School Meal Programs

~An Under Valued Part of Public Education~

“Hunger is not a conspicuous condition. It’s not like the sprained ankle that prevents a child from participating in gym class or the broken wrist that exempts a student from writing assignments. But it is just as pernicious.” ~ Kathleen Melville, Philadelphia Public School Teacher

cspan hearing on school meals

Left to Right:  Betti Wiggins, Scott Clements, Julia Bauscher, Katie Wilson, and Phil Muir

On September 4th, C-SPAN aired a Senate hearing on School Meal Programs. This hearing was called by the Senate Nutritional, Agricultural and Forestry Committee to provide interested parties an opportunity to provide clarification and make the case for re-ratification of the Child Nutrition Program as part of the Healthy Hunger Free Student Act (2010).

85% of the 400,000 CPS school students receive free and reduced meals. This program exists in 522 schools (not including the 142 contract and charter schools). Equally important as the availability of meals is the quality and nutritional value of the food being served. If schools are serving unappetizing meals, students may choose junk food or other off-site options. And I suppose if the food is bad enough, some kids may choose to skip a meal.

mindbodygreen school lunch

The hearing panel consisted of several school food services program directors, school officials, suppliers and association executives:

  • Betti Wiggins, Executive Director, Detroit Public Schools Office of Food Services
  • Scott Clements, Office of Health Schools & Child Nutrition Director, Mississippi Department of Education
  • Julia Bauscher, School & Community Nutrition Services Director, Jefferson County Public School, Louisville, KY
  • Katie Wilson, Management Institute Executive Director, University of Mississippi, National Food Service Association and President, School Nutrition Association
  • Phil Muir, President & CEO, Muir Copper Canyon Farms

cspan hearing on school meals - wiggins

Betti Wiggins of Detroit, was clear in stating that the meal program is not a welfare program. She’s more concerned about the suburban kids that are not being reached than the low-income students because they are covered with extensive outreach. It’s those kids who live at the end of the cul-de-sac in the middle-class neighborhoods that are falling through the cracks. After all, 1 in 5 children in the U.S. are classified as food insecure. These tough economic times have crossed class and cultural boundaries.

cspan hearing on school meals - gillibrand

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand believes by educating students on proper nutrition, we have a good chance of changing their future health. She is lobbying for a spending increase of $0.35 per student in the school meal program (bringing total to $3.27). Gillibrand says the $2.92 we are currently spending per child is not enough for most schools to purchase high quality foods. Especially fruits and vegetables.

Gillibrand was adamant about the need to maintain nutritional standards and introduce students to whole foods at an early age.   As she said, “the fruits and vegetables required at each school meal, may not be what children are accustomed to eating at home but it will be the best for them”.

Read on for my take on the hearing or click here to watch the C-SPAN hearing on School Meal Programs.  They discussed the following topics:

  • Funding (equipment, food, staffing and education)
  • Food quality and menu design
  • Staffing
  • Standardization and USDA requirements
  • Supplier access/pricing (collaborations for lower pricing)
  • School lunch trends
  • Student health impact

cspan hearing on school meals 2

Funding (equipment, food, staffing and education) – Budget is critical to ensure all aspects of a school meal program can operate efficiently and in a manner able to comply with USDA requirements and nutritional best practices. This includes hiring and training necessary staff and consultants and procuring food and equipment. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, many schools have to make a choice between food purchases and staffing. As a result, some roles are eliminated or become consolidated and assumed by already overwhelmed resources

Food quality and menu design – Schools often don’t have access to staff with the skills and knowledge necessary to design appealing and nutritionally balanced meals. As USDA compliance requirements change, so will the necessary qualifications for food service and administrative staff. For instance, as some schools shift from serving cold meals or re-heating pre-packaged items, they will need staff qualified to cook hot meals. It’s critical to have the right items on the menu as well. Wiggins (Detroit) and Scott Clements (Mississippi) stated how culturally significant items such as grits, biscuits and other southern or soul food items can be found on their district school menus. This is all in an effort to not only represent their student body but to serve familiar items that will be eaten and not wasted.

Staff education – Having appropriately trained staff is key to designing and maintaining a high-functioning meal program. Katie Wilson (School Nutrition Association) mentioned that best practices should include either having a nutritionist on staff or hiring a part-time resource who can provide program oversight. Without the ability to adhere to requirements of grant programs, schools are forced to return the funds. According to Gillibrand, over 50% of funds are being returned to the USDA annually. SNA offers pro-bono training and consulting services to school districts nationwide.

Standardization – As the government seeks to ensure all students receive meals, the meal programs are becoming more complex and comprehensive. We currently have an expansion of breakfast and evening meals. In addition, the government is making a valiant effort to address the alarming rate of obesity and related health issues amongst public school students. The most chronic illness being Type II diabetes which is rising amongst grammar school students. This is something that is usually an adult on-set condition.

Supplier access/pricing (collaborations for lower pricing) – When it comes to providing fresh fruit and vegetables, studies show you will only get an increased uptake amongst students if you are providing quality produce. Schools or districts which do not have the ability to negotiate affordable pricing are left to purchase low-grade items which are usually not selected by students or simply thrown away (referred to as tray waste). Wiggins (Michigan) stated that they are experiencing great success in reduced costs by establishing collaboratives which enable multiple districts to purchase quality produce at a much cheaper price (e.g. $0.15 for an apple vs $0.40).

School Lunch trends – Katie Wilson (School Nutrition Association) mentioned the trends in lower free and reduced meal enrolments. She also discussed the relationship with reduced participation in the school meal programs in general. If students who can afford to purchase lunch, choose not to participate in school lunch programs, then we are left with only low-income students in the lunchrooms. This will create a stigma around eating school lunches.

The issue of food insecurity has crossed class and cultural boundaries.  We will need to band together across those same boundaries to solve the problem.

Other Reading

Feature Photo Credit:  http://mindbodygreen.com

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Categories: Activism, Education, Health, Interests, Social

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