The Cafeteria Wars
October 9, 2014 12:35 PM   Subscribe

The New York Times on regulation and lobbying around cafeteria food: "The average school-nutrition director is not unlike the chief executive of a medium-size catering business, but with a school for a landlord and a menu regulated by the government. With lower subsidies, the lunch ladies needed cheaper calories, and they turned to the increasingly efficient processed-food industry to find them. School cafeterias also began to rely more on revenue from so-called competitive foods — snacks and lunches that are not regulated by federal guidelines and “compete” with the regular school lunch on cafeteria à la carte lines."
posted by frimble (46 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
Once private industry is able to sink its teeth into government funding streams, it's really hard to pry that jaw back open.

Also, government regulation has such fascinating unintended consequences and incentives.
posted by JauntyFedora at 12:53 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


if there's a legitimate reason to be in favour of smaller government, well, this is probably it. It seems like an intractable problem - feeding kids is good. The trouble is that kids have pretty terrible taste and aren't exactly nutrition experts and would eat pizza 5 days a week if you let them. Pizza's fine, but not at every meal. Mix in the desire to keep costs down and awarding contract to the lowest bidder and you have an unsolvable problem.

The part that really gets my goat is the lobbying by specific producers. Why does a frozen pizza manufacturer have standing to testify in front of congress? fuck you Schwan Food Company. You have no moral right to tax money paying for subsidized school lunches. Make a better product you leeches.
posted by GuyZero at 12:58 PM on October 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


See? You can demonstrate both capitalism and game theory with first graders! Herein lies price optimization, market basket size optimization and maximizing the extraction of wealth from your child more efficiently than that mean third grader. All these industries should be funneling money into schools since they are doing such an excellent job teaching kids to be consumers!
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:58 PM on October 9, 2014


Also, government regulation has such fascinating unintended consequences and incentives.

See Regulatory Capture.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 1:02 PM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


if there's a legitimate reason to be in favour of smaller government, well, this is probably it.

Except other countries with relatively larger state machinery do this way, way better than we do. The problem isn't "big government," it's corruption. We refuse to recognize that things like lobbying and "regulatory capture" are forms of corruption, but they are.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:15 PM on October 9, 2014 [61 favorites]


Testifying in front of congress is a rather poor form of lobbying, since you don't want to be handing out checks on the record. Plus, a lot of people are only testifying because they've been selling products that kill their users or defrauding people out of their retirement investments.
posted by ckape at 1:21 PM on October 9, 2014


It sounds as though a core problem is the way lunch is served in schools - kids get very little time for lunch (25 minutes to get food, eat, toss food away), schools may not even have actual full-service kitchens and (if my experience is anything to go by) they are woefully understaffed. So yeah, if the choice is between frozen pizza (which is at least sort of palatable when heated in an industrial oven and is quick to serve and quick to eat) and a tray full of random cheapest-possible-variety-of-nominally-healthy thing that were made somewhere else and frozen, I'll take the pizza. Whole wheat pasta, for example, gets gummy and gross unless it's handled well - far more so than regular pasta. What kind of fruit are you going to get? Nasty old bruised Red Delicious and hole-y pears is my bet. Overcooked damp-kleenex-texture frozen spinach too, probably.

A big part of this is that we have to do this far, far too cheaply in terms of labor and food quality, because we have to strike a balance between "Oh noooooo the poors are obeeeeesse and they won't make good workers or soldiers!!!!!" and "I'm not paying for poor kids' lunch" - which pretty much defines the limits on respectable opinion in this country.

If there were anyone with any clout who were actually interested in the wellbeing of ordinary people for its own sake - not out of concern for their roles as future soldiers and service workers - we might get somewhere.
posted by Frowner at 1:28 PM on October 9, 2014 [33 favorites]


Frowner: "Whole wheat pasta, for example, gets gummy and gross unless it's handled well - far more so than regular pasta. What kind of fruit are you going to get? Nasty old bruised Red Delicious and hole-y pears is my bet. Overcooked damp-kleenex-texture frozen spinach too, probably. "

Many school food service companies (big ones, like Sodexo) have pulled pasta from their "reheat" kitchens until they can reformulate a better whole wheat pasta that meets the standards and isn't gross. (School kitchens typically come in full-service, which is your typical institutional/catering kitchen; and reheat, which look sort of like little robot ovens (sometimes even on wheels!) and fridges that typically reheat food cooked at a nearby institutional kitchen. In my district, the high-school kitchens are full-service and send out catering trucks with the reheat trays to the elementary school reheat kitchens, so the elementary kids are eating reheated food, but it was made that morning, not weeks ago and frozen.)

The "hand fruit" is actually pretty good since the new standards; it went way up in quality when the serving size got more standardized. Now you get apples the size of baseballs instead of 18" softballs, and they taste a LOT BETTER. It's all still long-holding supermarket varieties, but now they tend towards small-and-flavorful-and-well-ripened rather than huge, half-green, and mealy. (My theory is, these are all the good apples that are too small for the supermarket trade.) Quality of fresh produce varies a lot by food provider, though. Generally each meal there is both a "hand fruit" (one serving easily held in hand) and a "prepared fruit" (one serving is sliced up or, like berries, made of multiple pieces). Hand fruit is apples, oranges, bananas, sometimes pears (but not very often as good pears are so soft). Prepared fruit can be fresh (like kiwi, or strawberry) or canned (peaches, pears, pineapples) or a mix (fruit salad with both).

