Money Doesn’t Grow On Trees? Neither Does Pizza, Congress.

Update: The healthy, on-budget, easy-to-prep school lunch in this article is being featured on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution School Lunch Photo Wall. Vote here to help our Expert Chef win as Best of School Lunch for 2011-2012!

Almost thirty years ago, after some Americans suggested ketchup was a vegetable, here we go again. This week, Congress released the final draft of an appropriations bill that threatens the USDA’s proposed improvements to school lunches. Among other things, the bill lumps tomato paste into the vegetable category, thereby making spinach and a slice of school lunch pizza analogous. Why? If we don’t allow it, schools will have to serve other (read: actual) vegetables, and that would be expensive, logistically challenging for schools and kids would be bummed. Yup. Bummed.

The bill also asserts that the USDA shouldn’t limit starchy items like potatoes or mandate whole grain products until “whole grain” is more strictly defined. It says we should do more research before imposing limits on sodium. What message am I getting from Congress?  I hear that pizza on bleached white flour crust and salted fries is a cost-effective and healthy (enough) meal that all American children enjoy and benefit from. Well, with 33% of our kids overweight and lifestyle-related health problems among children skyrocketing, I beg to differ.

This school lunch featuring Erin’s recipes cost the Windham-Raymond School District less than $1.50 to produce, including milk. That’s 35% cheaper than the national average. And it’s homemade.

Congress doesn’t want to spend the $7 billion over five years so your kids can eat healthier food at school. Current estimates place the proposed additional cost at fourteen cents per meal. Do the math. The mere $440,000.00 that trade groups spent lobbying against this bill would improve the quality of school lunches for every kid in my state for twelve years. Here’s the deal: if one of my three kids were overweight or sick, I would change the entire family’s diet–everyone’s–to solve the problem, provide support and set a better example. Wouldn’t you? Shouldn’t we all? Apparently not.

Even though children are so currently health-compromised that one in three is overweight and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is calling for cholesterol testing of all 9-12 year-olds, Congress is telling you it’s not worth the money. Even though obesity is the number one medical reason why three-quarters of America’s youth are unfit to serve in the military, we still shouldn’t bother. Congress is serving up a plate full of big business protectionism and insulting assumptions about your intellect concealed under a half-baked layer of supposed freedom from regulation and quackery.

So here’s the deal. I’ve been a caterer for 15 years and I’ve put as many as 5,000 meals per day out for a week straight. I consult with school nutrition programs on how to get kids and staff excited about healthy homemade food without busting the budget. I facilitate ingredient exposure and culinary instruction–we teach these kids to actually cook–for K-5 students for First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools program as well as through Maine’s largest hospital. I develop recipes for the world’s premier nutritional guidance system, Guiding Stars, and I’m the mother of three kids, 11, 9 and 6, with whom I’ve been doing the food song and dance for over a decade. In other words, I have something to say about kids, schools, budgets, health education and food. So let’s get started.

The Least Worst Option Is Not Good Enough: It insults our intelligence and assumes we’ll accept anything. Well, think again.

Why are we striving to limit damage rather than promote benefit?  My top priority is to instill the importance of a varied diet for kids and adults alike. “Always eat a little bit of a whole lot of stuff,” is my mantra and not once has any child EVER interpreted that to mean, “Eat all the time” or “Eat some cheese pizza and some pepperoni pizza.” They all understand that I’m telling them everything has a place in your belly as long as it’s not a lot and not all the time. The healthier we eat generally, the more space there is in our lives for treats. They get that. The way to make lasting change is to trust that people will learn to appreciate healthy foods rather than simply tolerate them. We need to give these kids more credit.

If we trick kids into eating vegetables by hiding them in cookies and spaghetti sauce and never tell them–or if we teach them that cheese-covered white bread with canned sauce is a healthy choice rather than an acceptable component of a varied diet–how will they ever become conscientious and discerning eaters? If we want lasting change, we have to take the kids on the journey. Education and transparency is key.

Last week, a school cook told me that the kids scramble to get any leftover veggie pizzas made for the staff. So, why isn’t veggie pizza on the kids’ menu? They like it, and the most popular topping on those pizzas is broccoli, something most kids will refuse to eat otherwise. The “carrot fries” I serve as guest chef are plain old oven-roasted baby carrots, but because we call them “fries,” kids who hate cooked carrots gobble them up. They still know they’re carrots; more importantly, they just learned that they enjoy them. In fact, almost a week after my most recent guest chef appearance, “the kids are still coming and asking for the recipes for the spinach salad and yogurt ranch dressing.” Kids should have those “Aha!” moments more often. They deserve more satisfaction in their experiences than we allow.

