School lunch

In No Lunch Left Behind (or scraped into the trash), Alice Waters and Katrina Heron argue school lunches should be prepared at the school from locally grown, organic food, when possible.

Schools here in Berkeley, for example, continue to use U.S.D.A. commodities, but cook food from scratch and have added organic fruits and vegetables from area farms.

. . . Washington needs to give schools enough money to cook and serve unprocessed foods that are produced without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. When possible, these foods should be locally grown.

How much would it cost to feed 30 million American schoolchildren a wholesome meal? It could be done for about $5 per child, or roughly $27 billion a year, plus a one-time investment in real kitchens.

That’s not healthier for students or the environment, responds Henry Miller, a former Food and Drug Administration official, in a letter to the New York Times.

. . . food safety, environmental preservation and energy conservation are not promoted by “foods that are produced without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.” Such foods are expensive and inefficient, because they use more land and water than if modern techniques were employed.

. . . Finally, “food safety” would likely become a far greater problem if thousands of schools were to begin to “cook food from scratch”: the vast majority of food poisonings result from the improper handling of food — in particular, from inadequately cooking chicken or permitting the juices from raw poultry to contaminate other foods.

Organic fruits and vegetables are a lot more expensive without being any healthier.  Kids will eat fruit if it’s not too pricey. (I’m not sure they’ll eat vegetables at any price.)

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  1. Maybe that’s not the answer. But we still ought to give kids something better than the highly processed unappealing crap they’re doled out every day in my school. If they’re gonna serve pizza and burgers, they could at least serve real pizza and burgers–you know, the kind that people who like pizza and burgers would pay to eat.

  2. Uh…what’s wrong with a PB&J from home? What’s wrong with a turkey sandwich and an apple from home? If they want more healthy or organic foods, let them bring it in a brown bag. If they qualify for the free lunch at school, let them be satisfied with what they get. This reminds me of the story about a school that serves those who are behind in their payments for lunch cheese sandwiches, and the parents and students complain that’s not enough. Sheeeeesh!

  3. Amy in Texas says:

    Mia, you must realize that millions of parents now expect these free lunches. At my son’s elementary in Dallas, he is the ONLY kid who brings a lunch. It’s like a free lunch is now part of the whole public school package. They are not going to spend their own money on a lunch when they are used to getting it for free.
    My son is convinced that no one pays for these lunches. I can’t make him understand that someone is paying for them.

  4. I’ll go further than Mia; get rid of the whole school lunch program, a lot of which is scraped into trash cans. It is long past time to stand up and say that parents are supposed to take care of their kids. Walking through a low-end grocery store in a low-income neighborhood, I see parents spending more than enough on beer and cigarettes to cover the cost of breakfasts and lunches for their kids.

  5. Ponderosa says:

    I think it should be part of a school’s mission to promote good eating habits. What schools serve now is imitation fast food: soggy burritos laden with man-made ingredients in baggies, salty white-flour stuffed pizza sticks, etc. It reinforces kids’ taste for very unhealthy fast and frozen food. Much of it contains high-fructose corn syrup, much of which gets contaminated with mercury in its manufacture. We should be trying to steer their tastes toward whole grains, vegetables, fruit and other health-giving foods. Besides just being responsible and kind, this is good public policy: Americans who eat homemade brown rice and veggies won’t get diabetes, coronary artery disease, obesity, etc. which will drive down health costs.

    The former USDA guy, Miller, quoted in Jane’s post says factory food is safer than locally-cooked food…has he heard about the salmonella-in-peanut-butter scandal? One rogue factory can poison millions of kids. One mishandled chicken at a local school kitchen would impact far fewer (and it would be much easier to find the culprit and deal with that). His prejudice against organic is very old school and defeatist. Is he saying that American know-how can send men to the moon and build iPods, but it cannot figure out a way to produce a lot of food without using megatons of toxic chemicals? Perhaps an organic apple isn’t much different than a conventionally-produced apple for the kids who eat them, but what about the kid’s parent who works in a chemically-fogged orchard? Or the kid who lives near a chemically-fogged orchard, as many of my kids do? Pesticides and fungicides are neurotoxins –they destroy nerve cells. Would you like your pregnant wife/daughter/friend to be breathing or eating that stuff while critical development occurs in her womb? I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a link between these odd chemicals we inhale and ingest and the spike in autism.

  6. Kids will eat some vegetables. At least when watching basketball games. Years and years and years ago, my small rural high school let the junior class (as I recall) have a small concession at basketball games, in order to raise money for a senior trip.

    Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, one of the best selling items was whole carrots. Popular and very profitable. I’ve never quite figured out why carrots were so successful, but I would like to see the experiment tried at other sporting events.

    And most kids like tomatoes, which are botanically a fruit and legally a vegetable.

  7. I would be more likely to accept the premise that it is the schools’ mission to promote healthy eating (or a host of other ideas) if they were even close to providing the kind of real education that challenges every kid to achieve their maximum potential. Until that day arrives, I would like schools to limit their focus to the academic.

    Parents should do their job of raising kids. Churches and community organizations can provide support and instruction, but the 60s-era substitution of government for parents has been a disaster and we need to get away from the idea.

  8. So, do we take the “no excuses” position that schools should “do whatever it takes” to raise student achievement?

    Or do we take the view that if parents are messing up, and sending their kids to school too hungry to concentrate, that’s their problem to solve not the schools?

    You don’t get to have it both ways.

  9. @Mia:

    There’s practically a war going on regarding the cheese sandwich deal on the leftiest of blogsphere hangouts. See, for example, theses screeds:


    You feed them a free cheese sandwich.

  10. Richard Nieporent says:

    One rogue factory can poison millions of kids.

    Millions Ponderosa? Just a wee bit of hyperbole, wouldn’t you say? So how did we manage not only to survive but also to have life expectancy continually increase when we are continually being “poisoned” by pesticides in the food?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a link between these odd chemicals we inhale and ingest and the spike in autism.

    And all this time I thought it was due to vaccines.

  11. Ponderosa says:


    I tend to agree that schools try to do too much and should keep their focus on academics. But how are kids going to learn how to eat well? It seems as if most of the parents in my 90% white, middle-class district have internalized corporate America’s warped view of what constitutes good eating. Kids come to school with baggies of Cap’n Crunch for snacks. Most of my colleagues bring sodium-explosion microwave meals for lunch. When I, a male teacher, bring in homemade meals that entail chopped vegetables, they marvel. Who chops vegetables anymore in America? American notions of food have been corrupted by megacorporations’ decades-long campaign to get us to buy their highly-profitable crap food. Old world cultures whose eating traditions have not been uprooted and burned by corporations still retain knowledge of how to eat right. Look at Japan’s obsession with high-quality food, or France’s, or Italy’s. Tasty and healthy foods from before the corporate onslaught (of course, McDonald’s and Coke are making inroads). I’d love to leave it to parents to correct our culture’s course, but I don’t think they have the time, energy and knowledge to withstand the corporate juggernaut that bombards our kids with “guidance” about what to eat. The PARENTS’ tastes and habits have been shaped by this juggernaut. Government is an imperfect but necessary counterweight to the amoral profiteers in the food industries.

  12. God, is there a more pointless op-ed piece? Does Alice Waters have to reinforce what an unrealistic flake she is at every possible opportunity?

    And you all are forgetting a big reason why school lunches will never go away–it’s an employment “right”. Check out the demographics of lunch workers.

  13. Ponderosa – You have some reasonable discussion points, but things have changed in the old country, too. I was in France just a few years ago and saw an enormous change in eating habits since my semester there in the early 70s. There was much more processed food and I saw almost as much cardboard pizza as I see here. The fresh foods, both in supermarkets and open-air farm markets were often less fresh than I see here and the lack of refrigeration/ice at open-air markets would not be allowed here – fish, seafood,meats and deli items sitting on tables during a Paris summer. As a serious, from-scratch cook since I was about 10 years old, I sought out groceries and markets on both visits.
    At the same time that Americans have far more processed foods of all kinds, we also have far more artisan-level cheeses, meats, wines, preserves and produce than we had several decades ago. (And there are still some of us who take time to appreciate.) All of my kids took healthy bag lunches all through school, they all can cook and three of them still take bag lunches to work. I just don’t think reliance on government has a very good track record.

  14. There’s middle ground, of course. (Who knew?) Schools can prepare and serve SOME locally grown foods. There’s no reason they can’t serve local apples and peaches when school starts up and strawberries toward the end. The salad bar can be local for part of the year (depending on where you live). There’s no reason for white bread, donuts, fruit punch, Captain Crunch, or pizza.

    Oh wait, but there is! School lunches are now outsourced to catering firms that have to make a profit (remember those people responsible for your freshman 40?). So they shift the menu from healthy items to those the kids will buy more of if available.

    Yes, in a perfect world our kids would bring their own lunches, but I don’t see that happening, do you? I live in this world, and in this world school cafeterias need to shift to a different menu.

  15. Robert Wright says:

    Henry Miller cites “food safety.”

    Safety, as any innovative teacher can tell you, is always the discussion stopper when an administrator makes his job easier by saying “no.”

