Think about why someone is OK with your kids eating crap
January 13, 2019 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Kids get as many as half their calories at school (SLBloomberg) —a fact Michelle Obama emphasized when she made healthier school meals the centerpiece of her “Let’s Move” campaign for weight loss. Often, she argued, those calories were the wrong kind: Schools were letting kids load up on sugary drinks and low-quality carbohydrates... The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act gave schools more money if they met updated nutrition standards. Under President Obama, these included leaner proteins, limits on calories, and a fruit or vegetable at every meal... Almost immediately, the rules came under attack.

The potato lobby fought off limits the Agriculture Department sought to impose on “starchy vegetables”—for example, french fries. When another proposal would have reduced the amount of tomato sauce in pizzas that counted as a vegetable, it brought a fierce response from Democrats in Minnesota, including Senator Amy Klobuchar. Kevin Concannon, a former undersecretary who was then in charge of the school programs, remembers saying to a colleague, “I didn’t know Minnesota grew that many tomatoes.” No, he was told, opposition came from the Minnesota food giant Schwan’s Co., maker of frozen pizzas such as Tony’s and Red Baron.

Congressional critics from dairy-producing states also kept up the pressure, and they, and the industry, found a receptive ear in [Secretary of Agriculture] Perdue... Perdue essentially adopted the SNA’s recommendations. The new rules cut the Obama-era whole-grain targets in half. They also called off the big reduction in sodium that could have sparked the cheese apocalypse. Instead, a smaller cut is planned to start in the 2024-25 school year, potentially the end of President Trump’s second term.

Previously on Metafilter:
Revenge of the Lunch Lady
Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch
The Cafeteria Wars
posted by devrim (55 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
why someone is OK with your kids eating crap

The usual American answer: $
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:22 AM on January 13 [49 favorites]


I work for a school district and can testify. For a lot of our kids, the breakfasts and lunches we offer are lifesavers. And even for those that do not come from an economically disadvantaged background, the nutritious meals we provide are likely better than the junk food they get at home.
posted by SPrintF at 8:24 AM on January 13 [22 favorites]


Watched Jamie Oliver's school food show back in the day and we were really horrified. I understood that the disempowered staff felt defensive about his opinions since they were basically poisoning children. We didn't get any school food growing up and that meant that some kids had very little food at all, but I can't help but think that these foods harm rather than helping.

Here in Sweden school food is carefully composed, often with lots of choices and always with an eye to nutrition and widening the kids palates. It's also free, of course. Unfortunately the growth of for-profit schools means schools not having their own kitchens or dining rooms and instead offering "dining cards" to their students for them to eat at lunch restaurants locally. Lunch restaurants usually have decent food too, but the cards of course work just as well at McDonalds.

Here's an example of this weeks lunch at a (public) school in Stockholm. There's a decent salad buffet provided along with this as well as bread, butter, coffee, etc.
Monday: Thyme roasted chicken thigh fillets with a cold dijon mustard sauce and rice (veggie option is paprika stew with kidney beans)
Tuesday: Herb encrusted baked pollock with lemon sauce and boiled new potatoes (roast celeriac and kale on a bed of lentil ragu)
Wednesday: Vegetarian mousakka with soya mince, aubergine and potatos (chick pea casserole)
Thursday: Potato and leek soup with freshly baked bread, hummus and other mixes
Friday: Roasted chicken drumsticks with honey and herb sauce served with brown rice (mixed mushroom ragu with beluga lentils and thyme and garlic scented brown rice)
posted by Iteki at 8:49 AM on January 13 [48 favorites]


I am by no means convinced that this issue boils down to self-evidently Evil Crappy Diets vs. Virtuous Healthy Diets. In my local school, for instance, those healthy virtuous lunch recommendations touted above allow the kids to drink sweetened strawberry skim milk, or sweetened chocolate skim milk, but definitely not full-fat milk, I guess because we're all still living in the nutritional 1980s or something.

Given what a tangled web nutritional science is in general, I can only imagine what happens when you add in multiple competing arms of intensive industry lobbying, pork-barrel politics, stringent public budget limitations, and bougie moral hygiene instincts (ugh, all those fat poor kids with their gross food tastes! let's make them all eat pita!). But at any rate, I wouldn't have thought it was a situation easily consolidated into easy moral binaries, or solvable by a simple influx of raw cash.
posted by yersinia at 9:02 AM on January 13 [55 favorites]


We didn't get any school food growing up and that meant that some kids had very little food at all, but I can't help but think that these foods harm rather than helping.

Better to be starving, unable to concentrate in school, but still skinny, I guess.
posted by jeather at 9:20 AM on January 13 [48 favorites]


I don't think school provides food and kids go hungry are the only alternatives. There is no school lunch in Ontario (not sure about other provinces). I always assumed that elementary school cafeterias were one of those things that only exist on TV (it turns out many of those on-tv-only things were normal things in the U.S.). Most kids went home or to a babysitter's for lunch. Some kids brought a packed lunch. If you brought a packed lunch you ate in the gym, though I've heard some schools kids eat in the classrooms.

Anyway, if your parents were short on money to pack you a lunch they could apply for welfare which would give them a cheque which they could cash (often at the grocery store) to buy food. I'm sure there were some parents who spent the money on other things and I'm sure there were people whose expenses were such that the money just wasn't enough. But the fact is that most parents will feed their kids before they do just about anything else (pay the rent is likely the only major common exception).

That said, I'm not sure about the nutrition of those packed lunches, especially once kids start packing them themselves. Hot lunches at home were probably better.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:28 AM on January 13 [5 favorites]


I don't think that anyone here is going to argue that the US has a good system for making sure that kids from poor families have enough to eat, If only I had a penguin..., but the system that we have relies on free school meals. We've spent decades chipping away at other kinds of food assistance, and free school meals may be the only assistance that some families get.

