School lunch reformers
School lunch reform has become one of the rallying cries of the good food movement. It’s also a subject of great interest to me personally. Food Forward plans to devote an entire episode the subject. It’s a pretty easy cause to get behind, right? I mean,
who can argue against feeding kids healthy, fresh food? Unless you’re the federal government or a member of the industrial agricultural complex, just about everybody supports school lunch reform. The tricky part is actually pulling it off.
I spent two days in Los Angeles recently talking about the subject with teachers, administrators and students and I gained a new appreciation for the complexity of the issue. I visited the tiny WISH charter school in the Westchester neighborhood under the path of planes landing at LAX and I met David Binkle, deputy director of the LA Unified School District’s food service program. Because many schools lack even basic kitchen facilities, the solution isn’t simply preparing healthier food for kids. First, you’ve got to figure out where to make the food. Then you’ve got to find a way to pay for it.
Although it’s a public charter school, WISH stands outside the mammoth LAUSD and this gives the school a great deal of local control. The school is at the end of its first year. Before it opened, a dedicated parent spearheaded efforts to create a healthy food service program. After much research, the school contracted Revolution Foods, an Oakland-based company that makes healthy foods at centralized kitchens and then delivers them to school sites. There is no equipment on hand to make food at the school so the program is a great fit. In addition to the quality of the ingredients what’s cool about this program is parents can pre-order their kids’ food online, clicking no dairy, or vegetarian, basically whatever they want their kid to eat.
WISH, a K-5 school, is also incorporating a school garden into their curriculum where kids spend quality time tending vegetables and eating them. They’re also installing a chicken coop for Fluffy, a much-loved chicken. I was also able to connect them with the good folks at Annie’s Homegrown, one of our partners and a big believer in farm-to-table education. Annie’s is trying to get 1 million kids to plant seeds as part of their Root 4 Kids campaign.
After WISH, I met Binkle at the fortress-like Newman Nutrition Center, the food services hub of the mighty LA Unified School District. The facility opened in 1979 and originally made 8,000 lunches a day for 50 schools. Today, it prepares 22,000 meals for more than 425 schools, many of which have no kitchens no they depend on a central kitchen for their daily bread.
Binkle, a chef turned food services director, surprised me. I thought he was going to tell me what the district needed was greater per pupil spending (currently .77 cent per student) to improve the quality of the food. While the district has increased servings of fresh fruit and vegetables, done away with soda pop, and just recently, banned flavored milk,
what Binkle really wants, is do away with the entire federal school lunch program because of the waste and inefficiency he says it creates. Federal regulations stipulate what children must be served, whether they want it or not. As a result, thousands of pounds of food are thrown in the trash every day.
“There’s clearly enough money,” he says. “It’s just being wasted. The whole (federal school lunch program) needs to be blown up.”