    Students can’t register voters because they might come upon a child molester.

    The school can’t have a duck pond because somebody might trip, fall, land face down in the pond and drown.

    You can’t have international pen pals because one of the Italian boys might say inappropriate things.

    You can’t have students serve food at the homeless shelter because some of those homeless people have criminal records.

    You can’t use rubber cement in art class because somebody might try to get high off the fumes.

    You can’t cut bread in home ec class because knives are dangerous.

    You can’t put a stage in the back of the library because a child who isn’t watching where he’s going might bump into it.

    I wish some of these were made-up. None of them are.

  16. Robert Wright says:

    The school lunch could be an educational experience.

    Instead, with the long lines and crappy food, it’s a dehumanizing experience.

  17. I’m old enough to remember school cafeterias that cooked food on-site from scratch. They managed to make that crappy, too. (Bland, overcooked…) It must be hard to cook a meal for hundreds and maintain quality, but I’ve eaten at military mess halls that did a better job…

  18. Parent2 says:

    Lightly Seasoned, if your school participates in the school lunch program, they can’t make a profit on it, by law.

  19. Robert Wright says:


    I’m not sure that’s true. My school participates in the federally subsidized school lunch program yet most of what they sell, they sell for profit.

    Perhaps they just can’t make a profit on the particular food items that are subsidized.

  20. Parent2: I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but I know that Chartwell isn’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.

  21. Parents who want their children to eat more vegetables should try “green smoothies.” Most kids love them.

  22. I really wonder where some of you folks live. The food our schools is actually decent.

    And for the 30% of the district who are on free & reduced lunch, the breakfast and lunch they get are in many cases the best meals they get–due to their parents’ reliance on fast foods and prepared foods.

    I do the cooking in my house, and I made sure that my kids knew the basics of cooking when they were growing up. One likes to cook, and does so regularly, while the other one only has time to cook a few specialty items, with his wife taking on the main cooking chores.

    The problem with prepared foods does not lie with corporate America, but with the millions of people out there who literally do not know how to cook from scratch.

  23. Oh, and by the way, organic foods mean that they were grown using s**t for fertilizer instead of nice clean chemicals.

  24. here’s a Bay Area example of delivering on these goals:
    healthy food
    within budget
    menu liked by kids and teachers

    looks like they’ve now expanded to LA

  25. The problem I see with people like Alice Waters is they don’t live in the real world enough. There are bigger problems schools face than the fact that the food they are serving is not “local.”

    (What do schools in places like northern Maine and Montana do in the winter for “local” vegetables? Turnip puree? Because I suppose the purists figure freezing or canning is right out.)

  26. Ponderosa says:


    Who lured our immigrant grandmothers away from the old recipes? TV ads and the consumerist culture that emerged among the people who watched those ads. Do you disagree? Now we have a generation or two of moms (and dads) who are addicted (literally in some cases –read Fast Food Nation) to processed foods and could not cook well for themselves even if they wanted to (and most don’t because their taste buds have already been molded to love the unhealthy stuff). How can we get back to a REAL food culture? I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of sexy ads on TV encouraging us to cook for ourselves using local produce. Instead we’re inundated with ads to buy this box or that jar of processed “healthy” food, or eat out at sodium-city Applebees or whatnot. In this context, how are Americans, young and old, going to escape from this trap? It seems to me the only force muscular enough to counterbalance the corporations is government. I’d love to see a barrage of sexy public service announcements encouraging a cooking renaissance, coupled with a robust program of putting tasty, healthy well-cooked food in schools to show American kids what real food looks and tastes like.

    To those who’ll retort with the usual “government sucks” responses, let me say this: government is people. Corporations are people. Government is imperfect. Corporations are imperfect. Corporations have a reputation for being lean, mean and efficient –perhaps that’s deserved (though I have my doubts). But here’s a really critical distinction that government-bashers seem to overlook: corporations exist to profit their shareholders. Period. If that means the degradation of the people, so be it. Government is different. It exists to promote the general welfare. Of course it can be corrupted (often by Big Business); but Big Business BY DEFINITION couldn’t care less about the general welfare. It’s folly to leave the fate of our nation and culture to the tender mercies of Kraft and Burger King.

  27. lking4truth says:

    I love school pizza…I don’t why, and I don’t know what stuff they put in there that gives me cravings…..but I love it. Sure they need other good food in school, yea, blah blah blah,….but keep the school pizza.

  28. And Alice lies through her teeth about the success of her lunch program. The dirty little secret is that lots of kids wouldn’t eat the lunches. Parents also accused her of “cultural insensitivity”, because vegetables not cooked to brown mush were on the menu.

