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