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.)
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.]