If we can’t agree to mandate healthfulness, maybe we should at least provide clear guidance on how to make the best choices. If a child can identify healthy options on the lunch line, much like my kids can choose an appropriate snack at the store using Guiding Stars, maybe they’ll learn more about healthful eating in spite of the messages they’re exposed to daily…messages like news of this amazing new pizza vegetable from the government…

It’s All About The Benjamins: Good food costs more? Not so much.

Critics argue that mandating more fresh, unprocessed food will limit local control over menu development and cost management for schools and communities. This premise is laughable from a food-service standpoint. As a chef, I can tell you that eschewing par-cooked, precision-sliced, extruded, breaded and frozen chunks of what-have-you saves money. “But the labor cost is higher,” critics argue. Well, maybe you didn’t hear me, critics: the food cost is lower. Very often it’s low enough to offset ingredient costs. “It didn’t cost me more to use the real deal chicken when you were here,” said Jeanne Reilly, Director of School Nutrition for RSU 14, a district I’m consulting with as they make incredible strides in school foodservice excellence. Even with labor costs included, “The price was comparable and the quality was better,” she said. “The kids liked it so much they’re still talking about it a week later.”

How can a chicken nugget–the most use-restrictive and expensive form of chicken I can think of–provide control over costs and menu flexibility? Once that nugget’s cooked, it can only be reheated or discarded. But when a homemade chicken tender is cooked, it can be repurposed any number of ways. It doesn’t turn into a useless and unpalatable breaded hockey puck: it’s just chicken. It can be frozen for later. Total labor and food cost for these reuses? Precisely nothing.

In my experience, nutrition workers, for the most part, are excited to be given the freedom to be creative and schools and kids reap the rewards; but too often, they’re given short shrift and assumed to be “cut and dump” machines incapable or unwilling to bust their humps on homemade food. The fact is, almost every school cook I’ve worked with has expressed excitement about the admittedly harder work of cooking from scratch. Jeanne related that the cooks are willing to work harder if it means the kids will like what they make. “It means everything to hear the kids like what they made. It’s like a bonus in their check.” You hear that, schools? Your lunch ladies would rather work harder for the same money than take the easier route of opening a box, because they care. And with a job market like we’re facing right now, I’m not convinced the dissenters would admit otherwise.

Let’s Break It Down

This bill ignores the fact that investments in school nutrition can assure the biggest bang for our educational dollar, which benefits the entire country. As Kevin Concannon, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services recently told me, “A quality and nutritious school meal program can insure that all of the investments we’re making in the buildings, in the materials, and in the teachers will pay off because there’s lots of evidence showing that kids who eat healthier will learn better.” I won’t save a dollar if it’s going to cost me five dollars later, and yet, that’s what we’re doing here, and the cycle it perpetuates may become inescapable over time. What’s the point of school if a kid’s brain is so starved for nutrients or compromised by preservatives that it’s incapable of processing information? Why bother schooling children and educating a workforce doomed to a disabled life of chronic medical conditions brought on by a poor diet? How will we avoid these problems if we don’t instill in youth the virtues of health, activity, and nutritional awareness?

This bill tells me that the “freedom” that Congress seeks to preserve assumes the worst about all the parties involved. It says kids can’t be counted on to experience and enjoy nutritious foods. It suggests that the school administrators have little faith in their school nutrition workers’ desire to create amazing homemade food with fresh wholesome ingredients. It implies that we as parents are unwilling to prioritize a child’s health. It presumes that we can’t look past the end of our noses to see that a 14 cent investment in a school lunch could create opportunities for education, enrichment, awareness, and enjoyment for every student in the school.

School nutrition is worth investing in for all of these reasons. A relatively small investment in our children is an investment in our country’s future, one that will improve our chances that every other investment we’re making with our tax dollars pays off in the coming years. If pizza is now a vegetable and must remain an integral part of a child’s school diet, can we at least consider that sometimes vegetables on top of that pizza or fries made out of carrots might still be preferable? The USDA proposed wholesomeness, excellence and variety, and we need to stop arguing against it. Can we agree that we need to try everything possible before legislating stop-gap, cost-saving measures and prioritizing manufacturer’s rights to fair markets when we’re talking about the health of our country? I think we can. I know we should.