Free, Healthy School Lunches: Food for Thought

Feeding 30 million schoolchildren is a difficult task. As a result, many of today's school cafeterias offerings end up as appealing as a tray of lukewarm airplane food.

And if there's one point of agreement on the state of school lunches, it's that local school districts and the federal government are overtasked. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program (NSLP) helps feed millions of American schoolchildren. Critics charge that the program is underfunded and misspends money on meals that are overly processed, too rich in fat and not nutritious. The challenge is how to change this on a national and local level.

Help has historically trickled in courtesy of local entrepreneurs and nearby natural-food advocates who supplied some schools with organic and farm-fresh foods. Now, a new campaign supported by national corporations hopes to make more sweeping changes across the country. Whole Foods and a loose coalition of organic-food manufacturers and advocates say that creating a healthier national food policy is the start. In August, Whole Foods launched a fundraising campaign to reform the country's school lunch programs and has so far raised more than $440,000 that will support an online effort to help school districts create healthy and affordable meal options. According to the supermarket chain's chief operating officer Walter Robb, some of that money will also help raise awareness about the Child Nutrition Act (CAN).

CAN determines school food policy and financial resources as well as funds the NSLP. Advocates for healthier lunches say that the Nutrition Act will be reauthorized by the president and Congress (although it may be delayed several months beyond its September 30 deadline, while debate about health-care legislation continues). School lunch programs now get $9.3 billion in federal funding, or about $2.68 for each eligible child. Subtract labor and other administrative costs and some child-nutrition advocates estimate that only $1 goes toward food. That's not enough, said Robb. "It's a Sisyphean situation. We're at a tipping point. We need to raise exposure and do something right now."

For Ann Cooper, the former director of nutrition services for California's Berkley Unified School District, help from either the public or private sector is much needed. Cooper, a chef and author, created, funded by Whole Foods. The site's mission is "to help your community transition step by step to a school program that will improve the health and well-being of our children." It features recipes for schools, information about food safety, and promotes community activism. "I hope we're building a trend," Cooper said of her partnership with Whole Foods. "More companies are doing this, maybe it's part altruistic, part capitalistic. But if a company can make money feeding kids and make them healthier, that's the bottom line."

That's what the executives of Revolution Foods, a $10-million-a-year business based in Oakland, said they've been doing since introducing organic meals to four Northern California schools in 2006. Three years later, the company supplies 200 school cafeterias and has expanded into Denver and Washington, D.C., and sells some of its products in Whole Foods stores. COO and co-founder Kirsten Tobey said that 80 to 85 percent of Revolution's lunches go to low-income students who are receiving reduced rates or free meals.

Not everyone thinks that the current wave of corporate interest is purely about the children. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, is skeptical about the Whole Foods initiative calling it a public-relations ploy. "I think most schools know exactly what to do, they just don't have the money to do it," Nestle said. And even Whole Foods' customers are skeptical about the plan. In a comment on the Whole Foods official blog, "The Whole Story," one commenter wrote: "There is a massive problem with our school meals. I agree. But I doubt Whole Foods is going to make much contribution to this problem with fleecing their customers for website funding."

The premium supermarket chain could indeed use some good PR these days. Whole Foods took a PR hit on August 11, when CEO John Mackey wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal opposing the public option in President Barack Obama's health-care plan. The piece caused an uproar among some of the market's customers who saw Mackey's views as out of step with Whole Foods' progressive stance. Some customers threatened to organize a nationwide boycott via Twitter and Facebook, but protests were mostly limited to a handful of store demonstrations.

Still, most everyone is in agreement that school lunches need help. The debate is about how best to go about making things better. On one side there is the hyperlocal approach. In July, Kaiser Permanente, an Oakland, Calif.-based managed-care organization, donated $3,000 to help fund a summer lunch program for 300 students in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Jack Rozance, the physician-in-chief for Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento, was informed by a colleague that while year-round lunches were federally funded, there was no money to pay staff to serve those meals. The Kaiser money made up for the shortfall in an "economically depressed" community, according to Rozance. And in Michigan, Blue Cross Blue Shield allocated $2,200 to a Grand Rapids charter school for a salad bar, healthy snacks, and an in-class "smart eating program." They also gave $15,000 to a Traverse City, Mich., elementary school that will be preparing "cook from scratch" meals instead of serving prepared foods.

Then there are companies like Whole Foods that think a national campaign would do the most to increase federal subsidies, ban trans fats from school cafeterias, and infuse menus with more locally grown foods.

But solutions aren't borne out of an either-or mentality, says NYU's Nestle: "The implementation of change needs to come on both the small scale and at the national policy level." Because of their size and influence, national companies can exert the kind of pressure that could affect federal policy, she said. On a local level, small grants could fund approaches tailored for individual school districts. "[Unfortunately], there are barriers at every level to overcome."