by Tom Lee
Ezra and I have been going back and forth a bit in the comments to his post about Alice Waters’ school lunch proposal — I think the $5-per-lunch number she’s quoting is ridiculously high. I found my latest addition to the thread beginning to sprawl, so I thought I might as well just turn it into a post and see if pushing it to the top of the page can spur further discussion.
It is certainly true that kids can be fed very cheaply, and it may be true that there is somewhere between $2.40 and $5.00 where you’re also feeding kids a healthy lunch and supporting the sort of local food economies you want to sustain. But given that a McDonald’s meal costs around $5, I’m skeptical. And it’s not clear to me why subsidizing a $5 for kids who can’t afford it is an excessive amount here.
I think the “you can get fast food meals for $5” argument is telling. Yes, we can safely assume that fast food ingredients are worse quality than what we’d like to feed schoolchildren. However, that fast food menu price also reflects commercial rent; substantial marketing expenditures; and much more food, and meat, than is necessary for a kid (or anyone, frankly).
Using the numbers Ezra quotes earlier in his comment, if we assume labor and equipment costs remain fixed but decide to pay three times as much for ingredients — a huge jump! — Waters’ estimate would still be about 50% too high.
I suspect there are reasons for this — reasons which invalidate my assumption of fixed labor costs. From reading the linked article, it’s clear that Waters is envisioning menus that are healthier, that rely more on on-site production and fresh ingredients, and which she and her supporters find more personally compelling. That’s all fine, but I’d say that only the first of those should be an actual policy goal. Adding “and kids will eat it” is probably worth doing, too.
There’s really no good reason to dismiss frozen foods or centralized production. I understand that Waters isn’t a fan of those things; that’s understandable given her credentials and background. But the goal here is to wind up with healthier kids, not to train itty bitty aesthetes. I like eating sophisticated food, too, but it’s a luxury good — and one that would be wasted on most kids, anyway. There’s simply no compelling case for favoring a casserole or soup produced on-site in a school over a frozen one if they’re both using the same recipe and same quality of ingredients. Yes, factory-produced food is frequently unhealthy. But the the idea that there’s some inherent health disadvantage to food produced through economies of scale is just a lazy heuristic.
If our goal is really to feed these kids properly then we ought to be looking seriously at how to make that happen rather than musing about the Platonic ideal of the school lunch. That means being realistic about how to achieve our goals as simply and cheaply as possible. And here it really does seem simple: brutally reduce kids’ unhealthy lunchroom options, come up with approved national menus and fund the existing school lunch infrastructure a little bit better.
I believe this is a genuinely important thing for us to do, and such a relatively easy thing that there’s no justifiable reason for failing to do so. So I got a little irked when I saw Waters throwing around terms like “organic” and “locally produced” in her proposal. I enjoy foodie pretension as much as the next guy (ask me about my strongly-held opinions regarding shallots as a sandwich onion replacement!), but dicking around with that nonsense while middle schoolers are contracting diabetes is frankly inexcusable. This crusade deserves to happen, but Waters is the wrong person to lead it.