by Sara Mead
I’m sorry, Ezra, your privilege is showing. Lunch doesn’t have to cost $5. Modest and moderate income families routinely prepare healthful dinners at under $5 for the entire family. Check out magazines like Family Circle, Redbook, and Real Simple sometime to see how. Sure, some of these recipes are for things like beef taco casserole that may not be so healthy, but a lot of them are for healthy, kid-friendly dishes* healthy, kid-friendly dishes. And if individual families can feed their kids for under $2 a plate, the costs of doing so at scale–with wholesale purchasing, efficiencies of scale, and so forth–ought to be even cheaper.
The bigger issue here, though, is labor, which home cooks don’t have to face. It’s a big cost factor if you seriously want to improve the quality of school lunches. It’s also a political obstacle. We can talk at length about the national level political hurdles to altering agricultural subsidies in order to improve quality of school lunch. But the fact that school lunch programs provide a ready supply of patronage jobs for local officials to hand out to low-skill workers are also an important political challenge. And it’s a capacity issue: Are there enough people out there with the capacity to design, implement, and prepare quality nutritious food for the 50 million public school students out there?
Given those issues, I think Tom’s probably right: Any scalable solution to this problem (and to have impact it has to be scalable) must involve a combination of both some of the things Ezra and Waters want (more fresh fruits and vegetables, more intensive and local-level preparation of food) and more creative use of mass produced and prepackaged foods that both are healthy AND appealing to kids. There’s no reason we can’t make good, appealing, and healthy pre-prepared, mass produced food for kids. Most applications of technology to mass-produced foods in the past century have been for bad, but there’s no reason we can’t make them a force for good. For example, to address a challenge that came up in comments earlier, we could invest in developing compact mini-kitchens that would allow low-skilled workers to prepare healthier meals, from a combination of pre-packaged and fresh ingredients, in schools that don’t currently have real kitchens.
I’m sympathetic to Ezra’s point about teaching kids to appreciate food and to cook. But I’m also very cognizant of the fact that we ask our schools to do an awful lot these days–much of which the people who run them have no particular training or innate aptitude in. Part of our goals for education reform should be to tap the incredible capacity of community-based and nonprofit groups to deliver supplemental and enrichment educational opportunities for children (either integrated into the school day or outside of it). The Citizen Schools program is just one great example of this that often provides kids an opportunity to learn about cooking and baking from skilled community mentors. The arts are an area where this would make a lot of sense, as would physical activity and food appreciation/cooking.
But I don’t think it’s wise to intermingle this issue with the issue of providing school lunches to kids. There’s a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in play here. School lunch (and breakfast–also terribly important, especially for low-income kids!) should, at a minimum, provide a healthful, appealing meal for kids that provides them the nutrients they need to concentrate in school and learn to read, write, do math, master content in science and social studies and think critically. Unfortunately, it too often doesn’t do that now. Ask teachers who have to deal with elementary school students bouncing off the walls after an all-too-sugary breakfast of pop tarts or pancakes, or teenagers who are catatonic after too heavy lunches of mystery meat and mashed potatoes. Let’s fix that problem—utilizing a full-range of both high- and low-brow strategies–before moving on to the more complicated and fraught issues of teaching kids to cook and appreciate food.
*Apologies, folks: I was writing too fast, and the initial link was wrong: It was to a recipe that cost almost $5 a person. But you don’t have to spend $5 a person for decent food. More than half of the cost of that recipe was meat, and that meat was budgeted at $2.62 cents per person. But you can buy chicken, lean pork cuts, and lean beef cuts at the grocery store for less than $5 a pound (and much cheaper if you’re buying on sale and freezing, or, as, appropos this post, buying wholesale), and kids should NOT be eating more than a quarter pound of meat at any meal.