The Politics of School Lunch.

During my thirteen years of public school education, I can count the number of school lunches I consumed on both hands.  Although I often begged for those alluring meals of hotdogs, nachos and pizza, my mother stood firm.  Just like her stance on Lunchables, I think my mom always understood the consequences of overly convenient food.  She didn’t care if I fit in.  She preferred I eat healthy.  And as I begin to learn more about school lunch programs in public schools, I couldn’t be happier that I typically ate sandwiches and leftovers for lunch.

Not consuming public school lunches with any degree of regularity, I can honestly say I knew nothing about them before guest speaker Sarah Elliot’s discussion of the issue last Thursday evening.  F.H. King invited Sarah, the director of REAPs Farm to School Program, to speak at our second Get the Dirt dinner of the semester.  Get the Dirt dinners are held in Science Hall and provide students, alums and community members with an opportunity to eat delicious food and learn more about sustainable agriculture, food systems and related subjects.

Sarah began by providing us with a thorough overview of what public school lunches look like in Madison.  The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) is made up of 49 schools.  And given that the majority of these schools don’t even possess kitchens, all of the food processing for both breakfast and lunch is done at an external processing facility.  Here, things are cooked and baked, but handling whole raw produce is completely avoided through the use of already diced. precooked canned or frozen fruits and vegetables.  If fruits and vegetables are used, they are taken out of a package rather than purchased whole.  Washing, cooking or dicing fresh produce is unseemly.

Meals are built for efficiency.  Food is divided into hot and cold boxes, of which children receive one of each.  For example, if lunch is a hot dog, applesauce and cookies.  The hot dog is placed in a hot box while the applesauce, cookies, bun and ketchup are placed in a cold box.  This way, food service workers can easily heat up hundreds of hot dogs quickly without having to actually put them together.  With only two or three food service workers per school and no kitchen, this certainly seems like the most effective way to get children fed quickly.

Why the need for such urgency?  Most public school cafeterias cannot even hold an entire grade, so lunch is often divided into three or four lunch periods.  The earliest lunch session may be at 10:40 with the final one being at 1:20.  Food service workers need to get 60 or 70 kids fed in 20 minutes so the next lunch period can begin.  But often these make-you-own-style meals are not well understood.  First graders may eat their hot dog, bun and ketchup separately.

When we learned that MMSD food services prepare approximately 18,000 meals per day and are not allowed to exceed $0.95 per meal, the processing facility and lack of kitchens began to make sense.  Within this $0.95 budget, $0.22 is allocated for milk and another $0.11 for packaging.  In the end, public schools only have $0.62 for lunch food!  They are dealing with massive quantities of food every day, and local agriculture (or fresh produce for that matter) just doesn’t have the low-cost or efficient preparation capabilities of processed foods.

This all being said, there are obviously a multitude of barriers for bringing local produce into the school breakfast and lunch programs.  But despite the challenges, REAP has been working for a solution since 2002.  The Farm to School program we learned about has existed since 2010, but grew out of a related project, the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch Program, which came about in partnership with the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Studies (CIAS).

Currently, and because of the numerous barriers for bringing local food into actual school meals, REAP’s Farm to School Program uses a Chef in the Classroom program (at Sherman Middle School and East High School), Snack Program (at ten Madison elementary schools) and Classroom Education (from AmeriCorps Educators) as their main outlets for change.

The main focus of Sarah’s discussion on Farm to School was the well-known, but rarely well-understood Snack Program. This program is possible through a USDA Fresh Fruit and Veggie Grant that serves ten Madison elementary schools.  This grant enables these ten public schools to purchase raw fruit and vegetable snacks three times per week.  Note: raw fruits and vegetables. This does not include dehydrated, preserved or pickled produce, nor does it include dairy, meat products or grain produced from local farmers, showing obvious challenges throughout the winter months, but this is a very specific stipulation of the grant.

Out of these three snacks per week paid for by the USDA grant, REAP provides only one.  Even though they only provide a third of the snacks, REAP still sources about 700 pounds of produce each week!  This shows not only the magnitude, but also the infrastructure necessary for such a program.  Also because of the fresh produce stipulation, there is a three to ten week gap during the winter months.  REAP provides a lot of carrots, sweet potatoes, kohlrabi, apples and spinach through the winter months, but some gap is inevitable.  They hope to encourage and facilitate a Harvest of the Month program in all of MMSD schools in order to utilize more products such as cheese, yogurt, and wild rice.

REAP AmeriCorps in-class education also occurs at the ten elementary schools participating in the USDA Fresh Fruit and Veggie grant.  Because these are schools that have the highest percentage of kids who receive free or reduced lunches, it is assumed that these children also have the lowest access to fresh produce.  The grant encourages not only access to fresh fruits and veggies, but also education on why kids should care about what they are eating.

So what is it like to be the director of the Farm to School Program?  Sarah works at achieving two simultaneous goals: working to increase the amount of local fresh fruit and veggies to kids while also helping to create viable pathways for local products to be used in institutional settings.  She splits her time between procuring and processing vegetables and implementing these three programs.  But her vision goes beyond these admirable daily tasks.  While doing her day-to-day job, Sarah also “tries to focus on big-picture ways to make systemic changes to our public school meal system. This certainly involves meeting lots of folks and trying to bring people together to make pathways for local food to get into our schools!”

It will no doubt be a slow and gradual process, but with a new food service director, MMSD is growing increasingly receptive to REAP and their methods.  As far as local food goes, Sarah and REAP are certainly moving forward in the Madison public school system!