Every time I write about school food, a few readers leave a comment saying essentially that this is a no-brainer, why can't schools just serve healthier food?
I think most of us could probably agree on what a healthy lunch would look like -- something along the lines of low sugar, nothing fried, fresh fruits and vegetables, am I right? So then why can't schools deliver fresh, healthy food to students?
Well, it's complicated. How complicated? Hunter College Sociology professor Janet Poppendieck wrote a whole book on the subject ...
Herewith, the top five reasons why it's so hard to fix school food.
1. USDA conflict of interest -- The Federal school food program is run by the USDA, whose mission is to support and promote agriculture. Delivering nutritious food to children is kind of a secondary goal.
2. Money -- It's cheaper to mass-produce chicken nuggets and deliver them frozen to schools than it is to deliver whole chicken legs. It's cheaper for schools to pay people to reheat frozen food than to cook from scratch. Also, just about every big food manufacturer out there has a lobby group making sure school food serves them, and not vice-versa.
3. Subsidies -- Why are those chicken nuggets so cheap? Partly because many of the ingredients come from cheap subsidized commodity crops (well, actually you're helping to pay for those ingredients with your taxes).
4. Outdated nutritional guidelines -- The original school food guidelines were written back during the Great Depression when the US had a large population of underfed children. They've been updated a little since then, but the changes still don't reflect today's nutritional needs. And every time nutritional standards get tweaked, those Big Food lobby groups swoop in to make sure we don't do anything crazy like prioritize healthy fresh vegetables over batter-fried meat byproducts and HFCS-filled milk.
5. Not enough parents are demanding change -- Obviously there are plenty of bad players here, but real change isn't going to happen until the USDA and food manufacturers start hearing more from you good people, parents who care about nutrition.
What do you think should be done to fix school food?
Image via University of California Press