Monday, April 25, 2011

Lobbyists, myths and outdated thinking hold back lunch programs

We really appreciated this Op-Ed from USA Today. One challenge Organic Fresh Fingers faces when we talk to schools about healthier lunch is the myth that it is impossible to provide healthier foods without losing money. School administrators are constantly telling us that kids won't eat healthier foods and that parents won't pay more for school lunch. Both of these statements are totally untrue. Children will eat food that is good tasting and good for them. And parents will pay more if the food is worth the price.

USA Today Editorial:

A typical lunch last year in the Adams 14 school district outside Denver featured chicken nuggets or a breaded chicken sandwich on a white-bread bun, french fries or Tater Tots, and a salad of iceberg lettuce and carrot shavings that came out of a bag. Parents and students across the country will recognize the menu from their own school cafeterias.

This week, though, Adams 14 is serving "turkey American subs" on whole wheat, roasted cauliflower, herb roasted potatoes, a fresh tossed salad and fresh fruit. Chocolate milk and fried potatoes have been banished. Most remarkably, the district, in a low-income industrial suburb, is feeding its 7,630 students for about the same money it spent last year.

While Adams and scores of other districts across the nation are proving that innovative thinking and strategies can improve school menus, the powers that be in Washington are waging food fights.

Last year, Congress took a big step toward combating child obesity and improving children's health when it passed new mandates for the federal school lunch and breakfast program. (Under the $11.5 billion program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses local districts for free and reduced-price meals at 100,000 schools. Students who don't qualify for subsidized meals pay rates set locally.)

Now, USDA is writing the program's new rules, and interests on all sides are pushing their agendas, some attempting to undo what Congress intended. For example, the National Potato Council wants — surprise! — more potatoes in school meals, while the proposed rules call for far less. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food directors, argues that the districts can't meet some of the new standards without more money and more time. This ignores the fact that there is no more money, and delay is the enemy when it comes to childhood nutrition.

All the players would do better keeping Congress' mandates in place and looking to the schools that are already doing it right. ...

In Burlington, Vt., food director Doug Davis runs his program "like a business." The district charges paying high school students $2.50 for lunch, close to the federal reimbursement rate for free lunches. Many districts give discounted meals to students who can afford to pay more, undermining the program's goals. ...

It's true that school districts, especially in poor communities, face daunting challenges in providing nutritious food. But often, myths and outdated thinking hold them back more than lack of money or time.

Cynthia Veney, the food director at Adams 14, says everybody told her if she got rid of chicken nuggets, the students would revolt. It didn't happen.

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