    And then of course, there’s the problem of the unionized lunch room workers. If there’s any real cooking going on, it’ll end up costing twice what it should.

  29. Tracy W says:

    Ponderosa: but it cannot figure out a way to produce a lot of food without using megatons of toxic chemicals?

    How do wild plants fight off disease? They produce toxic chemicals 100% naturally. Growing organically doesn’t avoid using megatons of toxic chemicals.

    … but what about the kid’s parent who works in a chemically-fogged orchard? Or the kid who lives near a chemically-fogged orchard, as many of my kids do?

    I would like to know where you can find a non-chemically fogged orchard. You are aware that oxygen is a chemical, aren’t you?

    Who lured our immigrant grandmothers away from the old recipes?

    Unfortunately they didn’t manage to lure my grandmother away. She was an appalling cook. (Although admittedly she wasn’t an immigrant herself, and her family was originally from the UK).

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of sexy ads on TV encouraging us to cook for ourselves using local produce.

    Why do you want to cook using local produce? Aren’t you aware that locally-produced foods can be more environmentally damaging with the energy needed to produce them, versus bringing them in from further away? (see for example,

    As for cooking for yourself, ever watching a cooking show?

    . Government is different. It exists to promote the general welfare.

    Nope. Government exists to try to get the politicians running it re-elected. Very important difference.

  30. Thanks for the ’60s-throwback talking points, Ponderosa. Ah, memories.

    I love the school lunch in the district where I work. I eat in the elementary school every chance I get. I can have as much food as I want for $1.35. Can’t beat that in this “economic reality.”

    And let’s not diss Burger King. Between fast food and the tasteless meals my grandparents used to prepare from scratch, I’ll take a Whopper any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

    Yeah, yeah. Fat and sodium. But why live longer if I’m going to be miserable during every meal for the rest of my life?


    It may be that district’s can’t make a profit if they participate in the federal program, but the private companies most local districts out-source to sure do. In my state, anyway.

  31. Andy Freeman says:

    > I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but I know that Chartwell isn’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.

    Unless you work for free or even at cost ….

    Yes, some folks volunteer, but the vast majority of “work done” is done by folks who get paid. And yes, that includes the vast majority of the self-styled good people who think that “profit” is wrong.

  32. Since this is all about personal taste, I’d like to see schools offer either simple sandwiches or rice dishes with a variety of toppings, like stir fry or curry. Maybe they could offer breakfast fare all day long. As a veteran of chow halls, breakfast and midnight meal was always the best fare of the day.

  33. Eating school hot dogs convinced my daughter she never wants to eat a hot dog again. Seems like the schools are teaching kids to be responsible about their food choices.

  34. My grandmother wasn’t an immigrant; my greatgrandparents were. None of them were lured away from cooking by TV ads. Maybe that’s your problem–you watch too much TV, or you look at and believe the ads.

    Ever since I’ve been on cable, I’ve been a channel-switcher when ads come on. Now with a DVR, all I have to do is fast-forward through the ads.

    How interesting that you blame the companies who promote their products rather than the consumers who watch them. I raised my kids to be very sceptical about ads, and they are raising their kids the same way.

    The reason convenience foods caught on is because they are EASIER and sometimes FASTER, not because well meaning people have been lured away from good cooking by evil ads.

    My take is that one can cook from almost scratch (e.g., why use orange tomatoes when you can get better tomatoes out of the can) in about as much time as it takes to thaw & heat a TV dinner in the oven. Rachel Ray evidently agrees with me.

    But cooking takes a certain amount of energy and planning, and when you get home from the office at 7:30 PM after a long day at work (as I did for about a decade), you tend to cook only on weekends. So I think one should fairly blame teh change in cooking habits on the lifestyle changes since the 1960’s rather than evil commercials from evil companies.

  35. As the mom of 4 full-time elite athletes, I used to put 55,000 miles per year on my car, driving around a major metropolitan area. My husband worked long hours but we ate dinner together every night, even if it was late. Rex is right; the key is PLANNING.

    It is perfectly possible to eat a home-cooked meal every night and there are plenty of cookbooks and websites to help people learn how to do it. For me, it boiled down to the make-ahead (soups, stews, some pastas), last-minute (stir-fries, frittatas etc) and double-cooking (cook 2 chickens and use 1 for curry,pot pie,salad etc or make 2 meatloafs,lasagnas, stews,soups and freeze extras). Dinner on the table in half and hour or less, with planned-over for lunches or other dinners. Even as preschoolers, the kids helped; as adults, they operate the same way.


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