(You may ask what those kids do when school isn't in session. In my old neighborhood, which had a lot of low-income families, there was a city-sponsored free-lunch truck that came around every weekday in the summer and gave out free sandwiches to anyone under 18 who wanted one. During shorter school breaks, I assume a lot of kids go hungry.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:02 AM on January 13 [23 favorites]


Food insecurity is definitely still a thing in Ontario and there are in fact breakfast programs that run in priority neighbourhoods. The TDSB serves over 135,000 meals a day in Toronto alone. But it’s true that most of them are breakfast. I’ve volunteered in one and I wouldn’t have called it super nutritious, sugary yogurt, breakfast bars, etc., but because many schools indeed don’t have cafeterias, and because we are the only G7 country without a school nutrition strategy, it’s left to public-private partnerships which means that’s a lot of the food donated that can be served.

I’m not a fan of the US model exactly but the Canadian one which does depends on the broader social safety net, is incomplete. Overall I am much more in favour of a UBI program but given that many Canadian kids are going hungry I think we should not be smug that they are not drinking strawberry milk.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:17 AM on January 13 [13 favorites]


Wouldn't hot lunches at home imply a stay-at-home adult (parent, grandparent, nanny) and a super short walk time between school and home, or a really long lunch break? Most school systems in the US, at least outside of population-dense areas like Manhattan, are not going to have that. I used to teach middle schoolers part-time in a low-income neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, those kids definitely relied on free or reduced price lunch and breakfast at school.

I do remember packed lunch as the norm in my personal experience. Getting your first lunchbox was a big deal, the transition between half-day kindergarten and Actual School. I think mine was Land Before Time themed. (Littlefoot! Cera! Ducky!) But lunch-for-purchase at school was weirdly cool, even though it was actually gross tepid chicken burgers and pouched milk. Overcrowded schools in my district meant lunch was in shifts, demarcated like an actual class on your schedule; you could have A lunch as early as 10:30, or starve until E lunch at 1:30.

This also seems like a good moment to mention NeverSeconds, the Scottish schoolchild's lunch blog that just goes to show that terrible unhealthy school lunches are cross-cultural.
posted by basalganglia at 10:26 AM on January 13 [19 favorites]


Wouldn't hot lunches at home imply a stay-at-home adult (parent, grandparent, nanny) and a super short walk time between school and home, or a really long lunch break?

I'm going to tangentially geek out a bit here. Toronto in particular deliberately built many small elementary schools, especially between about 1955-1972, in order to create walkable neighbourhoods. While I'm a fan and my kids are able to walk to school, this also resulted, in some areas like mine, in small schools with part-time librarians, etc....and no cafeterias. (This changes at the high school level.)

Some daycares, especially those operating inside the school property, do actually offer hot lunch and so the kids go to daycare for lunch and then back to school and then back to daycare. We also have some programs like a lunch lady delivery service which, for a pretty hefty fee ($8/lunch), will deliver tailored lunches (vegan, gluten-free, cheese-loving, blah blah) to the school if enough parents sign up.

There also still are some very antiquated views though...in 2011 I got a letter which said I could sign the enclosed form if I wanted my (grade 1) child to stay for lunch at school in a disused classroom (supervised, barely) but that the school really recommended that he come home or go to a neighbour's for a hot lunch. I wrote a letter to the superintendent pointing out that women's participation in the workforce was reaching 80% and they have changed the wording, not sure if that was because of me or because the principal changed.

I think we are actually behind here when it comes to schools and nutrition. It's not a part of the safety net. My son had a friend going through something who was begging for his leftovers, and for about half a year I packed an extra lunch for him, because I knew the school wouldn't be able to do a lot. That's no good.

I will say that I do think that planning, packing, and eating lunches every single day has been a net benefit to our middle-class family, because then our lunches are a part of our sort of food ecosystem and my kids have taken on more responsibilities because they kind of know they will be stranded at school with whatever is in their lunchbag. I'm glad I haven't had to argue about "please don't only eat french fries and chocolate milk." But we're privileged.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:58 AM on January 13 [24 favorites]


Yeah, the lack of school lunches in Canada is not something I think is a good thing, even compared to unhealthy US ones. (Many private schools include a hot lunch in their fees, but there are not that many food-insecure scholarship kids at those schools.)

(In fact in Quebec they are right now looking into required school fees which include lunch supervision -- not food, just for the option to leave your kid at the school for the lunch hour. I get why it costs to have before or after school care, but this seems clearly part of free public school. Which, on preview, is something warriorqueen talks about in Ontario.)
posted by jeather at 11:05 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]


Yeah, there definitely still is food insecurity in Ontario. I volunteered at a free breakfast program when I was in HS, too. I kind of make the assumption that in the absence of such programs parents would still feed their kids breakfast and instead go without something (perhaps even food), themselves. People feed their kids if there's any way they possibly can. I'm not claiming that's ideal, but it does seem like "make sure parents have enough money" has advantages over "turn kids diets into a school thing." It's not just about the nutrituion, it's about the cultural aspects of food. In Toronto most kids are children of immigrants. The food they would eat at home (or packed) is not just more nutritious than most cafeteria lunches, it's different food. There's a history of schools trying to assimilate immigrant students' food/diet/cooking. Lunch-served-by-school may not be deliberately part of that, but I'm sure it contributes.

