Of Pragmatism, Pretension, and $5 School Lunches

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.


15 responses to “Of Pragmatism, Pretension, and $5 School Lunches

  1. NotAlwaysPretentious

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you in principle, but are you aware that your “healthy kid-friendly dishes” link is to a meal that costs $4.90 per person? It doesn’t blow Ezra’s $5 out of the water.

  2. Ack: You’re right–and that’s absurd. I totally misread that: If you’re spending $2.62 a serving on meat, you’re either eating way too much meat, or buying meat that’s super expensive.

    Here are some better examples: http://www.squawkfox.com/2008/07/29/5-cheap-easy-and-healthy-family-dinners-for-5/

  3. Plus, the $5/meal for four doesn’t include the free labor you provide by, you know, cooking at home.

  4. Oops, perhaps I should read entire posts before going off half-cocked in the comments.

  5. I’ve got to tell you that the $5 what the Mount Kisco Child Care center spends on food for each child daily. That includes breakfast, snack and lunch. Their food is all locally and regionally sourced and they have gardens that all the toddlers, preschoolers and after schoolers are involved with. Those kids and their parents benefit greatly from better food and a higher Food IQ. A very worthwhile investment in our future.

  6. Great post, Sara — thank you for more thoughtfully discussing points I only grunted toward.

    Dr. Rubin: I appreciate that you like the Mount Kisco program; I’m sure it’s a good one, and I hope that other schools that can afford similar programs pursue them. But if this is a nationwide initiative, we need more concrete proof of what we’re getting for our money than assertions that the kids benefit and that their “Food IQ” is improved.

    There’s plenty of evidence showing that there are educational benefits to making sure a child is properly fed. I suspect the marginal benefit begins to decline precipitously as you pass that bar. And it is a *very* low bar: kids don’t need much food, and putting together a nutritionally balanced meal isn’t rocket science.

  7. Ezra’s point featured the idea that the ingredients for these meals would cost 90 cents per person, plus some variable labor costs. With that idea in mind, it doesn’t exactly sound like you two are disagreeing all that much.

  8. I think the Examiner recipe numbers must be $5 for the whole thing (four servings), not per serving. There’s no way, for example, that 3/4 tsp of garlic costs 40 cents.

  9. I actually don’t understand this post at all. Without a better idea of the constituent costs in a school lunch, it’s hard to say how much is or is not enough. That is my point. $5 may be too much. Or it may not be.

    The dinner you link to costs $4.90 for nothing but ingredients and includes few costs for labor, custodial services, etc (you can argue that some of those costs are built into the supermarket mark-up, but I’m guessing the supermarket is rather lower cost labor than the school. And you know better than most how hard it is to change educational labor practices). Others are somewhat cheaper. Not much.

    If we’re paying 30 cents for ingredients now, which was the estimate used originally (this study indicates it’s actually closer to 88 cents), I’m not willing to say that that it’s obviously illegitimate for that to move to $1.70. Or even $3 — which is still less than the price of the ingredients in the dinners you link to. I’m surprised that you are. If that demonstrates my “privilege,” then so be it.

  10. guys: we pay out of pocket cost of $1.70 or $1.90 a day per kid for lunches at a parochial school here in Philly. Some families at the school get a subsidy or free lunches. Not us, though.

    I don’t know if there’s any other outside money from the state or Church here, but I kinda suspect most if not all of the outside funding flows to lower income families. In other words, I believe we’re paying full or nearly full freight for this food.

    It’s not the most exciting food at times, but the kids like it. Hell, my four year old isn;t even that adventurous anyway. He doesn’t do exotic.

  11. Maybe I’m an overprivileged yuppie, but those squawkfox recipes look both awful and skimpy.

    Take the fourth one. If someone said my dinner consisted of one tortilla, a third of a cup of cooked chickpeas, a tablespoon of grated mozzarella, ten leaves of spinach and a slice of tomato, with some chili pepper and a few drops of olive oil, I’d wonder why they thought I was on a diet. The entire recipe, which supposedly serves four, comes to about 1000 calories. Inadequate in flavor, inadequate in nutrition. Yeech.

    Does anyone have suggestions for frugal, nutritious recipes that taste good and aren’t frugal by virtue of ridiculously small portions?

  12. I take it back… they’re dried chickpeas, so the calories for dinner for a family of four comes to around 1300. Still stingy for non-dieting adults, or anyone over the age of seven, and still, I imagine, unattractive to children.

    It’d be interesting for you food-bloggers to actually try out these recipes. See for yourself if this virtually cheeseless “quesadilla” is appealing.

  13. Pingback: Follow Up 2: School Lunches/Trader Joes “commerical” « relishments.

  14. Pingback: Chef Ann Cooper : Renegade Lunch Lady » Blog Archive » Tom Philpott & The Grist on School Lunch

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