NEW YORK – Had you told me a year ago that I would attend a conference devoted to school lunches, I would have laughed. The closest that I have come to eating a school lunch lately is coach-class food on long-haul flights.
But earlier this month I attended School Food FOCUS’s “National Gathering.” I found it both heartwarming and thought-provoking.
A little context: In the United States, subsidized school lunches started in 1946 as a welfare program – but one focused on the welfare of farmers, not schoolchildren. The primary purpose was to help farmers get rid of – I mean, distribute generously – their surplus production.
The program was gradually transformed over the years as students, whether out of choice or necessity, increasingly came to rely on school lunch rather than bringing their own. The percentage of children who qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch has grown – to 48%, or about 20 million – and school lunch (and increasingly, breakfast and even dinner) is now a significant part of many children’s diets.
Now, new legislation mandates better nutrition, bans sugary drinks and sweets, and forbids the parallel sale of unhealthy alternatives to the main menu (which had been a major source of funding for subsidized lunches). But the new laws do not specify how healthy lunches are to be provided, and local communities are still expected to provide the funding (except for the surplus commodities). It is one thing to enact legislation; building the infrastructure to implement it and, in this case, offer a healthy meal for about $1.50 per child is another matter.
Indeed, how to change school lunches has more to do with money and business than with health and nutrition. (The latter goals are clear; the challenge is how to achieve them.) School Food FOCUS, an arm of the New York-based non-profit Public Health Solutions, convenes its members – food managers from 36 large US school districts, serving more than four million children daily – and brings in researchers, partner philanthropies (mostly healthy-food advocates), and food vendors. Indeed, FOCUS turns the vendors into allies – and sponsors. The National Gathering was a trade show as much as an event for bureaucrats and philanthropists.
I expected to hear about lobbying efforts and nutrition, but mostly I learned about supply chains. The discussion focused mainly on how food can be procured, prepared, and delivered within the constraints of pricing, availability, and each school district’s facilities (which determine what kind of food they can prepare and serve).
The school lunch program is the largest discrete market for low-cost, healthy food. But most food vendors would rather follow the dictates of their shareholders and sell more expensive, higher-margin food, with little regard for how healthy it is. For years, they have complained that children (and adults) reject healthy food in favor of less-healthy food that tastes good. Now, increasingly pushed toward healthy foods by government regulations, the school-food vendors are trying to figure out how to boost both healthiness and tastiness, because the government requires that schools measure not what the children are offered but what they select (though not what they actually eat rather than throw away).
One could argue that a government cannot and should not control what people eat. But in this unique market, it is the government that is paying and the customers are incapable – at least in legal terms – of choosing what is in their own best interest. That creates an ideal test environment not just for school suppliers, but also for the broader food market.
The challenge to the vendors is straightforward: make cheap, healthy food that appeals to the world’s most finicky eaters, grade-school kids. To do that, the first question to answer is what makes school food so bad.
Aside from the focus on price and the need to absorb US farms’ excess output, school lunches reflect a broader trend toward turning food preparation into industrial production. Uniformity is prized above quality, and convenience is valued over freshness (and often over cost).
Restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, for example, have transformed agriculture around the world with their homogenizing requirements for meat, bread, potatoes, and the like. Under the assumption that consistency equals quality, variation in the size or color of, say, tomatoes has come to be considered bad (unless one calls them “heirloom” tomatoes and emphasizes their uniqueness).
In schools, too, pre-packaged foods are now considered better than hand-prepared foods, not only because they can be set out again on Tuesday if the kids do not eat them on Monday, but also because they all look alike.
This trend is now being reversed in school food, thanks to legislative innovations such as allowing a preference (of up to about 10%) for locally grown products. But there is another issue: serving better school lunches often requires restoring the food-preparation facilities that existed before. Instead of loading docks to unpack boxes and store packages, schools need stoves, refrigerators, cooking utensils, and serving dishes, among other things.
One speaker at the National Gathering noted that it is easier to obtain funding for capital equipment than for daily food purchases. And vendors such as Revolution Foods, founded by two mothers of school-age children, provide not only food, but also nutrition curricula for students, and even vocational training for food workers.
Like most large-scale social change, the shift to mass consumption of healthier food requires both awareness and capacity. Just as recycling has gained currency through both regulation and a new social consciousness, vendors who learn how to sell healthy food to schools may someday tap a much larger adult market, whether because of regulation, a change in expectations, or the simple fact that their customers have grown up.