Going home for lunch doesn't require a stay-at-home parent. I went "home" to my babysitter's house as did about 2/3 of the kids, I would guess. Once we were in gr. 6 or so, we went home to empty houses, the microwave and a plate of leftovers our parents left for us.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:12 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]


School lunch is a new thing here in Denmark, too. And some places it still doesn't work. In Copenhagen, where it does work, it is really good, and the way you apply and get free lunch for your kids if you are low income is designed so no one can see the difference. Everything is made from scratch and 90% organic and there are choices for halal, kosher and vegan. My daughter worked for them doing prep for a while as a weekend job, and she said the produce was great and the kitchens are restaurant standard. That said, my kids and my relief kids prefer the lunch boxes I make. My sister in law, a teacher, expressed it this way: a lunch box is a little bit of tangible love you can carry with you into the scary school every single day. That's a big thing if you are a kid.
And I've been packing extra lunches for friends of my kids all along. Not every day every year, but maybe half of the time. It's weird that we have this fine welfare state and then this is where we fail as a nation. There's always been school milk, though.
posted by mumimor at 11:19 AM on January 13 [7 favorites]


Going home requires that you be within a very short walking distance of your school, in a neighbourhood where it is safe to walk (assuming the schools allow kids to just walk out without a parent signing them out, not always the case), and either someone AT home or someone you are paying to feed and watch your kids. It's not that it's a bad option, it's that for a lot of people it's an unreasonable option.
posted by jeather at 11:24 AM on January 13 [16 favorites]


Better to be starving, unable to concentrate in school, but still skinny, I guess.

jeather, I don't really appreciate how you made it sound like that's something I believe.

Most of us were on sandwiches and something, like a fruit or some crisps or a Penguin bar and we would share which, while it's not going to mitigate an equally absent breakfast, is better than nothing. As others have mentioned I think that what you are exposed to food-wise as a child forms part of your future relationship to food and some of the shit being touted as legitimate food is going to create habits and boundries that will shorten people lives.
posted by Iteki at 11:31 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]


Without going into too much detail, you'd be surprised how many kids at many different financial levels don't get fed on a regular basis. I can't explain it but for some parents making sure their kids are eating is not a priority.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:47 AM on January 13 [27 favorites]


Cool. What do you do if you are a low-income kid in America whose parents may or may not have the wherewithal to invest in the kind of "future relationship with food" that would be ideal in the kind of world you don't have access to?

I'm shaking my head over here at the options you seem to think American school districts and families with food insecurity seem to have, and I have to say I'm bristling at your high-handed "oh, the lunch ladies were defensive because they were basically poisoning the children, I understand" framing. You're assuming that people have access to a whole hell of a lot more than they actually have here. Do you understand what food insecurity means? What kinds of kids are you imagining here? Where do you think they're standing on Maslow's hierarchy?
posted by sciatrix at 11:47 AM on January 13 [38 favorites]


Just to clarify my previous comment, for many other parents making sure their kids eat is impossible due to financial issues. I'm speaking specifically of parents that aren't in that horrible situation.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:55 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]


My father talks about going home for lunch in the middle of the school day; this was in the 1940s and 50s in a mid-sized city in the US midwest. It was very definitely based around the idea that of course the kids' mothers would be at home with nothing better to do than cook Timmy and Susie a hot lunch. (I mean, what else would she be doing?) But it enabled construction of lots of relatively small, walkable elementary schools; basically just a bunch of classrooms and maybe some play fields or a small gym. He never had to ride a bus to school until he got to what would now be called Junior High, and at that point the schools had cafeterias (and other amenities you'd associate with a big public school, like sports-specific practice fields, a gym, a real library, a theater, music rooms, etc.).

While I'd like to think that all ended due to a realization that blithely assuming that someone would be home to cook lunch for their children every day was a really stupid and sexist assumption, I think it was more that school funding started to come under pressure, and elementary and primary schools started to get consolidated for efficiencies of scale. Now it's pretty much de rigueur for even kindergarten students to have to take a bus (or be driven) to school, and that implies either a cafeteria or bringing lunch with them. (Unless it's half-day kindergarten, but even really backwards parts of the US have started to go to full-day, it seems.)

I went to one of those then-shiny, new, "consolidated" public elementary schools, with the big cafeteria and students eating in shifts. My recollection was that it was considered fairly uncool to eat school lunch in elementary and middle school (even at that age, kids recognized that it was a thing that the poor kids had to do, and therefore you should not do it, lest you be mistaken for a smelly poor kid), but suddenly in highschool it became cool, and bringing a lunch was not. Maybe because the price jumped up to the point where you were demonstrating disposable income by buying lunch rather than bringing it. But the quality of the food also increased dramatically, which probably helped.

My guess is if you made school lunch (and breakfast!) free for all students, and it became just an expected part of public education, then you'd see a lot more parental interest in the quality of the food. As it is, parents who are concerned probably just send their kids in with healthier food. But expecting it to be gratis for everyone is a bit laughable, admittedly, given the cost pressures on education in general.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:00 PM on January 13 [7 favorites]


"In my local school, for instance, those healthy virtuous lunch recommendations touted above allow the kids to drink sweetened strawberry skim milk, or sweetened chocolate skim milk, but definitely not full-fat milk,"

Let me tell you, the one school-food thing parents will come out to protest IN FORCE is your attempt to remove the flavored milk. BOY. HOWDY. Industry and Big Ag is responsible for a lot of this, but I place the blame for flavored milk squarely on parents. It boggles my mind.

The lunches did get a lot better under the Obama rules -- when I was on the school board, one of the things my board did was we had for dinner whatever the high schools had for hot lunch that day. It was VERY educational, and the improvements after the Obama rules came in was quite marked. (For one thing, they couldn't make food palatable with huge quantities of salt anymore so there were so many more herbs and spices and everything just tasted better.)

"You may ask what those kids do when school isn't in session. In my old neighborhood, which had a lot of low-income families, there was a city-sponsored free-lunch truck that came around every weekday in the summer and gave out free sandwiches to anyone under 18 who wanted one. During shorter school breaks, I assume a lot of kids go hungry."