The hot vegetable (one each day) is fine ... usually tastes canned to me. No great shakes but not salty or gross or wilted. Lots of corn, greenbeans, mashed sweet potato.

I have eaten my way through basically the entirety of Sodexo's school cafeteria menus under the new guidelines (mostly reheated, even!), and they're really not that bad. They're institutional cafeteria food, but they're not as gross as you remember school cafeteria food being. In my opinion, the BEST things on the menus tend to be things like a southwest chicken wrap or spicy tortilla soup or thai stir fry, because the spicier flavors make up for the lack of salt and fat. (They're not "authentic" but still pretty damn tasty.) "Traditional" school cafeteria food like pizza and chicken nuggets and burgers are pretty blah under the new regime because you can taste that they're not made with massive quantities of fat and salt. (My district also ONLY provides meals that meet the federal guidelines; there aren't options outside it.)

My son's favorite school lunch so far is whole wheat waffles and turkey sausage, with his fruit dumped on top of the waffles. He also really likes the meatball sub (in which the meatball are a lot of diced vegetables and a little meat for flavor, I happen to know.) Today he had a ham sub with carrot coins, black beans, an orange, and applesauce. (I expect he ate the guts of the sub but no bread, all the carrots, all the applesauce, half the beans, and like two sad bites of the orange.) Yesterday was the southwest chicken wrap (DAMMIT I SHOULD HAVE GONE TO SCHOOL FOR LUNCH) with hot broccoli, celery sticks, banana, and diced pears.

I suppose I should mention that he is in a Federal Community Option school, which is where if your school has enough students that qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches, ALL students are given free school lunches as a matter of course, so he eats free every day despite the fact that we are solidly middle class. My district helped pilot this program (piloted 3 years ago, I think); the government's hypothesis was that verification paperwork had gotten so complicated and expensive and time-consuming that it would be cheaper to give all students free lunch rather than verify who qualified for it in high-poverty schools. It also reduces the stigma attached to free lunches, and reduces the chaos of trying to figure out and keep track of which kids need to pay, which kids are free, etc. And since food-insecure kids tend to drift in and out of the various categories, you end up with hungry kids who qualify, but doing the paperwork midyear is too much to cope with. Now the lunch line monitor just uses a clicker-counter. The kids like it, the lunch ladies love it, and the middle-class parents who were at first very suspicious that it was a real thing or would work are now like "I'm FREEEEEEEEEEEEEE and I don't have to make lunches anymore!"

Anyway, my complaints are in the time allotted for lunch, the portion sizes especially as we get into high school (but I do not have a good solution for that), the unfairly low wages cafeteria staff are paid (although they're unionized in my district, and district staff rather than contracted from Sodexo, so it's better than other places nearby), and preventing "plate waste" which is of course very hard with kids. And the stupid chocolate milk, but I suck it up about that. But I don't have a lot of complaints about the food, which isn't always fantastic, but which I feel no qualms about sending my precious snowflake child to eat five days a week.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:11 PM on October 9, 2014 [92 favorites]


Every so often a journalist will do a back to back comparison between an American school lunch and a French school lunch, with hilarity predictably ensuing. But it's suggestive of how context dependent these things are -- you can't start serving weird vegetables in seventh grade after years and years of corn dogs and expect the kids to eat it, as well as the issue of school meals needing to fit acceptably with what kids are used to eating at home. (Not to mention the contradictory pressures of pushing for healthier meals at the same time as recognizing that for a significant percentage of kids the school lunches (and hopefully breakfasts) represent a very large percentage of their daily calories and there may be no dinner waiting for them at home.)

I don't envy anyone trying to run a school meal program, at all.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:11 PM on October 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


I suppose I should mention that he is in a Federal Community Option school, which is where if your school has enough students that qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches, ALL students are given free school lunches as a matter of course, so he eats free every day despite the fact that we are solidly middle class.

That is wonderful! When I was in school, lunch tickets were done in a way that made it not just apparent who got free lunches, but even more so it was obviously meant to be demeaning. (Every day the free lunch kids would have to walk to the front of the class and be handed their BRIGHT RED tickets while everyone watched, and then the regular blue ones were handed out. They did this every single day of my entire elementary school education.)

the government's hypothesis was that verification paperwork had gotten so complicated and expensive and time-consuming that it would be cheaper to give all students free lunch rather than verify who qualified for it in high-poverty schools

I have seen claims that this is true in a lot of medical billing situations as well, once you add up all of the clerks and accountants at the hospital and at the insurance companies and in both state and federal agencies and all the computer systems and so on -- we charge the fees to make sure no one gets a freebie, but doing so costs us more overall.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:22 PM on October 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


Dip Flash: "lunch tickets were done in a way that made it not just apparent who got free lunches, but even more so it was obviously meant to be demeaning."

