Fixing school food in America

Sociologist Janet Poppendieck has written a scholarly yet very readable book about the history of school food, and all of the politics and profitfreeforall motives that surround it. She explains the mess that is the typical American school cafeteria and how it got that way. This will make it easier for activists to understand the obstacles they face and the many ways that reform is sabotaged by special interests who claim they want to help.

Even when students are offered free or reduced-cost lunches, many will go hungry rather than face the stigma that is attached to being “one of the poor kids.”

The conclusion she reaches is as startling as it is logical

The paperwork involved in the free and reduced-fee lunch programs is an administrative nightmare. Enormous costs, confusion and inequities can be eliminated while children become better educated, healthier and more productive citizens. How?

By providing free, nourishing food for all students. Families don’t pay tuition to public schools or for the use of text books; there is no fare for riding a school bus or cost to use a class room computer, so why should a family be charged for another essential component of education?

And because it is clear that good food will save huge amounts of money by reducing the need for some of the expensive special services, free, good food for all children is a smart way to go.

Consider the actual cost for providing free food to all students. At this time  $3.00 per meal is a fairly generous budget for a lunch. Multiply that times 180 days in the school year and the total is $540 to feed a child a nourishing lunch for the entire year.

education, elementary school and children concept - happy little student girl with pen and paper writing over classrom and teacher background

Now compare that to the cost of providing special services for a child who is working below grade level or who has behavior problems. A modest estimate for dealing with these problems is $10,000 per child per year. By comparison, $540 is a drop in the bucket!

Students will still be free to bring their own lunches if they wish, but when a school provides food that is delicious as well as nourishing, chances are that most will choose that option.

We know from both research studies and many years of practical experience that the other students will benefit as well. There will be higher test scores, fewer illnesses, more college-bound graduates, and more teens going on for advanced training. This will translate to a far more productive work force and it will also mean that many young people will grow up to be taxpayers, not prison inmates.