There are several programs that high-poverty areas use. School lunch programs can run all summer, and a district may keep open a handful of buildings to cook and distribute lunches. The USDA also funds a summer hunger program (part of the same suite of programs that provides food for impoverished elderly people) that delivers food to children via a variety of methods, including lunch trucks. For breaks where school is closed (winter break, spring break), some of these official programs may be in place, or food may be provided privately through park districts, YMCAs, libraries, or churches. For weekends -- but especially three-day weekends -- our schools partnered with local charities for a "backpack snackpack" program, where on Friday afternoons, when the kids are out at recess, children who receive free- or reduced-price lunch get a bag of shelf-stable food put in their backpack. Many of these kids don't have cooking facilities at home, so it tends towards the unwrap-and-eat. Often a couple of apples, some granola bars, small cans of V8, just-add-water mac & cheese, peanutbutter crackers, etc. It isn't nearly enough food for a child to get through the weekend, and it isn't very healthy, and we know a lot of those children are sharing with younger siblings. But it's what we can do to provide food.

This, incidentally, is why large urban districts and high-poverty districts are SO reluctant to close schools for weather, even when it is obviously dangerous for children to travel to school, and they can only get 30% of the staff there and don't even teach classes -- if school closes, kids don't eat. And some of those kids don't have heat at home.

--

In Peoria my kids went to Community Eligibility Provision schools, where if the poverty rate in the school is above a certain number, it's cheaper for the feds to give EVERYONE free lunch. Middle-class parents were initially suspicious of this idea, but oh my God it is glorious. It removes school lunch stigma (almost everyone's eating it); it provides food for children who don't meet the eligibility guidelines but who are nonetheless food insecure; it catches kids who are crossing in and out of the poverty guidelines (families tend not to file mid-year even if they qualify); there's no more tracking of lunch money, just a lunch lady with a counting-clicker clicking every kid who goes through the lunch line. And in a highly diverse school where parents don't necessarily have a lot of social connections with one another, it provides all the parents with something to talk about -- what school lunch was that day! What lunches their kids like and don't like! Plus you never have to pack a lunch again.

Now I'm at a wealthier suburban school and I have to make lunch every day and it SUCKS, and Republicans are right that if a broad-based national school lunch program is put in place where all students have access, it will be IMPOSSIBLE to ever roll back, because, you guys, not having to make lunch every day is AWESOME and once there's a middle-class constituency for free school lunch, it's staying FOREVER. (Plus once upper-middle-class parents start lobbying about the free school lunch nutrition rules, industry will get in line or get rolled over.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:08 PM on January 13 [65 favorites]


I kind of make the assumption that in the absence of such programs parents would still feed their kids breakfast and instead go without something (perhaps even food), themselves. People feed their kids if there's any way they possibly can.

Your assumption is unfounded, and if you could refrain from continuing to make glib suggestions for improvement based on them that would really help make this thread more productive. Feel free to try googling hunger and poverty in America, maybe learn about schools that decide to run food banks or send kids home with extra food on Fridays to get through the weekend, or teachers who buy food to give to hungry students on the spot, or people who start summer lunch programs for kids who are going hungry without a school lunch. People aren't serving breakfast at school because it sounds fun, they're doing so because children were not getting breakfast.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:10 PM on January 13 [35 favorites]


People feed their kids if there's any way they possibly can.

I think you mean "people feed their kids if there's any way they possibly can if they're caring and responsible parents." Not every parent is thus.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:23 PM on January 13 [22 favorites]


but I can't help but think that these foods harm rather than helping.

School meals, for a lot of children, are one of only two meals they get a day. As someone mentioned above, you can apply for welfare to help. But what if you still can't afford the discounted rate? The cafeteria workers throw your lunch in the trash. By saying " As others have mentioned I think that what you are exposed to food-wise as a child forms part of your future relationship to food and some of the shit being touted as legitimate food is going to create habits and boundries that will shorten people lives." you are most definitely implying that it's better for children to just spend the day in starvation than it is to eat junk food.

that baffles me. Fat, carbohydrates, proteins are still nutrients that people need to function. What kind of green-mongering have we gotten ourselves into that we're somehow under the impression that spending the day with a painful stomach and inability to concentrate is somehow better than eating chicken nuggets? Children without access to regular breakfast have a higher chance of failing/struggling in general when it comes to class. That, surely, will change the future relationship to education, no? Do people really hate fat people that damn much that we're willing to believe anything is better than being fat?
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:24 PM on January 13 [52 favorites]


"(Plus once upper-middle-class parents start lobbying about the free school lunch nutrition rules, industry will get in line or get rolled over.)"

And let me clarify that I am not against a synergistic school lunch program that both provides nutritious food for hungry children and provides some market stability for farmers where the government is a guaranteed buyer of a certain amount of certain crops and certain prices, which is basically how school lunch got passed in the first place. The problem is that the agricultural industry has a LOT of lobbyists, and poor children have none, so the "nutritious food for hungry children" piece gets deprecated while the "sell easy-to-grow crops to the government at a profit" piece gets larger and larger.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:25 PM on January 13 [14 favorites]


In Peoria my kids went to Community Eligibility Provision schools, where if the poverty rate in the school is above a certain number, it's cheaper for the feds to give EVERYONE free lunch.

Albany NY, also CEP... And yeah. More socialism like this.
posted by mikelieman at 12:37 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]


Your assumption is unfounded, and if you could refrain from continuing to make glib suggestions for improvement based on them that would really help make this thread more productive.

I don't think I made any suggestions. I mean I sort of implied it's good to give parents money, I guess. I didn't mean that to be glib, sorry. I get that there are lots of hungry kids in the U.S., I just thought (and maybe I'm wrong) that it was primarily because their parents can't afford to feed them.

But yes, that does assume caring, responsible parents, and maybe it's a sign of my privilege that I assume the overwhelming majority of parents to be caring and responsible.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:05 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


maybe it's a sign of my privilege that I assume the overwhelming majority of parents to be caring and responsible.

If only 20% of parents are overwhelmed, incapable, or downright evil, that still leaves a lot of kids not eating.
posted by praemunire at 1:08 PM on January 13 [20 favorites]


In Peoria my kids went to Community Eligibility Provision schools, where if the poverty rate in the school is above a certain number, it's cheaper for the feds to give EVERYONE free lunch. Middle-class parents were initially suspicious of this idea, but oh my God it is glorious. It removes school lunch stigma
My wife is a teacher in DC and it was eye-opening how much benefit you get for these programs — the educational benefits, stigma removal, avoiding issues with lunches getting stolen, reduced tardiness, etc. are worth the rather modest costs after you factor in the savings from not needing to have a whole system around determining eligibility and collecting money, which works against the kids with the least supportive family environments.

