August 20, 2009

School Lunch Reform: Now or Never
That's the sentiment in Kim Severson's hopeful NYT rundown on the status of national school lunch reform. Marking the inflection point upon which we teeter -- at least according to Severson -- is the fact that the self-named "renegade lunch lady" Ann Cooper has been invited to speak at the School Nutrition Association's annual meeting.

Cooper, as I wrote previously, established her reputation by overhauling Berkeley, California's school lunch program (with some help from Alice Waters' foundation) and is now moving on to the much larger Boulder, Colorado school district. Meanwhile, the SNA, a food industry-funded association of cafeteria managers (for a detailed backgrounder, see this Tom Philpott post), has a reputation for embracing the processed and the fried. Cooper on the other hand pioneered the "Lunch Box" -- "a system she developed to help school districts wean themselves from packaged, heavily processed food and begin cooking mostly local food from scratch."

Frankly, it's worth marveling at this development a bit more. Back in July, Tom Philpott at Grist ran across comments Cooper previously made at her own blog concerning the SNA's annual convention (in front of which she will shortly be speaking). Said Cooper:

Imagine if Las Vegas built a Costco-themed hotel with a particular emphasis on chicken nugget samples and then filled the building with lunch ladies. That's the best way I can describe the School Nutrition Association's annual food expo, which is taking place right now in Vegas' Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Every summer, thousands of lunch ladies flock to the show to sample the newest industry products for school lunch. They stroll through over 800 booths, tasting everything from popcorn chicken and mini cheeseburgers, to whole-grain doughnuts and blue-raspberry slushees. Forget flipping through cookbooks - today, this is the menu planning process for your kid's school cafeteria.

If you want a bird's eye view of the problems plaguing school food, this is the place to go. The expo boasted 40 booths showcasing ice cream, cakes, cookies, puddings and other desserts. Over 20 booths peddled poultry (mostly breaded) and 20 more featured beef products. Pizza showed up at 12 booths. Fresh fruits and vegetables showed up at only 10.
My personal favorite from the show was the Crazy Apple. In an attempt to get kids to eat more fruit, this company has developed apples that taste like bubble gum, cotton candy and tropical blast.

So that's where the SNA is coming from. Given that, I suppose it's true that putting Cooper in a room next to the Crazy Apples display to talk about plain old apples does indeed represent a watershed moment for reform.

Severson does not, however, spend nearly as much time as I just did on Cooper and the SNA -- she instead does an admirable job sketching out the main elements supporting (and standing in the way of) reform. The whole piece is worth a read but a few notable nuggets stand out. First, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of NY is getting behind an increase in the cost per lunch amount of $.70 (which would be added to the $2.68 the USDA currently spends per lunch in the program).

That may not seem like a lot but, as Jill Richardson observes, it's almost double the increase the SNA requested in congressional hearings in the spring and it's approaching the $1 increase that Cooper herself advocates. Severson also covers Michelle Obama's efforts to raise awareness on school lunch reform as well as the strongly supportive comments from Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, Ag Sec Tom Vilsack's number two. Even Slow Food USA's "Time for Lunch" campaign to raise awareness and money for school lunch programs gets a mention.

But it's this bit that sums up the challenge reformers face:
[Some argue] that the U.S.D.A. has a conflict of interest it must resolve: One part of the agency is charged with feeding children nutritious food and another helps large agricultural companies sell surplus food like beef and chicken that is usually processed into packaged products like taco meat or nuggets.
And that conflict was on full display today. At virtually the same time that Merrigan was talking up school lunch reform in the NYT piece, her boss was in Iowa reassuring farmers (via the AP) that these USDA commodity purchase programs aren't about to go away. Their economic impact is simply too great to consider abandoning them:
"This is probably the most direct stimulus you can get in terms of its ability to get into the economy quickly," Vilsack said.

Vilsack pointed to purchases of pork products as an example of how the government is helping producers.

Those purchases came as Iowa Gov. Chet Culver and the governors of eight other pork-producing states sent a letter earlier this month seeking federal help for a pork industry struggling from soaring feed prices and a drop in demand blamed on the swine flu, which prompted dozens of nations to reduce US pork imports.

In the letter, the governors urged the federal government to expand its purchase of pork for various nutrition programs to prop up prices.

"We are cognizant of the need for help," Vilsack said. "We purchased about $117 million of pork through various commodity programs, about 72 million pounds."

Vilsack said his department has used virtually all the money it's been given, and would support efforts to expand the purchase programs.
I don't doubt for a minute that both Vilsack and Merrigan are sincere in their desire for reform of the school lunch program. But at some point, they are going to have to address this issue. It's true that Vilsack's comments represent an attempt to dodge the laughable "swine flu bailout" Big Pork is requesting -- but it's also true that he does want to expand the purchasing programs. And a good portion of that food will end up in school lunches, most of it fried or otherwise heavily processed. As with health care, school lunch reform can't be all or nothing and there's plenty of room for improvement that has nothing to do with commodity purchases. But it certainly seems like the central contradiction at the heart of the national school lunch program remains as resistant as ever to reform.

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