That sounds really obnoxious. When I was in school with free/reduced-priced meals, my district first had the old paper-that-the-cash-register-chopped-off-the-end system (think a piece of card stock with 10 "stripes" at the bottom; insert it into the cash register, a la a time card, and the register cut off one stripe). All of the kids picked up our cards at the table at the front of the cafeteria regardless of how they were paid for. Kids, like me, on free meals just always had a punch card waiting.

This got even better when the district changed to barcoded prepaid-style cards. Kids on free meals were given the same style plastic card but the backend was programmed to discount our meals to $0.00. All of this in a Southern state not well known for its handling of the poor...
posted by fireoyster at 2:33 PM on October 9, 2014


> When I was in school, lunch tickets were done in a way that made it not just apparent who got free lunches, but even more so it was obviously meant to be demeaning

This doesn't happen any more, fortunately, at least not in the school district where I live. Everyone has school ID cards that they show at the cafeteria, and the lunch gets charged to them. How much money is taken from the account, and how the money got in there in the first place, isn't obvious (at least not to me, maybe the cashiers see more).

Some kids are given groceries to take home on Fridays, and those bags are discreetly put in their backpacks during the school day. The Thanksgiving and Christmas boxes just say "family 1," "family 2," etc, so, again, unless you're involved you don't know who's bringing them home.

Progress!
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:35 PM on October 9, 2014 [13 favorites]


I don't envy anyone trying to run a school meal program, at all.

Even when they do the best they can do, (And what E McG describes is pretty much ideal to my standards), they run into the same issue schools always do. They only have the kids for part of the day and the part where they aren't around is just as crucial for a healthy food plan or for learning. I try and cut them some slack on that, and hope sometime the country can get around to making it easier on parents to be able to focus on their families rather than working extreme hours just to get by.

On the topic of school lunches, I've recently been facepalming over the silly reaction in some areas to the idea of a "Meatless Monday."
posted by Drinky Die at 2:37 PM on October 9, 2014


"My district also ONLY provides meals that meet the federal guidelines; there aren't options outside it."

I suppose the other point I should make is, we're a very large district, serving in excess of 13,000 hot lunches a day and 8,000 breakfasts; there's in excess of $6 million/yearly just in food purchases, and my district is Sodexo's largest K-12 education client by a pretty large margin (they have larger college clients). So we can just TELL them, "Yeah, we're not going to do outside options, and we need you to drop the price 1% or we'll go with your competitor." We have a pretty great experience with Sodexo! We tell them, "We'd really like you to do some local sourcing and work with farmers nearby," and they say "SO GREAT WE'LL GET ON THAT!" We say, "These apples are terrible!" and they say, "We will find better apples!" And since the food employees who actually prepare the food are ours, not Sodexo's, we have a lot more control at the kitchen level and we're not going to lose personnel who have contact with the children (i.e., the lunch ladies, especially at elementary schools) if we switch providers.

Small districts where there is less profit to be made are much more susceptible to "Hey, we can drop the costs to you by 2% if you allow us to sell our own, non-federally-reimbursed pizza alongside the school lunches!" from the food companies, and it's much harder for them get favorable contracts, issue firm demands about their menus, and so on. They may only have a single company bid on their contract because it's so small. Because ours is big, typically all three of the big national edu-food companies do (Sodexo, Aramark, and ... Sysco, I think?), so we can make a lot more demands.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:38 PM on October 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


Dip Flash: "I suppose I should mention that he is in a Federal Community Option school, which is where if your school has enough students that qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches, ALL students are given free school lunches as a matter of course, so he eats free every day despite the fact that we are solidly middle class.
That is wonderful!
"

It really is, and the other thing I've noticed (which is often mentioned in articles on French or Japanese school lunches) is that it provides just a little more sense of community in a highly diverse school like my son's, which is very economically diverse and racially/ethnically diverse. Now that almost all of the parents have their kids eat free school lunch, and it's the same for all the kids, and there's no stigma about it, there's not much lunchroom competition among the kids, and it gives a surprisingly excellent point of entry for talking with parents you otherwise might not have much in common with. It is just this HUGE topic of conversation at parent school events, in contrast to how it was before the Federal Community Option, and people use it as an icebreaker constantly. (I think parents no longer have to worry about "outing" themselves as poor if they bitch about lunches, and everyone loves to bitch about cafeteria food, it is a human universal!) "What was it today, meatball sub?" "I think so, Joey loves meatball sub day." "Tomorrow is ham, Mihn already asked if I'd pack him a lunch because he will NOT eat ham." "Ugh, ham day. They have the WORST ham." "Viridia loves ham! I have this great recipe ..."

It is not magically fixing inequality or anything, but I am now a true believer that there is a value to the kids all eating the same meal together!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:51 PM on October 9, 2014 [20 favorites]


I'm still bitter about what happened to my high school with relation to this. It's one of the only things i actually liked about the place.

See, they had a full service kitchen. The school building was like >100 years old, so it had been built with that sort of thing in mind. They actually didn't have space for the reheat ovens and fryers and such to cook a lot of the district meals, so for many years they simply had their own entirely separate lunch system.