This is the kind of thing which would make a lot of sense to advocate for on a local or state level since everywhere it works builds support for a better national model.
posted by adamsc at 1:10 PM on January 13 [21 favorites]


I can only speak for our school district (Northern Virginia), but it seems to be reasonably managed:
* All grade levels get breakfast and lunch
* There is no flavored milk for breakfast
* All kids get an account code for their meals so there’s no differentiation between normal and free/reduced meals
* All kids have the opportunity to eat. It is strictly against policy to deny any kid a meal. If they forget their code, it can be looked up at the register, if they don’t have an account that is dealt with administratively between the school and the parents.
* The focus is on nutritious meals that the kids will enjoy, with all the trade-offs that entails.
* No one from any of the cafeterias attend Las Vegas conventions or are courted by big food interests. I don't know if this happens at the district level (possibly), but it certainly does not at the school level.

I also think some schools are piloting the free meals for all, but I don’t believe there’s been any widespread rollout though.

Just some anecdata from our neck of the woods.
posted by forforf at 1:10 PM on January 13 [11 favorites]


I don't think school provides food and kids go hungry are the only alternatives.

when community groups in the US try to organize free food for school-aged children they are investigated by the FBI for terrorism and extrajudicially executed.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:34 PM on January 13 [38 favorites]


Post-Obama, I’m of the opinion that the hot lunch at my kids’ school is probably on average more healthy than Lunchables, which remain a scourge on this earth as popular (by my kids’ narcing reports on their friends) now as they were in my childhood. Food in America is hard, y’all. But yeah, strawberry milk is effing terrible.

I think this topic is an important evergreen one, but is also completely overblown, largely due to the fact that one of our national pastimes is hand-wringing over other people’s kids. The public library is chock full of completely awful YA fiction. It could be a lot better and we should keep trying to improve. But also, I’m just glad kids are reading.
posted by q*ben at 1:41 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


There are tremendous economies of scale in purchasing for a whole school, plus the ability to serve hot food, that you just don't get by having individual parents trying to pack single-serving lunches, even if the parents have the time and resources to do so.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:41 PM on January 13 [9 favorites]


In our district, all breakfasts and lunches are free for everyone. Unfortunately, not every school has a kitchen (many were built when kids went home for lunch, which incidentally I did when I was a kid except my parents both worked so they had to pay a neighbor to feed me every day instead and let me tell you that is not really a solution), so the food is prepared centrally and then trucked out to schools. It's not awesome, but it is free nutrients for all children. Alas my kid is far far far too picky to eat a school lunch and also vegetarian (his choice), so he packs. School lunches here are definitely better than nothing, but they're not great. They do the best they can given the financial and logistical constraints, but those constraints are numerous.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:47 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


" No one from any of the cafeterias attend Las Vegas conventions or are courted by big food interests. I don't know if this happens at the district level (possibly), but it certainly does not at the school level."

My district was the second-largest school lunch purchaser in the state (after Chicago), and nobody flew us to Vegas about it. Our food preparation staff was in-house and unionized, but our menus and food came from a major provider (Sodexo, Aramark, those guys), because preparing and optimizing menus to meet the national school lunch guidelines is fairly complicated undertaking and it's cheaper for that administrative overhead to be a food service company's costs.

So basically when our contract was up (usually every two years), we'd put out an RFP, and we'd get proposals from the big three and sometimes a couple smaller regional companies, and we'd sit and boringly compare the proposals. Generally we'd then ask a pair of finalists for more information (sometimes three or four, sometimes just one company had an adequate proposal), and at that point they'd send their regional sales person to sit down and talk with the school board, our budget director, our food service director, the head of our cafeteria workers' union, and usually the heads of the production kitchens at the high schools. (Like many unified districts, we had production kitchens at the high schools and "reheat" kitchens at the elementary schools.) At this point we might also bring in parent or student representatives, if we were contemplating large changes rather than mostly-administrative changes. My experience of the sales teams was fairly positive -- they knew their products and services inside and out; because we were a quite large purchaser, they were very responsive to our needs; by the time they're at the presentation point of the process, they know they're competing on food and nutrition, not price. (And, in our case, on keeping our unionized cafeteria staff happy.)

Because they deal with a ton of school cafeterias they often had solutions to problems we hadn't quite realized we had -- like when we switched providers and got reasonably sized fruit that actually tasted good, instead of mealy apples as big as your head. They also had some really interesting programs available -- one (I think it was Sodexo?) had "world" menus available as a matter of course, and instead of a "traditional American" school lunch foods, you could choose a China/Pacific menu, a Mexican menu, an Afro-Carribean menu, an Indian (subcontinent) menu, and I forget the fifth one, and some schools would do just a straight-up China/Pacific menu or whatever. But you could also mix and match, do "world food Fridays," or have one "traditional" entree and one "world" entree if you were a two-entree hot kitchen. But I thought that was wonderful! Our schools with a larger Hispanic immigrant population opted for the Mexican menu more often, and more kids at more school lunch as a result. They also had -- and I loved these even though they were ridiculous -- PRESIDENT GRAHAM CRACKERS with the heads & names of all the presidents on them that they'd have in Februrary. Every school board meeting in February we'd be comparing and trading presidents, and we were grown-ass adults. Like I guess they were educational but mostly they were hilarious.

