by Sara Mead
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his wife visited DC Prep, a public charter school in Northeast Washington, D.C., today and ate lunch with students as part of National School Lunch Week–which administration officials are making the most of in an effort to boost the president’s proposal to invest more in improving the quality of federally-subsidized school lunches.
DC Prep was selected because it is one of a growing number of D.C.-area schools served by Revolution Foods, a rapidly growing company that contracts with schools and school districts to provide fresh, healthy lunches for students. After launching in the Bay Area in 2006, Revolution Foods expanded to the District of Columbia this year, where it is serving an increasing number of local charter schools.
Revolution Foods’ meals, which include locally sourced and organic ingredients, cost more (around $3) than comparable providers or what the federal school lunch program provides ($2.68)–in some ways lending support to arguments that giving kids healthier lunches will require more money–but less than the $5 that Alice Waters and other healthy lunch advocates have argued for. Obama’s proposal to increase funding may help put healthier options in reach for more schools.
Because of its rapid growth and some high profile fans–such as Duncan–Revolution Foods has been getting a lot of press lately–and has been coming in for some criticism. In general, I think providing schools and districts another option for school lunch, and one that’s focused on providing healthy meals for kids at a competitive price point, is a good thing–but I’m not personally familiar with the company, have never eaten its food, and am in no position to make recommendations one way or another as to the desirability of schools or districts contracting with Revolution Foods.
That said, two criticisms of the company that I’ve been hearing lately really get my goat:
1. “Privatization of School Lunch is not the solution.” Ok, I’ve been working on policy issues related to charter schools for a long time, so this is nothing new. But I think it’s BS (for more than you ever wanted to read on why this debate is BS generally, see my colleagues Rick Hess and Andy Rotherham here, here and here). For starters, schools have always purchased some goods and services from the private sector–we don’t hear a lot of bitching and moaning about the privatization of chalkboard and chalk provision to schools, for example. Specifically, it is extremely common for schools and districts these days to contract with private providers for school lunches–as the District of Columbia Public Schools currently do with Chartwell Group. More fundamentally, we expect schools to do an awful lot of things–transport kids to and from school, provide them with breakfast and lunch, manage buildings, provide athletic and extracurricular activities–and, oh, by the way TEACH KIDS something while they’re at it. A lot of the things schools need to do to operate are actually pretty far afield from the core business of teaching and learning that should be the central focus of principals and district administrators, and it’s actually slightly weird to expect a single organization to be able to do all these things well (although, certainly, more power to those that can). If school district leaders can better focus on teaching and learning by getting lunch provision off their plates and in the hands of a competent contractor that can provide quality meals, then by all means they should do that. The issue shouldn’t be whether the entity providing the lunch is “public” or “private” but the quality of the meals they’re providing to kids. And evidence certainly suggests that a lot of meals currently being provided–both by school-operated programs and private contractors–are nasty, unhealthy stuff. Additional options that provide better quality, whether public or private, should be embraced.
2. To really teach kids the value of food and healthy eating habits, schools need to prepare healthy meals on site. Revolution Foods is able to do what it does because it hires chefs to prepare meals at a central facility and then delivers them to schools throughout a metro area, where they are reheated and served. This is important because it cuts down labor costs and because many schools–especially charters–don’t have their own kitchens. Some critics seeking to reform the school lunch program see this as perpetuating a bigger problem, rather than offering a solution.
These critics–in the Alice Waters model–would like to replace the current school lunch system not just with healthier meals for kids, but with a new model in which children actively participate in gardening, harvesting food, and preparing meals, and the school lunch program serves not just to fill kids’ bellies but also to teach them to value food and make healthy food choices. As Tom Philpott at Grist writes, “At a time when relatively few kids have parents who regularly cook at home, isn’t showing the a a bustling open kitchen full of people cooking an important educational tool?”
I think this is the wrong focus to be taking. To begin with, as Philpott notes, many–if not most–U.S. schools don’t actually have the physical infrastructure needed to produce health, “home-cooked” style meals for kids from scratch on site. But this is hardly the only area in which our schools have suffered from serious underinvestment in infrastructure–HVAC systems, electrical wiring, roofs, all are in desperate need of overhaul in schools across the coutnry. I’m hopeful that more federal dollars for school facilities may be coming down the pike in the future, but even if they are, advocates need to make the case that investing in school kitchens yields real bang for the buck, in terms of either savings or child outcomes, and should be prioritized over or on par with other facilities investments, including those, such as gyms or greenhouses, that might also help kids be healthy and learn to value food.
A bigger obstacle than physical capital to cooking quality school lunches on site in each school is lack of human capital–skilled chefs to prepare tasty, healthful meals from scratch in each of our nation’s 95,000 schools. It’s not just that it’s expensive–I’m not sure people who can and want to do that job exist at that scale, and even if they did, good luck getting them into jobs that have traditionally been a rich source of patronage jobs.
But ultimately, I just find the logic here really screwy. Preparing meals at the scale needed for an entire school (the average U.S. elementary school serves about 500 kids; middle and high schools are bigger) looks nothing like cooking for one’s self at home, and is an inherently aesthetically unappealing process that I’m not sure actually can achieve the desired effect. More fundamentally, the idea that simply having great cooking going on in a school is going to somehow transform children’s attitudes and key them into the value of food reflects a really flawed–but not uncommon–understanding of how kids learn–like the (disproven) belief that if you just surround kids with books, read to them, and teach them to love books, they’ll become great readers without any of that unpleasant instruction in decoding or vocabulary (they won’t!). Kids don’t learn things or pick up values by osmosis. Teaching kids to appreciate the value of food and understand what good choices are requires a curriculum and intentional experiences of cooking and eating for children.
The goal of the school lunch program should be to provide children with healthy meals they give them an adequate amount of the right nutrients to grow and learn, that are appealing and tasty so that kids want to eat them, and that don’t contribute to obesity, or leave kids so weighed down with carbs and fat they fall asleep in afternoon classes, or so hyped up on sugar they can’t concentrate. Such meals should not undermine–as too many current school lunches do–the messages we want to convey to children about healthy eating and good choices. But lunches can’t teach kids those messages–only adults can. And there are probably more efficient ways to do that than transforming the school lunch program into an Alice Waters fantasy.
Yes we need to spend more on school lunch programs and give kids healthier foods. But we also need to be realistic about what our system is capable of delivering, what it’s really necessary to accomplish, and how kids learn.