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Last Updated: 11/20/2017
 

Now is Time to Fight for Better School Food

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Ann Cooper and Dana Woldow, SFGate.com, August 24, 2008

"If you are what you eat, then I'm fast, cheap and easy." When Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse fame, saw that line on a bumper sticker, she wondered, "Is this really what we want the destiny of our nation to be?"

Waters, a driving force behind the Slow Food Nation event that will take place in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend, has long been a champion of better food for schoolchildren.


This has been a summer of headlines about soaring prices for food and fuel. With students returning to school, those cost increases threaten to force school cafeterias to rely more on cheap processed food and cut back on pricier fresh food. With obesity, diabetes and heart disease on the increase among children, "fast, cheap and easy" is the last thing we want our kids to be.


More than 30 million students get their lunch through the National School Lunch Program; most qualify for free or reduced-price meals, paid for by the federal government.


This fall, cafeterias nationwide face higher prices for milk, meat, cereal and produce. Food costs in San Francisco schools are up 35 percent over last year, but the money the government provides for a free lunch will increase just 4 percent this year, to $2.57. With labor and overhead eating up more than half of the typical cafeteria budget, schools are left with only about $1 to spend on food. That dollar just won't stretch across the plate anymore.


Years ago, the city of Berkeley made a commitment to improve school food, with guidance and support from Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation. Today, Berkeley school food is cooked from scratch using only fresh ingredients, often locally produced. Across the bay in San Francisco, junk food was expelled from schools in 2003, replaced with whole grains, fresh fruit and salad bars. But these improvements have been possible only because our school districts were willing to dip into their budgets, and our local communities also ponied up extra money, to fund better food.


It's great that Berkeley and San Francisco have helped subsidize better cafeteria food, but all over the country, cash-strapped schools struggle with having to take money away from students' academic needs to help meet their nutritional needs. School meal programs are overseen by the USDA and funded by Congress, and that is where the money should come from to pay for them - from Congress, not from our classrooms.


All around the country, too many cafeterias are forced to rely on corn dogs, tater tots and canned fruit, because the money provided by Congress is not enough to buy the fresh wholesome food that students need to achieve their best in school and maintain good health.


The regulations governing child nutrition programs are so complex that one San Francisco city official recently told USDA staff that they "sound like they are designed to keep us from feeding kids." The regulations also make it far easier for school cafeterias to use highly processed food rather than fresh ingredients. The system needs to be revamped, minimizing regulations to make it more user friendly, while emphasizing fresh whole food like apples, not apple turnovers.


Every five years, Congress overhauls the Child Nutrition Act, which sets the level of funding for school meals. Right now, the USDA is collecting public comment to share with Congress during 2009, when the act will be renewed.


Visit www.regulations.gov and enter "child nutrition" in the comments search box. The USDA is accepting comments through Oct. 15.

 

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