Why “Clean Label” School Lunch May Be a Pipe Dream

When it comes to school food, when is the perfect the enemy of the good?


Many parents have trouble accessing school food ingredient lists, and when they do, they’re often appalled by what they learn. They might expect to find chemical additives in snacks, such as Hot Cheetos, but it can be surprising to learn, as one parent who contacted me recently did, that a chicken sandwich entreé can contain upwards of 60 ingredients.  

In response to such discoveries, some parents, advocates, and lawmakers are pushing for something they’re calling “clean label” school food. There’s no consensus on what the term “clean label” means and, indeed, there are entire conferences and books devoted to the topic to help guide food manufacturers. But various interpretations have one thing in common: They trend toward less processed foods with fewer ingredients.

One bill currently pending in Maryland, called the Chemical-Free Schools Act [PDF], would require schools throughout the state to avoid artificial flavors and colors, artificial sweeteners, bread or flour additives, brominated vegetable oil, MSG, preservatives, sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, sulfur dioxide and sodium sulfite.

While no one can deny that more fresh, whole foods in schools is a good idea, clean label initiatives raise a critical question: Is it possible for districts to serve such food with the funding they currently receive from the federal government?

posed this question to school food professionals recently on Facebook and the answer was a resounding “no.” Here are some representative responses:

Without additional district funding, and/or increased government reimbursement and considering union negotiated labor contracts and inadequate kitchen equipment which would need to be updated/upgraded, and the rising cost of food, attaining a 100 percent clean label is most likely unattainable for most districts.

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I would love to be able to purchase all clean label foods, but not an option.

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Agreed: IMPOSSIBLE … If USDA increased funding I could buy what I could afford, which would be “cleaner food”. When USDA says jump, I ask how high?

Even Chef Ann Cooper, the “Renegade Lunch Lady” whose progressive Boulder, Colorado district is held up as a national model, agreed in a recent email.

Her district raises outside funds to offset expenses such as equipment and training, which in turn allows her to direct more of her reimbursement budget to food and labor. Even with that extra funding, she says, “We work really hard to only serve clean food, but we do use some USDA foods—not the cleanest. As hard as we try, ‘clean’ food is expensive. This year, our organic milk cost $100,000 more than last year, and the same is true for our antibiotic-free beef and chicken.”

Indeed, if Maryland’s Chemical-Free Schools Act, which is unfunded, passes, it would place a significant financial burden on school districts. The bill’s own fiscal and policy note reads: “[P]rohibiting these ingredients or chemicals in school meals may limit the availability of food distributors and significantly increase costs for school meal programs.”

Lindsey Parsons, the co-director of Real Foods for Kids — Montgomery, a group which strongly backs the Maryland bill, brings a different analysis to the cost question. “It could cause schools to incur greater costs in the short run, but in the long run, it could save money on behavioral services because there would be fewer disciplinary issues,” says Parsons. “And if it leads to more scratch cooking, schools might see an increase in their revenues, as children start to like the food better, and full-paying families allow their children to eat the school food.”

Unfortunately there are two problems with this logic. First, school food departments are self-supporting, with a budget separate from their districts’, so any theoretical reduction in expenditures related to discipline would not automatically be directed back into the school meals. Second, greater scratch cooking could well increase participation, but most schools would need to invest considerable funds up front for equipment, training, and additional labor before that was possible.

Another group pushing for clean label school food, the Life Time Foundation, is open about the fact that it costs more than processed food—a gap which it estimates as an additional 30-35 cents per child, per meal.  Life Time actually gives school districts participating in its program that extra funding outright for a period of three years, as well as kitchen equipment grants if needed, in exchange for ditching seven chemical ingredients [PDF] in their food.

What happens when the three-year-period expires? “During the grant period, partners are improving their programs and knowledge and collaborating with peers across the country and through our resources and education program, teaching families to eat better at home,” says Life Time spokesperson Amy Henderson. “We aim to link all the challenges so after our grant expires, nutrition staffs are trained, empowered, and equipped to continue.” So far none of the schools have finished out their contracts with the foundation.

Henderson also asserts that “healthier foods are not necessarily more expensive,” which is true to the extent that schools can obtain whole foods like raw meats, grains, and legumes from the USDA’s commodity program at low cost. But the safe preparation of such foods is labor intensive and expensive, as are adequate cooking facilities. These constraints send most districts into the arms of outside processors, which turn commodity foods into heat-n-eat entreés that are decidedly not clean label.

Districts are also attracted by the processor’s guarantee that the foods they make will pass school food audits. As one school food professional wrote on Facebook, districts have become convinced “they will ‘flunk’ reviews” if they don’t use packaged foods with certified nutrition labels.

