School Lunch and Food Priorities

USDA standards for school lunches are truly byzantine and bizarre. Occasionally the media picks up on them, as in the recent incident where pizza was classified as a vegetable under the rules, but they go much deeper than that, and illustrate the influence of industrial agriculture on the standards in a pretty profound way. This can become a significant stumbling back when farm-to-school programs and other local advocacy groups are attempting to get fresh local foods into schools, because even if the school is on board and parents are supportive and kids are excited, the USDA standards may present problems that make it hard to fully integrate local foods.

There are truly bizarre rules about what counts as ‘starch’ and what is a ‘vegetable’ and other arbitrary divisions. These are, the USDA claims, put in place to make sure school lunches represent a balanced diet that doesn’t go too heavy on cheap but not necessarily the greatest ingredients, but they can often result in a profound imbalance as schools struggle to stay within the rules. Potatoes, for example, are a starch, while sweet potatoes are not.

For big agriculture, many of the standards favour the kinds of products made by big farms, especially cheap, cost-effective products that are easy to produce and unload on schools. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these foods are the best choices for kids, culinarily, culturally, or nutritionally. The food served in schools can be critically important for children who may not have stable access to food at home, and yet, in many cases, it’s not representative of a balanced diet despite USDA requirements.

Locally-produced foods can offer a variety of benefits to kids. One can be a chance for kids to actually visit the source of their produce and learn more about it; farm-to-school programs may be located near schools for convenience or could have demonstration gardens on school grounds. These provide an opportunity for kids to get outside, get dirty, try growing and harvesting things, and learn more about food. Many such programs find that supposedly picky eaters are actually interested in trying new things when they get to participate in their production and harvest, because they’re actually invested in the food they’re eating. A farm-to-school program can introduce kids to new vegetables and new preparation methods, especially when it’s paired with cooking classes, which some are.

There’s also the clear benefit of local sourcing, which has a smaller environmental footprint than importing food, and ensures that cafeterias serve the freshest possible food. Fresh food comes with more flexibility in terms of cooking, and it can contain more nutritional value; for one thing, it’s picked ripe, rather than being harvested unripe and gassed as it travels. It’s also possible to work with foods that don’t travel well, but taste great and offer more nutrients. Again, a net benefit to people eating in cafeterias who might not otherwise have access to these foods.

Local food can be expensive, even at the discount prices negotiated for school cafeterias. Growing numbers of organisations are offering grants and community support to help schools pay for local food in their cafeterias for precisely this reason. The goal is to offset costs, making local food cost-comparable to food from a distributor so schools have an incentive to use it. As demand builds up, farms can start to become more autonomous, controlling their costs more effectively and dropping prices so more people can access their food. This, in turn, means that farms can start supplying more of the community with local food, which can contribute to part of a food sovereignty plan.

In other words, getting fresh local food into school cafeterias can have a ripple effect in the community that allows farms to thrive and become larger and more active. An even larger win for the community as a whole, especially in the case of farms that encourage volunteering and community gardening and participate in programs like double coupons at farmers’ markets as well as outreach to the low-income population. Poor people deserve fresh fruits and vegetables too, and should be able to access sources of organic, humanely produced food for their dinner tables as well.

Adjusting the USDA standards requires a fundamental rethinking of the goals of those standards. Nutrition should be the first and foremost, but it’s also important to think about food sourcing and how that plays into nutrition. If the USDA really wanted to encourage small farms and local food production, it would consider an adjustment of school nutrition standards to promote local food while still protecting the health and safety of kids. And if it was really concerned about health, it would ask why schools might be forced to serve, for example, frozen tater tots instead of fresh sweet potatoes.

People concerntrolling about ‘the obesity epidemic’ and school cafeterias often don’t pay attention to food politics. They’re focused on personal blame and enacting policies like soda bans. In fact, food politics is critical to what children are eating in schools and how they’re eating it. In an environment where children have a chance to connect with local food and eat it in their cafeterias, some start to preferentially ask for it; that’s been the experience of a lot of farm-to-school programs. And that sounds like exactly what ‘obesity epidemic’ fearmongers claim to want, except that’s not what they’re promoting with their rhetoric or policy suggestions.

If you want kids eating more vegetables, you first need to give them vegetables to eat, and a framework for supplying them with the vegetables they want.