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“Let ‘em eat salad”

Let ’em eat salad
Josh Miner
Wednesday, March 23, 2005

This isn’t just about being a couch potato: As a direct result of obesity, the current generation of children can expect their life span to decrease by two to five years. Worse, California schools are still part of the problem, offering students junk food while not providing them with healthy alternatives or opportunities for physical activity.  

Thankfully, efforts to improve the healthfulness of foods offered in California schools have started. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed banning soda and candy from all public schools, and the state Senate’s Education Committee last week passed SB12, the Healthy Schools Now Act (authored by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Los Angeles County), which regulates the fat and sugar content of all foods sold on school grounds.

 But to truly promote health, California schools must go beyond bans and regulations. They must offer students healthy foods that are appealing and, above all, taste good — in other words, foods that students will actually want to eat. School meals plans are currently designed to deliver minimum nutrients at the lowest cost to a clientele, with no recourse for complaints. It’s no wonder vending machines and corner stores stocked with chips and sodas are popular. Kids eat junk food because it’s affordable, available, appealing and convenient.  

Moreover, the “healthy” foods schools dish up often don’t taste as good.  Mealy apples and wilted iceberg lettuce are no match for pizza and hotdogs. That these are the alternatives in California — one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas — is especially embarrassing.

Experiments with salad bars, garden-based learning and direct purchasing from local farms through farm-to-school programs (including the Davis and Berkeley school districts) have shown great potential. When schools serve high-quality, delicious food that far exceeds minimum requirements, kids eat it and enjoy it — justifying any higher per-meal costs.  

How does a school provide healthy food that students want to eat?  

— First, it will have to invest in its meals programs. School cafeterias often lack kitchens, necessitating packaged meals that are reheated before being served. This inability to prepare food on-site and the ridiculously low per-meal reimbursement from the federal government limit the degree to which the food served to students can be improved. For healthier, more appetizing food, more will have to be prepared on-site, often from scratch. Building kitchens, changing ingredients and menus, and training staff will require time and money. But doing so will enable schools to prepare and serve better- tasting, healthier foods — and costs will likely decrease after an initial transitional period.  

— Second, because costs associated with operating a meals program are in large part fixed — the cost per meal decreases rapidly with each additional meal prepared — serving better-quality food must be tied to higher participation among students, so schools will see revenues increase as a result. This has big implications for economically diverse districts, where kids from higher-income families can pay full price for a meal. When food quality is poor, higher-income kids don’t participate. These paying kids must be enticed back.

 For the California school districts with high percentages of low-income students, revenues from increased participation among higher-income students will be hard to come by. In these cases, the state and federal governments should step in to augment reimbursement rates.  

— Third, revenue-generating strategies can result from these up-front investments in equipment and staff development: Catering services, in-house vending and concessions, and cafes serving adult staff (and even the public) all become possible and cost-effective. It should be obvious that healthier, tastier food needn’t necessarily result in lower revenues.  Costs may in fact be higher, but they’re only one side of the equation. As long as the lunch component can approach breaking even, districts can make up the difference — and then some — with the other activities mentioned.  

Our leaders — on school boards and in local and state government — should acknowledge that half-hearted efforts to improve the quality and healthfulness of school foods will result in increased costs, decreased revenues, unhappy students and few positive health outcomes. Committing the money, time and effort to completely rebuild meals programs from the ground up presents the best chance for both long-term economic sustainability and the future health of our children.  

We should support the governor and Escutia in their efforts to make the food in California schools healthier. We must remember, though, that the goal is to make not just food but students themselves healthier, enabling them to lead long, productive lives. To accomplish that, we’ll have to go beyond regulating vending machines.  

Josh Miner (jminer@ucdavis.edu) is a policy fellow with the Food and Society program funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and an analyst with UC Cooperative Extension in Alameda County.


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