Finally, there is an issue of supply. Several school food directors commenting on Facebook expressed this sentiment: “Even if we could afford [clean label food], we’d have to wait until our distributor carried it.”

Does this mean that clean label school food is out of reach for all districts?  Justin Gagnon, CEO of ChoiceLunch, a healthy school catering company, says no. “There are districts I know of that have less than 10 percent of students qualifying for [free or reduced price school meals], yet they insist on serving paid meals priced to match the reimbursement,” he says. “This is a big mistake.”

The key, he adds, is to assess how many parents are willing and able to pay that additional cost for a better lunch they don’t have to prepare themselves. “You’d be surprised at how many districts there are that could do this, but don’t,” he adds.

Should public school kids in affluent areas be served clean label food while their counterparts in poorer areas are stuck eating highly processed food? Ann Cooper says no. “We don’t expect our schools to teach sub-standard English, math, or science because they’re not adequately funded, and we don’t expect those domains to be budget-neutral or to raise money for their schools,” she adds, arguing that school food and food literacy need to be seen as part of the academic curriculum. “We need to understand that we can’t close the achievement gap without closing the nutrition gap.”

Sadly, the extra federal funding necessary to provide clean label food in all schools seems to be a pipe dream–at least for now. Congress will soon fund school food programs for the next five years and the School Nutrition Association, an organization of 55,000 professionals, has asked Congress (albeit half-heartedly) for a 35 cent increase in federal school meal reimbursement. Yet even if this increase is granted—a very unlikely outcome—that funding would only help struggling districts meet current nutritional requirements, not a clean-label standard.

That said, districts can and should continue to push their vendors for more clean-label products, if only to demonstrate interest, which can help make these foods more affordable. Along these lines, School Food FOCUS has leveraged the buying power of the nation’s largest districts to pressure suppliers into selling healthier, more sustainable products, such as antibiotic-free chicken.

A recent episode of the Inside School Food podcast posits that some small and mid-sized processors are proving more adept at producing affordable clean label food than their larger counterparts. And districts may be able to at least improve snacks and vending machine foods, which are especially high in chemical ingredients and not subsidized like meals are.

As Karen Devitt, co-director of Real Food for Kids Montgomery, says “The removal of items with chemical additives could even be done in two phases: change out the à la carte snacks and vending, then tackle the entrees and commodities.”

And, finally, it’s important in any discussion of clean label school food to keep a solid sense of perspective.  Chef Ann Cooper notes:  “Most people don’t eat ‘clean’ at home at every meal—so let’s not hold schools to a higher standard than what we hold ourselves to.”

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  1. Thursday, April 9th, 2015
    Two points to consider: the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia have already succeeded in eliminating 91% of a list of chemicals over the last several years, thanks to the advocacy work of Real Food for Kids (a similar but unconnected organization to ours) so some level of clean food is possible even under the current system.
    Second: What we were hoping with a statewide law was to change the demand significantly so as to impact the supply and force the producers to eliminate those chemicals from their food. The Directior of Food and Nutrition Services in our county suggested that when just our district, with its 154,000 students, eliminated some of the chemicals we had on our list, that that alone could lead to some changed products.
  2. Thursday, April 9th, 2015
    How discouraging that our schools cannot be pillars for the community in making clean foods a priority for nourishing children. That's why many moms are #CleanCouponing on our own and packing the healthiest lunches we can afford.
  3. Lorraine Lewandrowski
    Thursday, April 9th, 2015
    Is milk from the 99% of dairy farms that are not certified organic seen as "clean."?
  4. Sally G
    Saturday, April 11th, 2015
    What ever happened to brown bagging it? If a parent has quirky food hangups they should take satisfaction from packing their own idea of lunch for their kids and leave it at that. Fine to lord it over your own kids and make them bend to your whims but you're crossing the line when you demand entire school systems retool to meet your personal standards. Fact is, most of us out here really don't care what you think we should be eating.
  5. chris guerre
    Monday, April 13th, 2015
    Hey Sally - I understand you don't care what others think you should be eating. But maybe you should care about the quality and effectiveness of a federally-funded child nutrition program that is paid for with your hard-earned tax dollars (assuming you are a US citizen)? Much at the heart of the issue is really about the kids who come from far less than ideal homes and family situations....kids in foster care, kids being raised by siblings, single parents, or absent caregivers...kids living in poverty...even homeless kids. Everyone pays for the USDA school meal programs, so maybe you should care how your money is being spent, particularly when it gives thousands of less fortunate children...the only meal they might eat all day.