Anyway, again, there's nothing inherently wrong with this structure, and working with Sodexo or whomever definitely reduced our administrative costs in not having to set up menus and do the nutritional compliance on our own. But Sodexo's (and Aramark's etc.) incentives need to be heavily aligned with the needs of students, not the needs of shareholders or farmers or management. Under the Obama administration that was provided by very strict regulatory framework; unfortunately every rollback of that framework will mean it's easier for food service companies to serve the needs of shareholders, managers, and farmers at the expense of children and schools.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:52 PM on January 13 [41 favorites]


"so the food is prepared centrally and then trucked out to schools. It's not awesome, "

Yeah, this is one area where we felt like our in-house unionized cafeteria staff made a big difference, and our large-district purchasing power made a big difference. When the switch was made to all-whole-grains, our cafeteria staff told us in the first week that the whole grain pasta did not do well in a production kitchen-truck-reheat kitchen situation. It was disgusting and gluey. The cafeteria staff worked with the food service company to try a few different things, but none of them worked, so we were able to inform our food service company that we would no longer be serving pasta at the elementary schools because the quality was unacceptable, and because we were very large and bought a lot of food, they had a revised set of menus for us by the end of the week, with no cost change to the contract.

Smaller districts without our purchasing power (or stuck with the food service company's employees in their cafeterias, who give many fewer shits) were stuck with gluey pasta in their reheat kitchens. (The next year some of them were able to say, "Hey, we want Big District's menu, no pasta" and renegotiate.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:00 PM on January 13 [11 favorites]


Programs like this are part of why the federal shutdown distresses me so much. I know a lot of school districts around the country depend on federal matching funds to pay for their school lunches. Has that money already been disbursed? Or are we looking at a situation where the shutdown is going to deprive districts of money they’ve been counting on? I’m sure (well at least hopeful) that most schools have some sort of contingency plan, but that doesn’t sound sustainable to me
posted by timelord at 2:19 PM on January 13 [7 favorites]


"Has that money already been disbursed? Or are we looking at a situation where the shutdown is going to deprive districts of money they’ve been counting on?"

In a catastrophic situation where federal funds just aren't forthcoming, states will probably pick up the slack at least for a while. (A lot of USDA programs are state pass-throughs or have state matching components, which may make it easier for states to step in until the federal funds come through.)

Experience of the two-year Illinois no-budget situation says that where they have contracts, private providers will generally keep providing services as long as they're able to afford to float the government, because the contracts clause of the Constitution makes it very difficult for governmental entities to avoid paying for services rendered, so large food service companies will probably keep providing services with every expectation they'll be paid in the end. (And with the sure knowledge that they have lots and lots of lobbyists to complain if they aren't.) Smaller providers will be driven out of business because they don't have the deep pockets to afford the float.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:34 PM on January 13 [10 favorites]


We don't do school lunch, so I don't particularly worry about calories from that.
Our school contracts out, so the meals are fairly healthy and have pretty balanced options as far as I know.

What really gets me is the sheer amount of "treats" that seem to show up in every classroom.
Cupcakes for someone's birthday, candy for Halloween, baking to teach measurements, sugar rings for Chinese new year.

I'm all for celebrations, especially of other cultures and traditions, but it's hard to tell your kid they can't have someone's birthday cupcake when everyone else is taking one.
posted by madajb at 3:28 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


There's a decent salad buffet provided along with this as well as bread, butter, coffee, etc.

You have free coffee for students?
Man, that would have been a totally different high school experience for me.
posted by madajb at 3:30 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


maybe it's a sign of my privilege that I assume the overwhelming majority of parents to be caring and responsible.

Wouldn't care to speculate as to what it's a sign of, but yes, this is a completely unsubstantiated assumption. Be thankful you haven't had to deal with the world of uncaring and irresponsible parents, of which there are shockingly high numbers.

With the benefit of hindsight I now realize how much pressure the school lunch program took off my mom - she knew that at least we were getting fed at school and there wasn't any real way my dad could trade our lunch cards for beer.

And I'd like to join in the chorus of people who'd rather kids have donuts and pizza than fucking starve to death. Like, this isn't a choice that should have to be made, and it's super-embarrassing that this country doesn't take all its billionaires and scrape the relatively tiny amount from their pockets that would allow us make sure that every single child has proper nutrition. But for a lot of kids in the US it's literally a choice between cheap simple carbs provided by the state, or nothing.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:58 PM on January 13 [23 favorites]


Weirdly right after I made this comment my mom called to tell me about the two (of seven) little kids she invited over and fed this afternoon, after seeing them walking up the hill underdressed for the 10-degree (F) weather and worrying that no one was looking out for them.*

And yup, in their case there's never anything in the fridge but milk, the mom works at McDonald's just enough hours to not get benefits, the step-dad's a stay-at-home drunk who never even notices the kids are gone, and according to the kids they mostly eat school lunch, chocolate milk, and whatever they can scrounge at other kids' birthday parties.

Mom said she felt bad ordering them pizza but it was the only thing they seemed super-excited for, although they kept wandering around the house marveling at all the food my stepdad has (dude does tend to stock up).

So yeah, that was quite a coincidence.

*Mom used to work for WIC, and my sister is a social worker in the same small town, so between the two of them I hear a lot of these stories.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:09 PM on January 13 [10 favorites]


Most kids went home or to a babysitter's for lunch.

I grew up in Mississauga, Ontario (the very edge of what would loosely be considered suburban Toronto before Oakville and Mississauga developed the miles of fallow farmer fields between them). In my 2500+ student high school I was one of probably only about a hundred or so kids that went home for lunch (our bused in population was something like just 3 buses so almost everyone was within walking distance).

I'm guessing any school where most kids went home at lunch must have been in pretty dense city areas because it sure wasn't the case in the suburbs that most kids went home. My school even had two lunch shifts because the cafeteria/assembly room wasn't large enough to hold the lunch at school population. Our cafeteria served only the worst prepared from frozen junk food of the time (which kids liked but I couldn't afford very often because I was both cash poor and cheap).

