by Marion Nestle
Oct 5 2009

School food: it can be done!

Kim Severson’s piece about school food in last week’s New York Times food section discusses some of the barriers to producing decent and tasty school food: cooking skills!  There are plenty of others, as detailed in Dana Woldow’s terrific 3-minute video detailing the situation in San Francisco’s public schools – as seen by kids in that system.  As the kids put it, “We need better school food!”

NYC School Food 006

On the day the Times piece appeared, I was doing a tour of a couple of New York City school lunch programs.  One was to a small K-to-9th grade school in the low-income Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.   This school may not have had much money, but it had everything else needed to make school food work: a devoted and smart principal, a committed staff, and a school food director who set high standards.  The food looked, smelled, and tasted good and the kids were eating it.

How did this school perform this miracle?  Easy.  Everyone cared that kids got fed and liked what they were eating.

NYC School Food 009

The next stop was Brooklyn Tech.  Same food; different experience.  If caring was present, it didn’t show.

For one thing, the junk-food vending machines were in the lunch room (not a good sign).  Worse, they were open for business (a flat out violation of federal rules).   Even worse, nobody seemed to be doing anything about it, at least as far as I could see.

NYC School Food 013

My conclusion: school food can be really good, even in poor neighborhoods, if everyone involved cares about it.  Can we teach schools to care?  Of course we can.

And officials can make it harder for schools not to care.  The New York City Education Department says schools have to cut way down on bake sales, with exceptions for parent groups, parent-teacher associations, and birthday celebrations.

This policy will undoubtedly elicit complaints, but I don’t have much sympathy for complainers.  School kids are bombarded with junk food from multiple sources all day long.  If they didn’t eat so much of it, they might eat real food and support the school lunch program to a greater degree.  That’s why those open vending machines are so troubling.  The messages they send are “it’s OK to eat junk food in school,” and “it’s OK to disobey federal rules any time we want to.”  Not a good idea.

  • Anthro

    ” with exceptions for parent groups, parent-teacher associations, and birthday celebrations.”

    What other reasons are there for having bake sales? I’m not sure birthdays are a reason to have a bake sale, a cake for the group, but why a bake sale on someone’s birthday? What good is a new rule if almost anything is excepted?

    Now that I’ve said this, I recall that there was a bake sale going on at my polling place last November when I went to vote, but it wasn’t at a school, but rather a retirement apartment facility.

  • Alessandra Barbadoro

    Bad tasting food wasn’t the problem in my (affluent) high school in Colorado. It was the ever-present fast food option: “school lunch” versions of Domino’s, Taco Bell, Arby’s, and Chik-fil-A. Not to mention the little debbie cakes and spicy fries on the side.

  • Alessandra is right, in my kids’ schools the school lunch program consists of junk and fast foods.

  • fred ralley

    You can’t compare a K-9 school with a High School (Brooklyn Tech), different species.

  • Jill

    fred – pun intended? 😉

  • Nic

    I recently attended a talk by Secretary Vilsack where he mentioned that the USDA was going to promote a local foods into local schools program. Hopefully this means that there will be more actual food being served.

  • Rebecca

    Having attended an affluent suburban public school, I can attest to the fact that money does not necessarily guarantee a 100% healthy cafeteria. While my school did provide fresh deli meats for sandwiches and a freshly-prepared hot meal (which varied each day), none of it was low-fat or low-calorie, and it was not necessarily the best quality meat. They sold apples and oranges that sat out, but these were not an appetizing alternative to the warm, gooey undercooked chocolate chip cookies, ice cream, chips, or salty soft pretzels that were also sold. Of course nobody would choose the warm fruit that had sat out all day when there was tastier food for the same price or less. We also had vending machines in our school. Until my senior year, when they changed our school policy and prohibited the selling of soda and any food with sugar as the first ingredient, these machines were turned on all day long and sold candy, chips, and pastries for $1.00 or less. Even my senior year, though, when the school tried to serve “healthier” food, unhealthy snacks and sugary juices were still sold in these vending machines. I never experienced my school food as being at all healthy in any sense. Although I have graduated, I would love to see healthier food options for the students still attending my high school. I would like to see school lunch programs that actually encourage healthy food.