Monday, April 26, 2010

Education is Missing in the Lunchroom

What follows is an essay I wrote my my English 106 class:

There is no question that schools, public or private, are in place to educate children. For twelve long years, children learn facts about nearly every facet of their lives from history to geography, mathematics to biology, sex to reading and writing comprehension. Children have ample opportunities to become inspired intellectually and artistically. While education is at the core of every school, there is one place where education is sorely absent: The lunchroom.

The reason for this lack of education boils down to a lack of money. The Food and Nutrition Service department of the USDA reimburses schools a paltry $2.68 for lunches and $1.46 for breakfasts (FNS, 2009). Janet Poppendieck (2010) notes that once the labor, equipment, storage, transport, and other expenses are paid, schools are left with "somewhere between 85 cents and a dollar” to pay for the food itself. Coupled with the fact that the federal government only reimburses for the actual meals served to the children, regardless of the amount of food made, schools are now serving menu items that come pre-packaged and processed. These food items reduce the time needed for preparation and cooking, allowing for more money to be spent on the food items rather than the process. Tax-payer money that is set aside for meal programs in the schools seem to add a great deal of money to the programs, but only deal in cents as can be seen in the Child Nutrition Act which will only add an "extra 6 cents per meal per student”. It is this lack of money that has caused schools to place soda and snack machines in their halls for the added revenue and adding ala cart items. Fresh fruits and vegetables cost more than their reconstituted and frozen counterparts, making them a rare sight to behold. With the need to get as many kids as possible on the programs to be able to receive more money, schools are forced to treat their students as customers by enticing their taste buds with nutritionally low foods that are high in the taste department.

The most alarming aspect of this is the lack of quality in the foods given to children. Peter Eisler, Blake Morrison, and Anthony DeBarros (2009) investigated for three years and found “the government has provided the nation’s schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn’t meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants.” While the USDA defended their position, stating that the meat they use "meets or exceeds standards in commercial products”, this is not the case. They report (Eisler et al, 2009):

McDonald's, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day.

And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.

For chicken, the USDA has supplied schools with thousands of tons of meat from old birds that might otherwise go to compost or pet food. Called "spent hens" because they're past their egg-laying prime, the chickens don't pass muster with Colonel Sanders— KFC won't buy them — and they don't pass the soup test, either. The Campbell Soup Company says it stopped using them a decade ago based on "quality considerations."
Fast food is increasingly being seen as one of the main causes to obesity in children. The AMA’s Expert Committee (Rao, 2008) “identified the following as dietary habits that contribute to obesity: frequently consuming fast food and large volumes of sweet beverages.” And yet, while cities and nations around the world are contemplating taxing fast food consumption, a blind eye is being used on the foods served at schools.

The long term effects of eating school food are obesity, but is that the only effect? After Jamie Oliver brought healthy foods into the lunch room in the UK, “the effects, researchers said, were comparable in magnitude to those seen after the introduction of the literacy hour in the 90s” (Williams, 2010). This research “shows the performance of 11-year-old pupils eating Oliver’s meals improved by up to 8% in science and as much as 6% in English, while absenteeism due to ill-health fell by 15%” (Waites, 2010). The food that these children eat does more than just keep them alive, it increases their ability to think and improves their chances at staying healthy. The above study was only for a single age group of kids, but think of the implications. Children are expected to be taught while they are at school and the food that they are eating teaches them that eating foods that are poor in nutrition and lacking in quality are not only acceptable, but preferred. Due to the way that the federal government hands out tax payer money, schools treat children as customers during breakfast and lunch instead of students, and in doing so, they increase the chances that children will get sick as well as decrease the test scores that are needed by the school to keep the federal dollars flowing.

The solution to fix this problem comes in three parts: Increase the amount of money schools are reimbursed for feeding children, switch over to foods that are better quality and nutritionally dense, and remove the stipulation that the federal government will only reimburse the school for how many meals were served.

This sounds relatively simple and easy to understand. However, it is anything but. Increasing the reimbursement amount by just a few cents per student brings the cost for the federal government into the millions of dollars. Raising taxes is one of the highest concerns for the American populace, evidenced by politicians of all stripes promising to lower taxes if only people would vote them into office. There is a disparity between wanting to keeps children healthy and productive for their futures and the future of our world, and wanting to do it with as little money as possible.

Children prefer healthy foods over candy and other items; the largest problem is that it is not available for them. For example, “in Muscatine, Iowa, children enjoy free fruit and vegetable snacks throughout the school day… after the program began, they removed the candy vending machine because there was a 48% drop in sales of candy” (, 2010). Research has shown that “diets based heavily on foods from convenient sources are less healthy and more expensive than a well-planned menu from budget foods available from large supermarket chains” (Stephens & McDermot, 2010). Though the research was done on an individual, single family perspective, the numbers can be extrapolated. So, by giving children the foods that they need to stay in school, stay healthy, and increase their mental prowess to do better on tests it will cost the federal government less. This only works, however, if every school is purchasing healthy foods with government money so that the cost will become less with the amount purchased. There are single school systems who are switching over to healthier foods, but the costs are higher than the amount the schools are reimbursed.

The last stage in the solution is very important. By restricting federal reimbursement money for only the meals served instead of how much was purchased, schools are forced to purchase food items in single servings in order to better recoup the money spent on them. While handing out plastic packages of food to children makes it easier determine how many meals were actually served, encasing each item of food in plastic is an unnecessary cost. This takes away money that could have instead been used to increase the nutritional value of the food items, and turns schools into a fast food kitchen. The federal government needs to reimburse the schools for the number of children that the school fed instead of the number of meals served. This will allow large quantities of foods to be purchased and cooked, reducing the overall cost.

By feeding children healthy, nutrient-rich meals, they will learn to eat better in and out of school and gain an appreciation for foods that are not of the battered and fried variety. A recent study correlates this (Hastert & Babey, 2009), whose
findings suggest that adolescents who bring lunch to school from home have more positive dietary behaviors than do adolescents who get their lunches from other sources. Improving the nutritional quality of foods offered from other sources, such as the National School Lunch Program and competitive foods, could help improve adolescent dietary behaviors.
In this way, schools will begin to educate children in the lunchrooms where it has been absent for many years.


CDC. (2010). Childhood obesity. Retrieved April 3, 2010, from

Eisler, P., Morrison, B., & DeBarros, A. (2009). Fast-food standards for meat top those for school lunches. Retrieved April 7, 2010, from

FNS. (2009). School programs: Meal, snack and milk payments to states and school food authorities. Retrieved April 5, 2010, from

Hastert, T.A., & Babey, S.H. (2009). School lunch source and adolescent dietary behavior. Retrieved April 11, 2010, from

McDermott, A.J., & Stephens, M.B. (2010). Cost of eating: Whole foods versus convenience foods in a low-income model. Retrieved April 10, 2010, from

Poppendieck, J. (2010). Free for all: Fixing school food in America. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rao, G. (2008). Childhood obesity: Highlights of AMA expert committee recommendations. Retrieved April 9, 2010, from (2010). Schools and industry. Retrieved April 8, 2010, from

Waite, R. (2009). Jamie’s food fuels pupils’ brain power. Retrieved April 5, 2010, from

Williams, R. (2010). Jamie oliver's school dinners shown to have improved academic results: Absences down after chef changed junk food menu - a result which is a boost for celebrity as he struggles for US support. Retrieved April 11, 2010, from

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