They had a really awesome, talented nice chef lady. She'd come up with week long meal plans and then every day everyone ate the same meal. They ranged from decent to amazing. All fresh stuff, organic ingredients if they had the budget. Cool things like church style coffee carafes of interesting hot tea. There was also a cool hot sauce selection, and other things. And if you had a food allergy or something she'd cook you a custom meal for the same price. And since it was a small-ish school she'd remember which people couldn't eat what, and just have stuff waiting for them when they showed up. They were also vegetarian 90% of the time, and if it was a rare day it wasn't there'd be a separate meal that was. Oh, and she'd show up early on standardized test days and make everyone snacks/coffee/tea! Seconds were also free if you wanted them, until they ran out of stuff for the day.

It wasn't super gourmet, but it was always really healthy stuff. Everyone universally loved it, and the parents were involved in helping the program along and donating ingredients and stuff. And occasionally cool stuff would happen like "instead of regular lunch today, we brought over the entire staff from XYZ local ethnic restaurant!" and then we'd get totally bomb as fuck ethiopian, or jewish deli, etc food. My favorite was the random unannounced vietnamese food days when they were doing kitchen maintenance.

And then they fired a really awful teacher no one liked, and she reported the school to the state for not serving frozen fish burgers and the usual awful garbage other schools got in the area... and they had to shutter the whole thing, and start serving the terrible heat and eat mush meals.

I had visited friends schools and tried the lunches there and was always like holy SHIT this is AWFUL. It was just all fried chicken burgers and shit. I feel pretty lucky to have gotten to skip that by basically just being born at the right time and going to the right school, but i can't believe what passes for an OK school lunch in a lot of places. My elementary school had fucking awful lunches too.

Here at least, the schools are so hamstrung by the district/state that they can't serve anything good. It's serve the reheated frozen crap, that's the only option. There's no real picking/planning that isn't done at a high up institutional level.
posted by emptythought at 3:18 PM on October 9, 2014 [11 favorites]


All kids eating the same meal together is ideal. That worked in pre-school.

I pack a lunch for Boy now. We taste-tested that stuff when he was in kindergarten. The bag lunches for field trips were particularly nauseating.

The lunch ladies are amazing. They really try with what they have to work with. They herd a bunch of kids who may not eat again that day through the meager choices.

The little girls go for the baked potatoes and load them up. The boys go for the main course and chuck it out later. It is not good food.

I don't really understand why everyone wants the pizza on Friday. That is so not pizza. Gummy, not-quite-crust, everything is soggy.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:30 PM on October 9, 2014


This was my experience:

I grew up in Dallas, TX and up until highschool, there was a standard lunch: milk/juice, main dish (spaghetti, chicken-breast, fish-sticks, etc.), green beans (usually barely edible), and some small dessert cake-like item. It wasn't that expensive and it wasn't terrible but by no means was it good or great or something you looked forward to.

This "standard" lunch was also offered to certain students for free if they had some form filled out by their parents which I assume had to do with their family income, etc.

The stigma of ordering from this menu only became something to worry about once I entered high school.

When I entered high school, this same standard meal was still offered but it had to compete with a few separate stations: fries, nachos, cheese, gravy, etc. This was the most commonly ordered item. It was not too expensive, it was easy to eat, quick to order, and could easily be shared or split.

There was also another station where fast-food companies would bring in specific items: Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, etc.

Vending machines that offered both coke/pepsi (our school had a contract with pepsi) and chips was another choice that students frequently made.

And of course bring your own sack-lunch was an option.

I usually brought my own lunch or opted for a bag of chips until I got home. I'd rather go hungry and grab a snack and eat something better at home and save my money.
posted by Fizz at 3:33 PM on October 9, 2014


You know what knocks me out? This article mentions salt/sodium 14 times, but sugar doesn’t appear even once.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:36 PM on October 9, 2014 [11 favorites]


When I got to high school and I found out that they served pizza every day (it was one of many choices) I was excited. I still crave that pizza. Everytime I'm working at a school I hope it's their pizza day... I've only hit one and it was still awesome. Usually I just pick the chef salad (which is available to everyone everyday... but I imagine if I actually worked at a school more than twice a year would get boring quickly)
posted by one4themoment at 3:37 PM on October 9, 2014


I love the school lunch in my district. My daughter has a dietary intolerance that means that she can't tolerate high fructose corn syrup or sugar alcohols at all, in any quantity, as well as having to keep her table sugar pretty aggressively restricted (like 15g a day from all sources). She can eat the school lunch almost every day, although she's exempt from the fruit and vegetable requirements. She gets double milk instead if the fruit or veg is a big component of the lunch.

I see EXACTLY what goes into the food; because of her condition, I get a complete ingredients list and nutritional breakdown for everything I ask about. It's pretty good, y'all. In fact, you too can see the basic nutritional information (PDF) for everything in the school lunch for the month of September!
posted by KathrynT at 3:57 PM on October 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


I had dinner with a couple of long-time educators from a family of educators two weeks ago. We were discussing school cafeterias. They both asserted that the school nutritionist is the most important person in the school besides the head custodian. If you have a good nutritionist, you'll have good lunches the kids will eat.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:06 PM on October 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


she's exempt from the fruit and vegetable requirements. She gets double milk instead if the fruit or veg is a big component of the lunch.

