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Janet Poppendieck: School Food In America Today

Janet Poppendieck is the author of the book Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. She joined Earth Eats again back in June to discuss school lunch policy reform and history, and how society as a whole is impacted by the workings of the federal school lunch program. This is part two of that interview, listen to part 1 here.

Megan Meyer (Earth Eats): Early on in your book, you address the issue of school administrators treating kids as customers instead of young minds in need of guidance when it comes to eating well. Do you feel that that is an ongoing problem?

Janet Poppendieck: It's a huge problem. A fundamental characteristic of our species is that we have to teach our young what's good to eat. We don't have instincts that tell us what's edible.

We need to use school not only to teach kids what's edible, but to teach them what's going to contribute to health and well-being.

If you treat children like customers, then you're really putting the kids in charge of the menu. These children are not tabula rasas. Children have been exposed to thousands of television commercials in a typical year.

So, of course food service thinks of them as customers. And because children have other options – they can go down the hall to the vending machines, they can choose from the a la carte items, they can bring a lunch from home – which could be a fine thing to do, but we have an awful lot of brown bag lunches that are coming in from the corner store, not from home.

Often, if I would raise the issue of too-many-french-fries with food service directors they would say 'well if we don't offer them here, they're just going to go down to Mc Donald's and buy them.' The idea of students driving in their cars away from many of the nation's high schools at lunchtime really was quite shocking to me.

Nutrition In The Classroom

MM: You've also written about the debate over whether the instruction about food should be integrated into classroom studies.

JP: There's a tendency with a lot of academic administrators – school principals and vice principals… and teachers – to regard the lunch period as a sort of interruption in the school day. I think of it as a black box model. Kids go in one side and come out the other side and hopeful they're fed, but that's not part of education. That's our break time.

If you look at our national eating habits, it's an area where education is urgently and vitally needed. We have had a sort of lost generation – the parents of today's school children – in terms of ability to cook. And if you can't cook, then you are kind of at the mercy of the packaged food system.

So I would love to see the cafeteria as a classroom, the school meal as part of the school day in which we teach children where food comes from, how to select a healthy diet and the consequences of doing so – the way in which food can add not just vitality and energy, but joy to life.

How School Food Promotes Class Segregation

MM: Part of your research involves asking students about their school lunch memories or nightmares even –- which of those testimonies stood out as particularly insightful to you.

JP: Well, the ones that moved me the most were the ones about youngsters being embarrassed to be found in the meal line. In some schools, the a la carte food is a separate line or it's in a separate part of the cafeteria, or sometimes in a separate part of the building. And that's where the kids with money go. The school lunch in some schools is thought of as only for poor kids.

Legally that's not true. All children in the school that participates in that program have the right to participate in the meal program and all school meals are subsidized – not just the free and reduced-price, but the ones we call full-priced. It's a real misnomer, because there's also a federal subsidy that helps keep the price down for those.

But in some schools, a culture of class differences arises. The most extreme one I heard was from students in California recalling that the kids with money bought pizza or hot dogs from a kiosk and went outdoors because of the beautiful weather, but the kids who were in the lunch program, the free and reduced-price kids had to stay in the cafeteria, which was typically in a basement, because the trays and dishes weren't allowed outside. So you had a real class separation.

Now, it's not that extreme in all schools. And there are schools working very hard to protect the privacy of students who are receiving their meals free and reduced-price. They use a point of sale system, like a PIN number or a swipe card, to try and protect that privacy.

But my perception is that once you've established these three income-based categories, you've already set up the situation – not for little kids, they really don't care, but for adolescents to have an attitude. And it becomes very quickly an attitude about the whole nutritionally regulated federal meal program.

Unifying Kids With Good Policy

MM: You are a proponent of what you called creating policy with all children in mind instead of just those in the lower income brackets. What would one have to do to make that happen?

JP: We would have to change the way we finance school food. The way it's currently financed – about 60 percent of the meals that are served in the school lunch program are being served to students who are getting free and reduced price. Reduced-price meals are generally 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast. It's a real bargain.

It's a deeply reduced price. You can get reduced-price meals if your income is below 185 percent of the poverty level or free meals if your income is below 130 percent. Just to clarify that, because we don't all run around with the poverty level in our head, it would be about $28,000 a year for a mom and two kids, a family of three to qualify for the free meals or about $38,000 a year to qualify for the reduced price.

So above that, the people are paying whatever the local school system is charging. The average is about $1.85. You figure into that about 25 cents in federal subsidies, so the schools have about $2.10 of income from each paid meal.

If we went to a universal free system, which several European countries have, most notably Sweden, where they have had this system since the 1930s, then I argue that we should pay for it through federal taxation. That's not inherent in the program – we could be doing it through local or state, but right now both our localities and our states are so stressed financially. I don't think we can add this to their tab.

And school food has been a part of the federal program for so long, that I think that where the expectation lies. My preferred way of financing it, would be to increase the capital gains tax so that it's a little closer to the way we tax earned income. We currently tax unearned income at a considerably lower rate than most of us pay on our hard-earned income.

These children are our future and we need to invest in their eating well and learning well, in their health and their education. And healthy school food would be a way to do that. But I don't think we're going to get really healthy school food until we get rid of the stigma that's attached to the program and this sort of student-as-customer mentality that selling food to children creates.

How Did Junk Food Find Its Way Into The Cafeteria?

MM: Speaking of policy and these nutrition requirements, you make it seem very complicated, the act of getting food to children.

JP: The thing about nutritional requirements, is that they sound very simple to nutritionists. Nutritionist say 'that's not a rigorous standard, that's not hard'.

For school food menu planners who are working within this very limited budget, if I say it's $2.68 – the federal reimbursement for a free meal. Or that the typical amount for a paid meal is $1.85 plus that 25 cent subsidy, then we're talking about schools having less than a dollar to spend on the actual food, because there are labor costs and administrative costs and equipment maintenance costs and gas and electricity. So it's not a lot of money for food.

You're trying to implement these nutrition standards within a very low budget, but there are two sets of nutrition standards and sometimes they compete. There's the old set that goes back to WWII, when the government was facing rationing and wanted to know what the lowest amount of protein, of calories, of calcium that people can get by on – a kind of how-low-can-you-go standard.

And then in the 1980s and -90s when we began to realize that overconsumption was at the root of a lot of our health problems, then we came in with ceilings. So, no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, for instance. And what happened in reality, it all sounded fine on paper, but in reality, if you move from whole milk to skim milk in order to eliminate a substantial chunk of calories from fat, then you found yourself falling through the calorie floor. So you needed to add calories back in. And many schools did that by adding sweetened, flavored milks.

The advent of banana milk and strawberry milk and vanilla milk in school cafeterias is really to get back those calories that they lost when they went from four percent milk to one percent or skim milk.

A lot of good intentions that backfire – I should definitely say that the Institute of Medicine has come out with a set of recommendations for changing the school nutrition standards. I think they are very good. I think they will result in better school meals.

We'll need a substantial transition period to implement them. It's not going to be easy for schools to do this and we have to be prepared to invest more money. Schools aren't going to be able to meet the IOM standards without a greater subsidy, a higher reimbursement rate to cover the costs.

You can listen to Part I of our interview with Janet Poppendieck. In it, she talks about her ambivalence in addressing the issue of obesity, why nutrition standards should follow the slogan "Eat Your Colors" and how federally-subsidized school food programs started with piglets running amok in the streets of Chicago.

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