Posted on Tue, August 11, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
4 Comments | Categories: Policy, School Food, Take Action,
Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
I get Google Alerts about blog posts and articles that mention school lunch, and lately the emails have had lots of links to stories about how to pack a healthy midday meal. Ive been getting alerts about everything from packable recipe ideas to the latest stylish lunch boxes. All of this reminds me that while more than 30 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program each year, another 20 million forgo cafeteria fare and bring lunch from home.
Many parents pack lunch for their children because they dont consider chicken nuggets a healthy meal. I dont either. But before you resolve to pack lunch for your child every day this year, think about this: one of the best ways to get better food into public school cafeterias is to put away the lunch box and become a loyal lunchroom customer.
Ive blogged before about how cafeterias operate much like restaurants. Since their revenue comes from a mixture of federal per-meal reimbursements and student dollars, cafeteria directors need to bring students into the lunch line to stay afloat. They do that by offering the foods kids like pizza, chicken nuggets, nachos and French fries. The hope is that students will look at the menu and say, Mom, I want to buy lunch today because the entree is popcorn chicken.
That means kids have a lot of power when it comes to determining whats for lunch at school. But it also means that parents have a lot of power. After all, parents are the ones who supply the lunch money. If parents and Im talking big groups of parents started using that power, cafeterias would probably be pretty receptive. If cafeterias had to cater to parents instead of kids, they probably wouldnt serve popcorn chicken.
So how do we get cafeterias to change their focus? Try organizing a group of parents and asking for changes to the school menu. Then have every member of the group pledge to buy lunch for the whole year. You might even offer to pay upfront not to put money on your childs declining balance, but actually to commit money to a years worth of meals. Unfortunately, the National School Lunch Program is set up to discourage risk-taking, since cafeteria directors fear that new, healthier items, in addition to being more expensive, will lead to
drops in student sales. A pledge or an upfront payment is a kind of insurance policy for your cafeteria. It takes the risk out of serving healthy food since it guarantees participation and the revenue that comes with it.
Yes, its easy enough to pack a lunch for your child if you dont approve of whats offered at school. But every packed lunch means less revenue for school lunch programs, and less revenue means less healthy food for the students who do eat lunch in the cafeteria. Whats more, the parents who pack lunch for their children out of health concerns are precisely the parents who care about good food. Without their voices, there is nobody to speak up for school lunch change.
School cafeterias operate by giving customers what they want. Right now, were allowing kids to be those customers. If parents can take back that buying power, well take one huge step to improving school food in America.