I'm so jealous! I have fructose intolerance and I get tons of flak from extended family about not eating enough vegetables and drinking too much milk. I can tolerate fruit & vegetables in small doses but eating much at once hurts my stomach for hours. I'm so glad your daughter is growing up in more enlightened times!
posted by dialetheia at 6:20 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


"He advised the lunch ladies — a term that almost nobody in Washington uses in public and almost everyone uses in private..."

Throughout the entire article, he couldn't have found a better term besides "lunch ladies?" They ain't all ladies, and I'm pretty sure they have a Real Title.
posted by Grandysaur at 9:14 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm so glad your daughter is growing up in more enlightened times!

Our school nurse is amazing and my daughter's fiercest advocate within the system. She'd never heard of FM before I showed up with a letter from Seattle Children's Hospital and a bewildering list of dietary exclusions. She listened with her jaw on the floor as I explained what I knew of the biochemistry behind the situation, said "You mean to tell me that her health foods are potato chips and steak?" and I said "Yes ma'am" and she said "Okay then!" She did a bunch of her own research too, and has on a couple of occasions "educated" teachers or staff members who didn't realize what was up. Forcefully. In person. I suspect our experiences at school would be really different if it wasn't for her.
posted by KathrynT at 9:41 PM on October 9, 2014 [11 favorites]


> Throughout the entire article, he couldn't have found a better term besides "lunch ladies?" They ain't all ladies, and I'm pretty sure they have a Real Title.

Looking at the employment page for my school district, they seem to be "Food & Nutritional Substitutes," which is unfortunate, and "Food & Nutritional Services Assistants." Those are the only open positions, so I don't know what the higher ups are called.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:46 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


The corpse in the library: "I don't know what the higher ups are called."

I think in our contracts they're called "Food Services Supervisors" or "Site Supervisors -- Food Services" but usually we call them (and they call themselves) cafeteria managers, and that's what they usually get called in memos. I'm sure it varies by local traditions.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:33 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


Grandysaur: Throughout the entire article, he couldn't have found a better term besides "lunch ladies?" They ain't all ladies, and I'm pretty sure they have a Real Title.

The corpse in the library: I don't know what the higher ups are called.


In California, at the school site level they're usually called cafeteria managers.

At the District level, the boss is generally called the Food Service Director, which is likely who the "lunch ladies" are in this article. They're often Registered Dietitians or restaurant managers. And they can make a lot of money.

Really big districts have Food Service Supervisors who work under the FSD to supervise the cafeteria managers, sometimes by region, sometimes by grade level.

The NYT article mentioned Politico, but I don't know if they linked the article.

http://www.politico.com/story/2014/06/michelle-obama-public-school-lunch-school-nutrition-association-lets-move-107390.html

And here's SNA's *ahem* statement about the requirements:

http://dev2.schoolnutrition.org/Business_of_School_Nutrition/Statement_from_SNA_CEO_on_School_Meal_Program_Challenges/
posted by elsietheeel at 3:52 PM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]


(My district also ONLY provides meals that meet the federal guidelines; there aren't options outside it.)

Well, that's kind of what's happening in the article. If your district participates in the National School Lunch Program it CANNOT sell foods or beverages that do not meet the nutritional standards. And the standards for a la carte items that aren't part of the meal are stringent. But SNA is trying to allow waivers from the guidelines because their new leadership seems to think that industry is more important than student health.

With the Smart Snacks in Schools requirements, the USDA is trying to steer kids toward eating a full reimbursable meal with whole grain-rich items, fruits, and vegetables, rather than crappy a la carte items and snacks. So if you feel ANY of the foods being served in your kids' schools aren't up to snuff? Muscle in there and tell them so! They've got to follow the standards to get those federal dollars, but unfortunately the districts are only reviewed for compliance every three years and they have advance warning. Parents are in the best position to keep districts in line. And if the district doesn't listen? Tell your state agency and the USDA!

The competitive food regulations and encouraging ALL kids to participate in the NSLP also helps the stigma issue. By reducing or eliminating a la carte sales, or at least aligning them with the reimbursable meal, it makes it less obvious who NEEDS to eat the school lunch. There was a great study/article in the American Journal of Public Health about it: Competitive Foods, Discrimination, and Participation in the National School Lunch Program.

I know a lot of us remember the free, reduced and paid tickets in the olden days, but now? Overt identification is STRICTLY PROHIBITED. If your district is overtly identifying kids who get a free or reduced-price meal? That is a civil rights violation and you should complain to the USDA. They're required to investigate and the district has to comply with the regulations. Separate lines for F/RP meals are not allowed. Visibly different meal cards or tickets are not allowed. Eligibility information or F/RP rosters cannot be visible to students. And districts are supposed to encourage prepayment for paid meals to even the playing field, so to speak.

Direct certification is supposed to help with this as well. Instead of paper applications flying around, children/households who already participate in SNAP, TANF, or Medicaid, or who are foster, migrant, homeless, runaway children, etc., are categorically eligible for a F/RP meal without further application.

