-10% fruit juice and the rest is HFCS and water, is something you can easily disprove yourself at the grocery store. Look at the cost of a bottle of Minute Maid 100% fruit juice and then at the cost of one of their “juice drinks” like Berry Punch and see the price difference. Often a “juice drink” costs half of what 100% fruit juice costs.

Better, healthier food is something we all want for our children but please, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that it can be done easily or on the cheap, because it can’t. The issue shouldn’t be whether healthier meals cost more up front, but rather how much more we as a society pay to deal with the aftereffects of dealing with kids who are both overweight and malnourished from eating a diet of crappy food. It costs more now to feed them better school food, but society saves down the road when kids are healthy and can learn. As has been pointed out, though, that is a hard argument to make to our (underfunded) schools when they are not the ones bearing the brunt of the higher medical costs these kids incur as a result of their unhealthy diets.

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Kelly the Kitchen Kop November 18, 2010 at 11:37 am

Bettina,

I love that you have shared your concerns about Jane’s ideas – getting ALL of the information and issues out there will only help in the long run, thanks for being so involved and making a difference!

Kelly

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bettina elias siegel November 18, 2010 at 11:39 am

Kelly: Thanks for not hating me for being a contrarian! :-) – Bettina

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Kelly the Kitchen Kop November 18, 2010 at 11:41 am

Never! We’re on the same team. :)

Tracy makes a good point, though. Jane has done research on this stuff for years, I’m trying to contact her, hoping she’ll jump into the conversation in the comments over at my blog.

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anthony November 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

aren’t you providing truthful information because you care about the health of school children and, in turn, how their health affects everyone?

“I love you, and because I love you, I would sooner have you hate me for telling you the truth than adore me for telling you lies.”
– Pietro Aretino (Italian Poet)

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Dr. Susan Rubin November 18, 2010 at 11:58 am

Bettina,

Without significant numbers of active advocates in your community, you’ll never get far with Aramark, a billion dollar corporation. This is truly a David and Goliath struggle and the corporation will not give in easily. They are required by law to return a profit to their share holders.

Most important thing to do: educate. Raise the Food IQ of your community. Jane Hersey and the Feingold Association have loads of important information about food additives that your community will benefit from understanding.

Another really important piece that needs to happen with your HISD is a full disclosure of all ingredients in the food. You’re an attorney, you know about informed consent. Without those ingredients parents are unable to make that informed consent to let their kids eat cafeteria food.

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Ed Bruske November 18, 2010 at 12:15 pm

One thing that’s lacking in the school food debate is a clear understanding of what happens in the back of the house in school cafeterias. Generally, school food operations are not only under-funded, but under-managed and under-equipped to operate in an efficient, business-like fashion. Which helps explain why so many schools have opted to hire a food management company. It’s not a simple matter at all of just switching ingredients or giving the “lunch ladies” a new stove. Schools really need a massive intervention where management is concerned. They just don’t have the know-how or the motivation to make the big changes. That said, advocates also need to work on their talking points about what school food should look like and how we realistically get there in a world where most people don’t seem to care.

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Dr. Susan Rubin November 18, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Part of the deal is changing the world so that people do start to care. Call me idealist, but if we can raise the Food IQ of the key administrators, parents and kids, we’ll be able to accomplish our goal of food that is good for kids and good for the planet.

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Alyssa McPherson November 18, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I know this idea won’t work in many schools, but what about using parent and other volunteers to prepare food? I’m even thinking that the high school that butts up to my kids elementary and middle schools could have a cooking/food prep class and those teens could be the ones making lunch (for school credit, but otherwise FREE). Do you know of any schools who are doing this?

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal November 18, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Spring Branch ISD doesn’t allow anyone except trained and certified cafeteria staff to “prepare” or serve food. no one is allowed “behind” the line.

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just a mom in mesquite November 18, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Some semi-bad news Bettina…with Houston being the largest ISD in Texas, ARAMARK in the mix, and hundreds of thousands of parents not willing to care “enough”…I’m thinking the only way to get ARAMARK to comply/listen is through the school board. They are the ones that put them under contract in the first place. They are the ones that get the bids, put the conditions on it, and make the decision.
Lady…you’re gonna have to run for a place on the school board. I’m serious.

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bettina elias siegel November 18, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Just a mom . . . That is SO not EVER happening. :-) (But I appreciate the vote of confidence.) But your point is a good one – we have to move the levers of power to achieve the greatest effect, and I agree that winning over the school board is key.

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Viki November 18, 2010 at 4:02 pm

bettina, you just almost said “never”…by saying “not ever” did you jinx yourself? Will you be running for school board soon? LOL.

You have the background and the platform. Now to raise your confidence.

One of the interesting things that was brought up by my heros Ed B. and Dr SuRu is ingredients and truely that is one of the biggies with Jane and the Feingold Association. Once the information about those additives and what they can do to little bodies is more common knowledge then Maybe the Big companies would have to knuckle under to demands.

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bettina elias siegel November 18, 2010 at 6:05 pm

NEVER. NOT EVER. AT NO TIME. NOT IN A MILLION YEARS. WHEN H-LL FREEZES OVER. WHEN PIGS FLY. Clear enough? :-) I’m just happy to sit at my computer and stir up trouble . . .