That said I made a two mile round trip for a toasted peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk so it wasn't exactly a win nutritionally but I really hated packed sandwiches.
posted by srboisvert at 4:53 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Every time I read a school lunch story I am thankful that my son attends Minneapolis public schools. They do a really fantastic job with the food - free breakfast for everyone, afternoon snacks for kids who do club or extracurricular activities after school, farm to school items, regular rotations of seasonal vegetables, salad bar, signs reminding them how many veggies they should be getting daily... sure, there are always better options for some meals (like the prepacked sandwiches for field trips, which my son informed me have “cringey cheese”) and not every site has a full kitchen (some “satellite” elementaries bring in precooked items from the nearest kitchen) but it’s by and large awesome not to have to worry about the quality. My wife and I attended the same middle and high school, so we have told him horror stories about our school lunches. I shudder to think of him having to eat the same sad soggy cardboard-boxed pizza we were fed as kids. He feels lucky.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:40 AM on January 14 [4 favorites]


Morrissey mentioned in his memoirs that the smell of his high school cafeteria is what motivated him to fully commit to vegetarianism. I believe it. I went to decent regional HS in Canada long ago, and the food available for purchase was really gross. I don't think any student ever bought lunch there.
posted by ovvl at 6:35 AM on January 14


My kids are in elementary school and their lunch is only 30 minutes, so even though we live in the neighborhood and within a 5 minute walk of the school, taking them home for lunch would be impossible. The only thing they could wolf down in 20 minutes would be the equivalent of fast-food nonsense. Lunch time, just like everything else has been compressed.

Their lunches are decent, and not free (except for a select group of low-income students) but in the summer free lunch is provided at a few elementary schools around town. They don't serve greasy beeftips, fruit crumble, and stone hard bread like they did when I ate school lunch.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:35 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Meant to say earlier that even in deep-red Carbon County Wyoming the school district actually does have a program that would let kids take home food from school so they'd at least have PB&J or something over the weekend; whether from pride, illiteracy, or unawareness, their mother hasn't taken advantage of this.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:50 AM on January 14


There is no school lunch in Ontario (not sure about other provinces).

I have to wonder if part of the reason for that policy is to avoid the possibility of somehow, accidentally, feeding a First Nations child.
posted by happyroach at 8:59 AM on January 14 [5 favorites]


Yeah, there definitely still is food insecurity in Ontario...I'm not claiming that's ideal, but it does seem like "make sure parents have enough money" has advantages over "turn kids diets into a school thing."

As someone who was a low-income child in Ontario (on welfare) and who had a 1.5 hour school bus ride in each direction (and thus no logistical way to go home and was not allowed off school property anyways) -- I actually would still opt for the "more money for poor families" over school lunch programs. My lunch (a peanut butter - still allowed then - sandwich, an apple, a tupperware cup of milk, homemade cookies/brownie, etc.) was boring but nutritious, and much lower in sugar and fat than school meals need to be for the same cost.

It's not ideal. I think I would have loved hot meals through my school - especially if they had french fries; junk food is delicious. But if it has been a choice between me having exciting hot lunches with tasty junk food and my family having enough money for all of us to eat healthily the rest of the time, the adult me thinks that the latter option is better - especially since we also ate well (or even better) when we weren't in school over the summer.

That said:
- not all families have the same opportunities to feed their children well on low-incomes - I was blessed with a mother who had the time (good welfare benefits let her work part-time), some high level food prep & preservation skills (especially for freezing and pickling) and family networks that meant she never got caught in a feast-famine cycle (link to article re SNAP participants running out of money at the end of the month).
- Social benefits supports have been drastically reduced since I experienced them (1980s); at the times, the benefits were just enough that a family could feed themselves with CAREFUL planning (not much wriggle room), but since the Harris-years I don't think they are any more

The solution is one which needs many prongs:
- increased minimum wage (for the working poor), with generous social benefits / UBI
- Combined with supplementary nutritional programs in schools: maybe instead of fixating on a hot lunch, the programs could concentrate on providing supplementary cold food that was simpler but tasty: it would have to be regionally specific, but apples, milk, carrot sticks, bagels would all be easier to serve and are kid-friendly.
- Combined with community based programs to improve food security, including gardening, cooking, preserving - and breakfast clubs (which also have the added benefit of creating a social space for children and parents before the school bus came, as well as food).
posted by jb at 9:41 AM on January 14 [5 favorites]


You're assuming that people have access to a whole hell of a lot more than they actually have here. Do you understand what food insecurity means? What kinds of kids are you imagining here? Where do you think they're standing on Maslow's hierarchy?

And you're assuming that commentators in this thread haven't been / aren't currently food insecure. Many of us have lived experience with poverty and food insecurity, as well as experience with parents whose children don't get fed (whether through poverty, parental choices or - usually - some of both). I grew up in a building where many kids were eating "ketchup soup" (hot water and ketchup) in the week before the welfare cheques arrived; my brother and I were anemic, because our mom couldn't afford enough meat (and we wouldn't eat liver that she could afford). I am privileged now, but I still have close relatives that experience regular food insecurity.

But there isn't one root cause of food insecurity: some of the families were hungry not just because they were poor, but because parents also had drug addictions or or mental health issues or had gotten caught in overspending at the beginning of the month - or any of the above. (This isn't a judgement on poor people; middle class people spend badly all the time. They can afford to.)

So political responses need to address different aspects of food insecurity: money, access, skills, social and mental health support. Some provision of food through schools maybe should be part of this program, but I wouldn't like to see it replace good cash support for families (which offers more choice autonomy for families).

There is no school lunch in Ontario (not sure about other provinces).

I have to wonder if part of the reason for that policy is to avoid the possibility of somehow, accidentally, feeding a First Nations child.


I understand the cynicism, but that would be federal spending (on reserve), just like the health care.

I think the real reason is that before Harris (c.1995), social benefits policies emphasized cash benefits to families and subsidized housing. We also had no food stamps. US benefits policies tend to be less generous and more controlling, and support more in-kind care (like school lunches) which can also be a subsidy to certain industries.

