Asking The Right Questions About School Food “Miracles” of 2011 | Civil Eats

Asking The Right Questions About School Food “Miracles” of 2011

Every now and then, a story appears in the media gushing about a “school food miracle worker” apparently serving healthier, higher quality food than usually found in school lunch programs, and costing no more than what a typical school district spends on a less healthy meal. The reader is left wondering why all schools don’t just do what the “miracle worker” does.

It will come as a surprise to no one to learn that things are not always as they appear in the media. The “miracle worker” who seems to do more with less is usually doing more with more. Additional funding, student demographics, labor issues, and facilities are just some of the factors that can make or break a pilot innovation, and which get short shrift in media gushfests.

How can you tell if your school can do what the “miracle” school does? You need to determine whether an innovation is replicable (can it be easily reproduced in any community?), scalable (does it work just as well for 30,000 students as it does for 300?) and sustainable (is it financially self-supporting?), because if it is not all three, it may be something that can only succeed in that one place. Everything doesn’t work everywhere.

How to know if a pilot program is replicable, scalable and sustainable? Ask these questions:

Outside resources

Does the “miracle” school or district receive extra funding not available to all schools? This could be a state reimbursement for meals in addition to the Federal payment; for example, California provides an extra .219 for every meal served to a low income child. Additional state money may be paid to only some schools; California’s Meals for Needy Pupils revenue stream, despite its name, does not apply to all meals served to needy pupils, but only to those served in the approximately one-third of California school districts which had a particular type of property tax override on the books in a certain year in the 1970’s. “Miracle” programs receiving additional funding streams may not be replicable in locations lacking that extra funding.

Does the “miracle” school have a foundation or other organized fund raising operation benefiting the meal program? If so, how much money is generated annually? Some schools are candid about their reliance on outside funds to support better quality food; however, outside fundraising may not be replicable in poorer communities, or sustainable even in wealthier communities.

Paid lunch

Another important factor is what percentage of the cafeteria meals are purchased by “paid” students (those not qualified for free/reduced meals); note that the percentage of paid students eating in the cafeteria is not the same thing as the number of students who are classified as paid. In San Francisco, 39 percent of students are classified as paid in 2011-12, but only about 15 percent of students eating school food are paid.

A “miracle” district with a substantial number of “paid” students may generate much of their revenue from the paid price for meals, especially if the paid price is $4 or higher. Compared to a district charging just $1.50 for lunch, the district with the higher paid price, and many paying students, can generate far more revenue. A relatively well-to-do community is better able to support a paid meal price of $4 or more, to help cover the cost of scratch cooking and better quality food; this probably is not replicable in a district with 60 percent-70 percent low income students.

Charges and collections

Not every student on “paid” status actually does pay–some school districts allow “paid” students who have no lunch money to “charge” the cost of the meal; later they try to collect these unpaid charges from the family, usually with mixed success.

Does the “miracle” program allow charges, and how do they collect those charges? If students are allowed to charge only three times and then are turned away, or offered only a “meal of shame,” such as cold cereal, or cheese sandwich, is your school district prepared to do that?

If school officials at the “miracle” school send a bill to parents owing money for charged meals, and follow up with phone calls, or promises to withhold report cards or prohibit student attendance at extra-curricular events, until charges are paid, is that kind of follow up scalable to a district with hundreds or even thousands of delinquent accounts?

Open campus/closed campus, lunch periods and enrollment

Some high schools allow students to leave campus at lunchtime; many schools have cafeterias which are not large enough to serve the entire student population. Schools with closed campus generally see higher numbers of students choosing to eat in the cafeteria, rather than bringing lunch from home.

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Does the “miracle” school have a closed campus? How long is the lunch period at the “miracle” school, and how long is the lunch period at your school? How many students are enrolled at their school, and how many at yours? If the “miracle” school is on the larger size, do they have more than one lunch period? It may not be possible to scale up what a 300-student “miracle” school is doing if your school has 2,000 students, a cafeteria seating 400, and only one lunch period.