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Rhonda Cox November 18, 2010 at 7:36 pm

OK, I am not a Lawyer, nor am I a doctor – I do not have much, well no school lunch reform experience. But I do have 3 children and they do not often eat school lunch because it is repulsive and I would not feed that stuff to them at home. I understand the reality here that it undoubtedly costs more to prepare and purchase healthier foods. I struggle with that at home we are a working clas family and have a limited income. But, really in the full scope of what we are trying to do here is to allow children the opportunity to be fed healthier therefore leading healthier lives and having the experience to know there is better food out there and therefore encouraging their families to eat better as well. Which in turn would mean healthier people and less healthcare cost. Which would (if government could get it right) in turn take less taxes to pay for less Medicaid. Which in turn would allow more working class to (hopefully) have to pay less taxes and therefore could better afford better meals for their family and actually be able to pay for school lunches. Which in turn would allow schools to better afford healthier food. Also, someone has to work to pre prepare those processed foods. They don’t grow out of the ground already processed. We should be careful to check whether or not the labor that is preparing those foods is USA labor. Because if it isn’t then aren’t we kicking ourselfs in the behind! Because if we don’t provide jobs then how are we all going to work to better ourselves. Does anyone get what I am trying to say here? Really it all comes down to responsibility to your families, your children, your community, and your country. And yes, not everyone takes on the responsibility they should and yes some cannot for whatever take the full scope of responsibilty. But, most of us can and it starts at home, then in our communities and our schools. Lets all start taking responsibilty!

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bettina elias siegel November 19, 2010 at 9:05 am

Rhonda — I agree 100% with all you’ve said. As with many public policy issues, it seems so straightforward when you look at the big picture. Fix food, thereby improving long term health, short term behavior in school, the environment and the job market. But when you drill down, there are entrenched interests at every level that can make change so very, very hard. Thanks for commenting. – Bettina (And ps, didn’t mean to sound snooty with the “HAH-VAHD-trained lawyer” thing – I regret that in retrospect. I confess that Tracy really put me on the defensive and I was trying to make clear that, while I still am a newbie with tons to learn, I’m not a complete lightweight. But still – icky.)

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Renee November 18, 2010 at 8:49 pm

In looking over the Feingold site, it looks like they’ve done lots of research on additives, which is great stuff to know, but it doesn’t look like they’ve focused on the economic and political realities of the massive school lunch program. So I can see why you felt compelled to do a little “raining” –it is really important to understand the realities of trying to change this huge system.

Just thinking of trying to change some of these huge corporations makes me tired.

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Jane Hersey November 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Hi everyone — I wanted to answer a few questions/concerns that were raised by the folks above.
Renee notes that there is not much school food information on our main web site: http://www.feingold.org. She is correct; we developed a second site to hold all the information we had gathered….actually, it’s now only a portion of the information. That site is http://www.School-Lunch.org. I think it you click on the button on our home page that says School Lunch it will take you to it.

Dana — I’ve read about your wonderful work and called your home phone, in hopes of speaking with you, but I haven’t left a message.
You’re right about the cost of juice vs fake juice drinks. I should have explained that I never use the juice full strength myself and advise parents to cut it with about 75% water. I haven’t done the math, but suspect the cost would come out at least comparable to the junk juice.

I also haven’t done anything scientific about the comparable costs of individually packaged foods vs. buying them in bulk. But I recently priced the different versions of some foods. For example, the individual servings of Cheerios packaged in a plastic bowl cost a whopping $12 per pound at my local supermarket. A big box of Cheerios is far less, and I will be checking out Trader Joe’s version as I suspect that’s even less. But a school should be able to buy a huge bag of Cheerios from General Mills and save mucho dollars by serving it in washable bowls.
A few months ago I saw a study that showed schools can save money — even when you add in dish washing — by dishing out food instead of serving prepackaged items. But darned if I can find it. Does anyone know about it?

Rhonda is right on target, in my book. When you take a close look at how many problems in our society go back to cruddy food, it’s amazing! The constantly growing number of behavior, learning and health problems that are linked to a diet depleted of “good stuff” and full of “bad stuff” is truly shocking. Once my family started eating food, not petrol, the ear infections, migraines, and ADHD-type problems ended. This observation has been seen in many thousands of families that use the Feingold diet.

One final note….I surely don’t have the answers to all of the issues re school food. My goal is to share examples of what has worked in hopes that some of it can be useful for other people who are engaged in this important work. The information on the Vermont schools that are serving fabulous food at lower costs is real. The Philadelphia school that went from the bottom of the barrell to Blue Ribbon school is real. So is the food program that drastically changed the behavior of delinquent teens at an alternative high school in Wisconsin. All of these are real stories of real schools; please don’t dismiss them solely because they sound too good to be true.

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Dana Woldow November 21, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Jane, the best way for you (or anyone else) to contact me is via e-mail; I am at nestwife at owlbaby dot com

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Mrs. Q November 19, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Great post, Bettina. Terrific blog!

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bettina elias siegel November 21, 2010 at 8:48 am

coming from you, Mrs. Q . . . [Mrs. Q-groupie swoon]

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Sophie February 13, 2011 at 9:24 pm

You are so right on! The issues surrounding school lunch and the improvements that so many passionate parents and kids are clamoring for are complex and long-standing. Our company has been feeding kids since the early 1990s and the changes we have seen, and which we have pushed for have taken years and years to manifest.
If it were as simple as “less processed foods,” “more funding,” and “committed parents,” our kids would not be inn the high sodium pickle they are in! Good for you for seeing all of the layers, and for not being naive about the interests pushing for the status quo!

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