Unfortunately, the Anglo-world (e.g. English Canada, US, UK) went anti-social welfare starting in the 1970s, coming to fruition the 1996 US Welfare Reform (most horrible law), and in Ontario a 20% cut to benefits under Mike Harris (ritualistic spit). We're still paying the price: support in Ontario (Ontario Works) for a single adult without children is currently at about the same level (~$600-700/month) that it was before Harris cut it in the 1990s. It's been 20 years.
posted by jb at 10:05 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Your assumption is unfounded, and if you could refrain from continuing to make glib suggestions for improvement based on them that would really help make this thread more productive. Feel free to try googling hunger and poverty in America, maybe learn about schools that decide to run food banks or send kids home with extra food on Fridays to get through the weekend, or teachers who buy food to give to hungry students on the spot, or people who start summer lunch programs for kids who are going hungry without a school lunch. People aren't serving breakfast at school because it sounds fun, they're doing so because children were not getting breakfast.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 3:10 PM on January 13 [29 favorites +] [!]


None of your points demonstrate that it's not a lack of parental money that leads to hunger. The poster wasn't arguing against supporting the poor, she was arguing in favour of better cash welfare.

I have studied welfare systems and the history of welfare; I have lived on welfare system. Given my druthers, I would take cash welfare over in-kind programs any day. Because my mother received a good check from the government, I didn't need to take home from school. We went to the grocery store instead, where she paid in cash.

Research shows that giving poor people money is better than in-kind.

Now, maybe the best system is a combination (better cash benefits, with supplementary food programs in schools and communities). But that's not on the table in either US or Canadian policy, and I would not like to replace our Ontario system with the one they have in the US.
posted by jb at 10:15 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Because my mother received a good check from the government, I didn't need to take home from school. We went to the grocery store instead, where she paid in cash.

my brother and I were anemic, because our mom couldn't afford enough meat (and we wouldn't eat liver that she could afford).

If only there were a cheap (about $3), effective way to feed a bunch of kids so they don’t suffer nutritional deficiencies. And you have the kids all in the same place anyway.

Find a better more cost effective way to feed kids. You can use the money you save on whatever else the government spends money on, possibly including welfare payments. Nobody’s saying you can’t do both; they’re saying school lunches work.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:26 AM on January 14 [4 favorites]


Find a better more cost effective way to feed kids. You can use the money you save on whatever else the government spends money on, possibly including welfare payments. Nobody’s saying you can’t do both; they’re saying school lunches work.

Except when they don't - as in the original article (you know, the subject of the post). And I never went hungry on weekends or in the summer, because we had groceries at home. I grew up in a building where everyone was poor, most families were single mothers (on welfare and/or working poor). We didn't have teachers buying us food - because our parents had it at home. The food we had was culturally appropriate; heavy on carbohydrates and fats, but lighter in sugar. Cash benefits offered more choice and more dignity.

Of course, not every single family had food at home (for many varied reasons - not always just lack of cash). So we also had a local food bank in the building, and a breakfast club that ran every weekday morning. (The fact that this club ran in our building rather than at school also provided employment to a local person). But this was more about dealing with people falling through the cracks than trying to make in-kind food provision the mainstay of nutrition.

There is evidence that suggests that cash benefits are, in general, a more cost effective way to feed children and their families, as cited in the link I give above. It is true that most of the research on cash-versus-in-kind programs (as cited in the article I linked above) has been done in developing countries. The context of a richer country may be different. But I have never heard of any evidence that programs like the school lunch programs in the US are more cost-effective than generous social welfare cash benefits.

Maybe too many people in this thread don't have enough experience in a place with good cash benefits and no school lunches to give an informed opinion.
posted by jb at 10:46 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


jb: my brother and I were anemic, because our mom couldn't afford enough meat (and we wouldn't eat liver that she could afford).

Huffy Puffy: If only there were a cheap (about $3), effective way to feed a bunch of kids so they don’t suffer nutritional deficiencies. And you have the kids all in the same place anyway.


That might have helped my brother, but when we were anemic, I was 3 and not in school. Not covered by school-lunches: babies, toddlers, and also (you know) parents. They aren't all in the same place.

Instead, a social worker gave my mom a recipe for liverwurst that she could make from the liver we wouldn't eat, and we got better. (The fact that she couldn't afford other meat isn't a sign that we needed school lunches, but that welfare rates should just have been higher).

School lunches feel like a band-aid on a bleeding wound. I would never suggest getting rid of them without dealing with the wound first. But wouldn't it be better if could just deal with the wound and stop (metaphorically) stabbing families with food insecurity by giving them more money?
posted by jb at 10:54 AM on January 14


There is some nuance to this. Last week, I had a stark reminder of my childhood, which I mostly happily repress. My mother set fire to her bed, because she smokes and drinks there, and while nothing serious happened, I was on the phone with her upstairs neighbor several times. One thing she said triggered me in a bad way, and I said "welcome to my life". She was embarrassed, and told me that another neighbor, the mother of my best friend as a child, had told them all about how I was neglected, and hungry, as a child. Every day after school, I'd go home with my friend and we'd eat an entire block of cheese together. Now I wonder if I was the one eating all the cheese. My grandmother would compensate by having my friend at our family farm for all holidays including Christmas.
Not all children have a mother who makes the best out of what little she has. Some do. I bet my kids never noticed we sometimes had little money for food. (They did know we had little money for other stuff).
My mother is an alcoholic. But I know some beautiful kids whose single dad is a straight and cool guy who just has no idea how to feed a family. For them school lunch is a life saver, too.

First of all, poor families need cash to pay their bills and to manage daily life. But school lunches still play a significant role for the health and development of children of disadvantaged children. We need both. And we need school lunch to be healthy and educational.
posted by mumimor at 11:01 AM on January 14 [6 favorites]


Do people really hate fat people that damn much that we're willing to believe anything is better than being fat?

yes, absolutely, some people do.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:13 AM on January 14 [4 favorites]


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