Does the “miracle” school have a full working kitchen, well equipped with ovens and refrigerators and cook tops and sinks, as well as all the smaller cooking equipment such as pots and pans, and proper knives, necessary to do scratch cooking? When government funding for school kitchen equipment dried up in the 1980’s, many cash-strapped schools were forced to let their kitchens deteriorate. A scratch cooking program is only replicable in schools which have usable cooking facilities.


Labor costs often amount to as much as half of the school nutrition department budget, but cafeteria worker salaries vary greatly, with some districts paying minimum wage for entry level workers, while others pay $15 or more per hour even for those workers still at first step.

What are labor costs at the “miracle” school or district, as compared to yours, and how much labor does their money buy? If both your district and their district spend 45 percent of the budget on labor, how many person/hours does that 45 percent buy? A district paying workers $10 per hour gets 50 percent more work hours than a district paying $15 per hour. This is key in moving to scratch cooking, which is much more labor intensive than reheating frozen food.

Low poverty/private schools, and volunteers

At the far end of the economic spectrum, some schools with few low-income students opt out of the Federal meal programs, and design their own program.

Although still required to provide a free lunch to low-income students, public school districts like the one in the article above (which in 2009-10 had only 1.1 percent low income children) can easily afford to feed such tiny numbers of students for free even without the government reimbursement.

Orinda Intermediate School, profiled in this article, had just seven low-income students in 2009-10, out of a population of over 800. By charging $5.25 per meal and requiring payment in advance, this school generates enough money to pay for their high end offerings, and the use of “school-mom volunteers” to run the cafeteria saves on labor costs. Clearly not a replicable model in a low-income community.

Similarly, some private schools require a certain number of parent volunteer hours, and use this free labor in their cafeteria. Such schools may serve a meal from a higher priced, healthy food vendor like Revolution Foods, which charges the full amount of government reimbursement to cover the cost of its food (meal costs from Revolution Foods start at about $3 and go upward, while in 2011-12 the reimbursement for a free lunch is $2.77.)

With nothing left from the reimbursement to cover labor and overhead, a school with Revolution Foods as their meal supplier may use parent volunteers in the cafeteria, or a non-union charter school may require teachers to help out at lunchtime, keeping costs to a minimum. “Miracle” lunch programs relying on free labor are not replicable in regular unionized public schools.

Direct/indirect costs

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Federal law allows school districts to charge their nutrition department for direct costs (which are exclusively attributable to operation of the federal nutrition programs) and also for a portion of indirect costs (for operations like payroll or personnel which serve both nutrition and also other departments.) Some school districts help underwrite their meal program by not charging their nutrition department for direct/indirect costs, saving the department about five percent of their budget.

How much does the nutrition program of the “miracle” school pay in direct/indirect costs? A school district’s decision not to charge direct/indirect may not be sustainable in an era of budget cuts, when every general fund dollar is needed for classrooms, and may not be replicable in a financially distressed district.

District support

Some school districts, like San Francisco and Boulder, Colorado, believe that better school food is important enough that they will support a deficit in the nutrition department by transferring in general fund money to keep the department afloat. While admirable, this option may not be replicable in school districts in more dire financial straits, or sustainable even where currently used.

Is it really necessary for school food improvements to be replicable, scalable, and sustainable? Isn’t it enough that the students in the “miracle” schools are getting better food, even if the reasons why fall short of “miraculous”?

School food improvements which are only possible with additional funding, volunteer labor, community fundraising, or other support can result in a two-tier system of school meals, where students in parts of the country with generous outside resources or primarily wealthy students enjoy higher-cost healthier food, while students in poverty-stricken areas, with high unemployment and more community needs than charitable resources, are left with the lower quality meals which are all the government reimbursement alone can provide. Unfortunately, the miracle-loving media rarely bother to investigate these factors when they highlight the success of a program which does offer a better quality meal than most, leaving the public with the mistaken idea that all it takes is the will to do better.

It does take the will–a lot of very strong will–but it also takes money, and many other factors need to be considered too. The media need to learn to ask the right questions, because true miracles are few and far between.

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Dana Woldow has been an advocate for better school food since 2002. She shares what she has learned at Read more >

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