Has a decade of school food reform resulted in healthier lunches?

Change is hard to detect when you look at what’s actually being eaten

April 14, 2014

(Monica Eng/WBEZ)
The 42-ingredient chicken patty sandwich is still the most-eaten entree in Chicago Public Schools.

More than a decade ago, a few American reformers launched a major movement to improve the quality of school meals. In the ensuing years Congress has passed laws and schools have adopted their reforms. But what has really changed on the plate?

To get an idea we recently took a look at Chicago Public School menus and interviewed some of the leaders in school food reform.

This first look revealed that breakfast offerings in most CPS schools last week featured strawberry flavored pancakes, French toast sticks and pancakes wrapped around a sausage on a stick. And for lunch? The district’s top three entrees include processed chicken patties, processed chicken nuggets and processed chicken crumbles over nachos.  Each of those chicken products alone contains dozens of ingredients.

After years of efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama and others to put real food on cafeteria tables, why are meals in one of the most obese districts in the nation still dominated by sugary and processed food?

“The schools have really been hijacked by the companies who are benefitting when children are fed and digest the values of fast food,” says Alice Waters, the mother of American cuisine and founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley where kids learn to grow and cook their food. “They are headed out to be consumers and that’s what we are doing in the schools and so it’s not surprising to me.”

Ann Cooper is a culinary school trained chef who was recruited by Waters to launch a fresh local meals program in the Berkeley schools 15 years ago. Today, Cooper has brought that mission to the Boulder Valley School District where she’s working to transform the the entire meal program.  But these kinds of programs are still few and far between.

“Considering that the National School Lunch Program has been around for 65 years and a good half of those years it has been serving bad food I think, in the last 10 years, we’ve made positive change in leaps and bounds,” Cooper said. “But it’s in small pockets and almost ethereal when it comes to what’s on children’s plates. It’s really good, but maybe not so much in a lot of places.”

We should note that WBEZ invited representatives from Michelle Obama’s office, Chicago Public Schools, including their caterer Aramark, and the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the lunch program, to speak for this story. They all either declined or did not respond.

According to both Waters and Cooper one big fundamental flaw in the system is that so many districts hire large for-profit companies to cater the meals. They say the program should be about maximizing quality rather than profits.

“The school district is trying to pay the least amount of money possible because they have a tight budget,” Cooper said. “Then they hire an outside contractor who is trying to make the most money possible because that’s their job as a multi-national corporation. So it’s really at odds with teaching children about food and serving the best food. It’s just a lose-lose situation for children.” 

In 2010 Sarah Wu stepped into this lose-lose situation. She took the school food world by storm by simply buying daily lunch, photographing it and writing about it on her anonymous blog called “Fed Up With Lunch.” It gave many readers their first glimpse of what was really on the plate, and in 2011 it became a book by the same name.

It was then that Wu finally revealed herself as a Chicago area mom, CPS speech pathologist and, finally, an open lunch crusader. 

“I think that I came to the conclusion that it’s such a thorny thing,” she said. “There are a lot of people who have stakes in the business of school lunch and I really stepped into a hornets nest when I stepped into that. And I think I was a bit naive about how much it could really change.”

These realizations and the arrival of a second child prompted Wu, last December, to drop out of the school food reform movement. At least for the time being.

But for those still in the fight, like Cooper, there are at least five major challenges that remain:

“Food, finance, facilities, human resources and marketing,” Cooper said. “We need to be able to find [food] and make sure that it’s good. The USDA foods have to be healthy.

The idea that we can have highly processed foods in schools has to change, but if we are going to change that we need to have kitchens and we need to be able to cook. If you are going to go from chicken nuggets to roast chicken you need ovens.”

Cooper notes that the USDA recently pledged $11 million for school kitchen upgrades, but she believes you’d need about a 100 times that much to do what’s really necessary.

This lack of funding frustrates many food advocates who say that an investment up front can lay an early, healthy food foundation for the nation’s most vulnerable children. They lament that in the last round of school lunch funding, Congress allocated just 6 cents more per meal to the program.

Waters worries this will have disastrous effects on many levels.

“There is hardly a country on this planet that doesn’t think of food as something important and people are willing to pay for it,” Waters says. “But in this country we are unwilling to pay for it. But when you have cheap food somebody pays for it. We pay for it with our health, but we really pay for it in the destruction of our environment and the wages of the people who grow that food.”  

Lack of money is a common complaint for school food caterers. They say that, when all is said and done, they're left with only about $1 to spend on food per meal. Many cite that as the main reason they turn to processed patties and nuggets. But Paul Boundas, whose Country House catering serves lunch to thousands of Chicago Catholic school students each day (even in majority low income schools), says a caterer can actually save on food costs by cooking whole foods from scratch each day. Boundas adds, however, that the caterer must be ready to invest in local jobs and a skilled work force rather than processed foods. 

One last obstacle for change is the fact that districts lose federal money when kids don’t take the meals. This presents a strong financial incentive to keep the nuggets and shun fresh food experimentation. For this reason, Cooper says it’s essential to make healthy delicious, and then educate the kids about why they should eat them.

“In Boulder right now we are doing 200 to 300 events a year,” she says. “We go into the cafeteria and work with the kids. We do Rainbow Days, we do tastings, we do chef demos, we do Iron Chef competitions. We work with kids on a daily basis to try new things. And that’s how we’re going to make the change. We’re not just going to give them high fat, high sugar, high salt unhealthy food because that’s what they think they want. Because that would not be an educational situation.”

But the question remains: If Chicago Public Schools ditched their processed food for something healthier, would they meet weeping and wailing, or would the children get on board?

There’s only way way to find out.

(Full disclosure: One of Monica Eng’s nine siblings works for a food company subcontracted by CPS to cater pre-prepared meals to many CPS schools without full kitchens.)

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org