The Provision meal claiming options, especially the Community Eligibility Provision, really reduce stigma as well, because EVERYONE gets a free meal. The only drawback for the CEP is the eligibility threshold is 40%, which doesn't work well for the poor kids in a middle or upper class district (been there). But districts also have the option to subsidize all meals on their own dime if they want to. They just don't want to.

Anyway, this post is already two days old (unsurprisingly, the article caused a stir at work so I was a bit busy when it was posted) so I'll just end this tirade here. But if anyone wants more info, you can always MeMail me. Obviously I'm passionate about the federal nutrition programs... which is why I'm blathering on and on at 8am on a Saturday morning.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:34 AM on October 11, 2014 [32 favorites]


On the topic of school lunches, I've recently been facepalming over the silly reaction in some areas to the idea of a "Meatless Monday."

The EAT MOAR MEAT reactions are silly, but Meatless Mondays is potentially pretty irritating.

Cafeterias, lunch rooms and restaurants have traditionally offered entirely meat free meals or additional meat free options on Fridays as an accommodation to people who don't eat meat on Fridays for religious reasons. To shift that to Mondays for the sake of alliteration is annoying, especially if it means that those Friday options dissappear so as to maintain the same baseline of variety across the week.
posted by Jahaza at 7:58 AM on October 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


I would assume any school willing to go as far as offer a Meatless Monday menu would have vegetarian options available every day.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:51 AM on October 12, 2014


Normally, I carried a bag lunch --- Mom had firm beliefs about what constituted a healthy lunch, and there was no discussion: what Mom packed, you ate.

Except for when I was in 6th grade, in a couple of elementary schools in Hawaii: for some reason, those two schools required all 6th-graders to take their turn, at least once a month, at working in the cafeteria kitchen --- standing at the hot tables dishing up food, bussing the dirty trays & silverware, running the industrial dishwasher, scrubbing out the pots, mopping the cafeteria and kitchen floors. For this, as 'payment' I suppose you'd call it for pulling you out of class for most of the day, you got a free hot lunch.

It made me perfectly happy to eat Mom's bagged lunches.
posted by easily confused at 12:30 PM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, that's kind of what's happening in the article. If your district participates in the National School Lunch Program it CANNOT sell foods or beverages that do not meet the nutritional standards. And the standards for a la carte items that aren't part of the meal are stringent.

There were a lot of annoying elements of that TV miniseries where Jaimie Oliver basically invaded a town in West Virginia to try to sort the food side of things out - and he was indeed thinking way too simplistically about some aspects - but there was one thing that definitely made me cock an eyebrow; when he tried to make over the school lunch.

He came up with something that actually looked tasty, used local ingredients, and most importantly, was getting eaten by the kids. I only remember that there was some kind of rice pilaf with vegetables as part of it. He was doing the menu as some kind of "test" for the supervisor, where half the kids got his menu and half got a standard menu, and they measured a number of factors (ease of prep, amount of food waste, etc.).

But the supervisor still gave his menu the thumbs-down because it didn't follow the federal guidelines to the last jot and tittle. The rice-and-vegetable thing seemed to be her hangup - she kept saying that the guidelines required a certain amount of vegetables and a certain amount of carbs, and he didn't have a vegetable dish. "...But we are giving them vegetables," Jaimie argued, "they're just in the rice." But she still said nope, he didn't have vegetables.

Now, I can see where a school cafeteria superintendent who's more likely to use common sense would let that go, but this woman was just being a total hard-ass about it, and it made me realize exactly how by-the-book some people are and how it can be affecting this situation so strongly. It also goes a long way to explaining how the whole "ketchup is a vegetable" thing came about.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:37 AM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: "But the supervisor still gave his menu the thumbs-down because it didn't follow the federal guidelines to the last jot and tittle. The rice-and-vegetable thing seemed to be her hangup - she kept saying that the guidelines required a certain amount of vegetables and a certain amount of carbs, and he didn't have a vegetable dish. "...But we are giving them vegetables," Jaimie argued, "they're just in the rice." But she still said nope, he didn't have vegetables.

Now, I can see where a school cafeteria superintendent who's more likely to use common sense would let that go, but this woman was just being a total hard-ass about it, and it made me realize exactly how by-the-book some people are and how it can be affecting this situation so strongly. It also goes a long way to explaining how the whole "ketchup is a vegetable" thing came about.
"

Yeah, no. No cafeteria superintendent would let that go. You can lose your federal funding if you are not compliant with the rules. Vegetables in the main dish are awesome and encouraged, but there also MUST BE A SPECIFIC VEGETABLE SIDE DISH, and the rule is specifically about avoiding low-quality vegetable pastes and substitutes in main dishes (like tomato sauce on pizza) and counting it as a vegetable. The USDA literally requires you to "Offer vegetables as a separate food component at lunch daily." It's not a hard rule to understand.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:24 AM on October 13, 2014 [10 favorites]


My grandmother was a cafeteria manager for the LASD in San Fernando from the 40s through the 60's. I wish I had stories to share, but she died before I was born. What I DO have is her recipe box, with all the quantity recipes she and the other ladies used to create their meal plans. At the time she got sick, she was in the process of writing a cookbook for families using these recipes, converted down to family-size quantities but never finished it.

