The Stimulus Package Can Be Better: Think School Lunch



school-lunch

Effective problem solving involves unleashing synergies that address core problems. The Obama Administration and Congress are obviously aware of this. Consider the following example related to the emerging economic stimulus package: During his Inaugural Address, the President stated his intention to “rebuild our schools.” Reflecting this vow, the House stimulus package includes nearly $140 billion for school construction. It is good that jobs and education have been tied strategically. With a bit more reflection by the Senate, the strategic intersection of four crises – jobs, education, healthcare, and food security – could be even more elegantly addressed using school lunch programs across the nation.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has assured Americans that the USDA will put “nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs.” This reflects among other goals, the Administration’s desire to address a core cause of the healthcare crisis: Type 2 diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that if current dietary habits persist as many as one third of this nation’s kids will become diabetic. The major culprit is a form of malnutrition tied to highly processed, pre-prepared, and fast foods that are long on sugar and fat and short on vitamins and complex carbohydrates. The national costs of caring for tens of millions of Type 2 diabetics is draining public coffers and personal wealth. According to the National Diabetes Information Clearing House, the US spent nearly $120 billion to treat diabetes in 2007, 94% of which was Type 2.

One reason children eat poorly is that since the early 1980s we have been systematically cutting public investment in school lunch at all levels of government. Consequently, children no longer learn what a balanced, healthy meal looks like from their school lunch plates. Many kids, particularly those from low-income families, are robbed of what could be the most nutritious meal of their day. Today, if kids eat school lunch at all, it usually comes in a prepackaged tray devoid of nutrition provided by food service companies. Most likely the meal has been shipped from afar in refrigerated trucks. It is then thawed and heated at a central location, packed in a heat retaining case, and delivered to a school in rolling racks. Because we believed it would save money, school cafeterias, lunch staffs, and healthy fresh food were cut. The cuts in school lunch programs help to cause the diabetes epidemic, which will literally cost taxpayer funded healthcare programs trillions of dollars to treat.

Although the House stimulus bill does contain $198 million for replacing “school food service” equipment, it will not fix school lunch. It may in fact make it easier to continue using the current approach by providing more microwaves and rolling racks. The Senate can do better.

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A wise Senator could offer an amendment to create a USDA block grant program to reignite school lunch cafeterias that would replace the outsourced food service system. Funds could be passed to cities and counties to hire builders to reconstruct the cafeterias and nutrition experts to develop healthy menus to meet cultural preferences. School districts could hire distribution companies to reorient the food sourcing toward healthy local farms and ranches that use sustainable or organic production practices, enhancing regional food security, creating additional agricultural jobs, and improving ecological health. School principals could hire home economics teachers and contract with organic gardeners or local farmers to teach our children how to improve and maintain their own health by eating food they learn to glean or grow, cook, and preserve by canning, pickling and drying. With school lunch infrastructure in place from the stimulus package, the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act this fall should render more positive results. This is particularly true, if the federal contribution to the budgets for school breakfast and lunch programs is increased, as they should be if we want more healthy kids.

I urge the Senate to think a bit more deeply about strategic use of the stimulus package in order to optimize the bill’s transformative capacity. Let’s begin by enlarging the education and nutrition investment goals to create not only more jobs and better education, but also lower healthcare costs and more secure regional food supplies.

Photo: a la corey

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  1. nona
    Thursday, February 5th, 2009
    And how about encouraging the development of on-site school gardens for schools that receive construction funds? Less asphalt, more food.
  2. Thursday, February 5th, 2009
    Do you have evidence that "a prepackaged tray devoid of nutrition provided by food service companies" is less healthy than carrot sticks and apple slices thrown in the trash? And does nona (commenter) see these on site school gardens useful in Michigan or Ohio where they might grow only in May, or just in SW border states so illegals can tend them?
  3. Thursday, February 5th, 2009
    Obviously, carrot sticks and apple slices thrown in the trash are not moving us forward. A better question might be what can cafeterias do for the health of kids and regional economies that precooked, frozen and transported food cannot do. I think it is clear that freshly prepared and culturally appropriate foods are more likely to achieve higher consumption rates, particularly when combined with curriculum related to food preparation and nutrition/health. You will note my comments call for approaches that are systemic and unleash synergy. You cannot work with one small piece of a huge problem and expect to make much progress. The challenge of more jobs, healthy kids, regional food security, and lower healthcare is not simple. There are interlinking dynamics that must be addressed simultaneously.

    As you point out, gardens are tougher in some places than others due to climate. And their are ways to deal with that. School gardens can also be used as community gardens during the summer providing kids and families a way to stay connected to food and good health.

    Not sure how to respond to your statement about illegals in the SW. I sense it may be facetious.
  4. Dan
    Thursday, February 19th, 2009
    I do take exception to some of what you have implied in this article. I work for a large school districts nutrition services dept. Until the US can bring food closer to its urban centers, locally sourced food is not a reality for most urban school districts. We did get apples from a local grower this year, however that was a fluke of nature and the farm could not commit saying that they don't expect the crop next year to be as productive. Organic--there is no way we can provide organic products to students and keep costs affordable for students. Until prices come down it just is not a reality. Gardens-- can be a useful tool for teaching. They are not a reality for feeding hundreds of students. Also USDA and health department regulations require food be served to students be from "approved" sources. That translates to inspected. We had an urban school that tried doing a garden for teaching purposes. What the homeless did not get, the rats did. Some of the items you raise could be possible for small rural districts of 5 to 10 schools. Beyond that, it is just a pipe dream until the nations food structure changes
  5. Ellen McNeilly
    Friday, February 20th, 2009
    A big opportunity may be being missed here: in most communities, schools are civil defense/disaster shelters. If they had functioning kitchens, not only would they better serve students, they would be able to better serve these other functions.
    Additionally, funding for building the kitchens (or renovating them), could possibly be secured through FEMA, as well as other "stimulus" sources.