Here's a selection of recipe titles:
Directions For Roasting Cylinders of Surplus Canned Beef; Canned Beef & Noodles; Beef Stew
Prune Cake w/ Rich Prune Icing
Italian Delight (which appears to be a noodle slop casserole)
Frankie and Johnny (which appears to wieners in cheese sauce?)
Chuck Wagon Weiner Pie
Tuna Potato Puffs "An Entree Suggestion for Lent"
Dinner in a Dish (which is another noodle slop)

and so on. Also, about twenty different versions of chocolate pudding.

Here's an example. That recipe is noted as "Los Angeles City School Districts, October 1966.

I wonder if they even have these recipes anymore.
posted by ApathyGirl at 4:29 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]


Here's a surprisingly brief (okay fine, it's 167 pages, but it's mostly succint and easy to understand) PDF of a Powerpoint on the new meal pattern if anyone is interested. Not only have they got to offer a vegetable side dish at every meal, but the student has to take it, and they have total amounts of vegetable subgroups that have to be hit as well--soggy peas have made way for bell pepper strips. So kids are seeing vegetables they've never had before... which is great but doesn't always lead to consumption.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:33 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


Lunch is a Battlefield
posted by boilermonster at 11:58 PM on October 16, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh god that's so beautiful. And it combines two of my most favorite things: federal nutrition programs and drag.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:10 PM on October 17, 2014 [3 favorites]


Only on MetaFilter could somebody say that and mean it.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:07 AM on October 22, 2014 [5 favorites]


Yeah, no. No cafeteria superintendent would let that go. You can lose your federal funding if you are not compliant with the rules. Vegetables in the main dish are awesome and encouraged, but there also MUST BE A SPECIFIC VEGETABLE SIDE DISH, and the rule is specifically about avoiding low-quality vegetable pastes and substitutes in main dishes (like tomato sauce on pizza) and counting it as a vegetable. The USDA literally requires you to "Offer vegetables as a separate food component at lunch daily." It's not a hard rule to understand.

I may be misremembering, I'll admit, but I believe there was also a salad in the Jaimie Oliver instance I mention above. For the record, would a salad count as "vegetables as a separate food component"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:40 AM on October 28, 2014


EmpressCallipygos: "For the record, would a salad count as "vegetables as a separate food component"?"

I would have to look up when the show aired, but the current guidelines call for TWO veggie side dishes and TWO fruit side dishes offered at every lunch. Generally there is one hot vegetable and one cold vegetable (although I'm not sure if that's required or just how vendors prefer to offer them). Salad would count for the cold vegetable (although it has to include a certain amount of "dark" greens and not just iceberg). He'd still need a second vegetable dish. Beans have to be offered as a veggie once a week; he could have done a nice toasted chickpea seasoned with rosemary, or even a mashed chickpea, that would pair nicely with rice.

It's possible to stay within calorie limits or within budget limits he wanted to use ALL the veggies he could "afford" (calorically or budgetarily) in the rice part, and that was his problem, but the rules are very strict about side dishes and they do have good reason behind them, what with all the "ketchup on your burger is today's veggie!" from the 80s.

(The other reason is, with younger kids, they can be picky about main dishes because of mixed flavors, but will typically eat a "just one type of thing" dish, so you might make a lovely main dish refused by the entire first grade but they all eat the black beans and broccoli offered as side dishes. This is a trivial problem once in a while, but a MASSIVE problem when you're dealing with 14,000 lunches every day and some kids don't eat other than at school. The smallest kids are more willing to try a new veggie presented solo than a new veggie in a mixed main dish, and in general studies of the school lunch program kids eat more vegetables (over the course of a year) when presented with separate sides than when equivalent veggies are put into the main dish. Veggies also have to rotate among different domains -- beans, starchy veg, red/orange veg (carrots, squash, rutabaga -- high in vitamin A), leafy greens -- so children are exposed to a lot more varied vegetables than in the past, which hopefully makes them more rounded and better eaters in the future.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:07 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


I’m going to guess Eyebrows McGee is talking senior high school. The limits differ by grade. Schools don’t have to offer two servings of fruit, but since the senior high daily offering minimum for fruits is 1 cup, and because students have to take at least ½ cup of a fruit or vegetable to make a creditable meal, schools are more likely to offer two ½ cup servings of fruit instead of one 1 cup serving to reduce food waste and also increase the likelihood of the student taking it.

Beans also count as a meat/meat alternate, but you can't serve one dish of beans for both. But you CAN serve two separate bean dishes at the same meal; one as a vegetable and one as a M/MA.

Here's a USDA chart with the required minimums for each food group and grade level.

Every day, the school lunch as to offer each of the five food components and they each have a minimum serving size (grades 9-12: fruit 1 cup, vegetable 1 cup (total, but most vegetable minimum servings are less than 1 cup so they tend to offer more than one type daily), grain 2 oz eq, meat/meat alternate 2 oz eq, and fluid milk 1 cup) but schools also have to consider the weekly totals when they create the daily menu.

For 9-12, the meals have to average out to 750-850 calories daily, less than 10% of calories can come from saturated fat, the sodium amounts have to be less than 740mg. And weekly totals need to come out to 10-12 ounce equivalent servings of grains, 10-12 oz eq of meat/meat alternates, 5 cups of milk (must be low-fat [1% unflavored only] or fat-free [unflavored or flavored]), 5 cups of fruits, 5 cups of vegetables (½ dark green, 1 ¼ red/orange, ½ beans/peas, ½ starch, ¾ other, and the additional 1 ½ cup can come from any of the five). And ¼ cup dried fruit counts as ½ cup of fruit; 1 cup of leafy greens counts as ½ cup of vegetables. No more than half of the fruit or vegetable offerings may be in the form of juice. All juice must be 100% full-strength. And it doesn't matter if the vegetables are hot or cold.

Starting this year, all grains served must be whole grain-rich, which is defined as a product that contains at least 51 percent whole grains and the remaining grains in the product must be enriched.

There’s also something called offer versus serve, which allows students to decline two of the items offered, but they HAVE to take at least ½ cup of the fruit or vegetable component. Senior high schools must participate in OVS, schools below high school level can opt in if they’d like. It reduces food waste, but it can also make it harder to hit your weekly limits. Especially if you're doing things like paired foods. For instance, if you offered a spinach and bean burrito with a whole grain tortilla, apple slices, and milk, the student couldn't decline that burrito because it comprises the vegetable, meat alternate, and grain components, which is three of the five. But they could take the burrito and leave the fruit and milk, because the burrito contains three components, one of which is a vegetable (assuming the burrito has a full serving of spinach—ewww). Also note those beans don’t count as a vegetable in this case, because they have to contribute as the meat alternate.

So that may be why schools are hesitant to offer casseroles and mixed grain and vegetable dishes. Like Eyebrows said, it’s easier to get a little kid to try something new on its own (and they HAVE to take at least ½ cup fruit or vegetable), and it’s also easier to keep track of what types of vegetable subgroup have been offered that week.

Umm… I’m going to go back to work now. Hilariously, I’m working on a document about offer versus serve.
posted by elsietheeel at 9:32 AM on October 30, 2014 [4 favorites]


Not sure what (if anything) this lends to the discussion, but I'm two years out of high school and from what I'd experienced, my "school-nutrition director" looked for as many loopholes and corners to cut as possible. Prices were jacked up, students were sometimes doubly and triply charged for meals or incorrectly charged for more expensive items without being told. If I wanted a salad, juice, and a fruit for lunch, but the salad didn't have a meat on it, I was forced to pay á la carte for everything because it "wasn't a real meal."

Students are the ones suffering most here. They're being forced to buy things they don't necessarily want, or risk paying wallet-burning prices for subpar items that they're at least okay to settle for. And the best part of it is, public schools still cash in, no matter what. Every meal - even the ones that aren't free or reduced - earns some pocket change for schools.
posted by ourt at 12:03 PM on November 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


They're only supposed to use that money for things that are for the benefit of the nonprofit school food service. They can't use the cafeteria fund for anything else. If you suspect your school/district is doing so? Report them to your state agency or the USDA. Or both why not?
posted by elsietheeel at 4:26 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


ourt: "And the best part of it is, public schools still cash in, no matter what."

It is a cost center for most districts. My district spends $600,000 on food services each year, over and above the federal reimbursement.

Some districts that have very limited participation in the federal school lunch program may make a small profit on food services, but the regulations have increased so much in recent years that I'd be surprised if it put money into the general school budget; any income on meals probably pays food service salaries or compliance.

Every meal - even the ones that aren't free or reduced - earns some pocket change for schools.

If a school is making money off free or reduced lunch, this is literally something the FBI wants to hear about. Diversion of federal resources is a pretty serious charge.

If a food merchant is making money off selling the food to schools as part of the federal school lunch program -- well, yeah, that's how the program is designed.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:17 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]


If the foods were initially purchased with school lunch program funds then the revenue from the sale of those foods must accrue to the cafeteria account, not the district's general fund. Doesn't matter if it's free, reduced, paid, or a la carte. They do get reimbursement for paid lunches, $0.28-0.42 per meal (which seems paltry when compared to the $2.98-3.21 and $2.58-2.81 for F/RP meals).

But again, districts don't get to use that money for whatever they'd like. It can ONLY be used for the benefit of the school nutrition program. And there are even food service-related things they can't spend it on. They can't use it to pay the janitor's entire salary (only the specific amount of time he spends cleaning as it relates to the nutrition program). They can't use it to pay for utilities, unless there are separate meters installed for the kitchen. They can't use it to build a new kitchen or cafeteria. And if they do and it's found during an audit or a review? The state agency is required to ensure the district pays any misappropriated funds back to the cafeteria account.

So seriously... if you suspect wrongdoing--fiscally, nutritionally, or otherwise--in your school or district related to the food program? Contact your state agency (usually the state Department of Education or the state Department of Agriculture) or contact USDA directly.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:41 PM on November 2, 2014


« Older Bringing back the bacon   |   Like a radio but with five O's Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments