Healthy School Meals: Behind the Headlines

November 17, 2009

By Rochelle Davis, Founding Executive Director

Recently The Chicago Tribune ran a front page story on the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) breakfast program.  While I greatly appreciate the attention that the Tribune and the reporter Monica Eng have given to the issue of school food, I do have some concerns about the Nov. 5 story and the previous story that appeared on June 11.

The stories highlight many of the shortcomings of the CPS food program, shortcomings that HSC is very concerned about, and we look forward to working with CPS to make these much needed improvements.  However, I feel that the coverage neither told the whole story nor provided a meaningful context for public dialogue. Public dialogue is especially critical this year, as Congress begins to consider the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the federal legislation that essentially determines school food policy and resources. 

1) The coverage fails to highlight the many changes that CPS has made to its food program over the last two years, including but not limited to:  removing deep fryers from all schools, implementing a farm-to-school program, eliminating trans fats from all food, and serving only low fat milk.  Each of these achievements alone is significant in a district which last year served more than 60 million meals. Additionally, the article portrays Louise Esaian as a defender of the status quo. However, in our experience, she has taken on the serious challenges of making change in a large district, but a district that has not been able to effectively communicate their accomplishments.  

2) The coverage fails to adequately address the financial constraints that CPS faces.  Any discussion of improving school food that does not include information about the cost is ignoring the single largest barrier to school food reform. According to the School Nutrition Association, school districts spend about 35 cents more than they receive from the federal government for each reimbursable meal. For CPS and most large urban school districts, the shortfall is closer to 70 cents per meal.   

3) The reporter seems to dismiss efforts to improve the nutritional quality of “kid-marketed” food.  There is a vigorous debate around the best strategy for encouraging children to eat healthful food:   should we feed children the same foods that adults eat (or the food adults should eat) or should we make “kid-friendly” food  (the child-specific items marketed to children in grocery stores and on restaurant menus, which parents often serve at home) as healthful as possible?  There is no clear answer, but from our perspective, it’s a fair debate, a debate that should be included in articles on this topic.

4) The comparison of the CPS food program to the Institute of Medicine standards, which were publicly released two weeks prior to the article, seems unfair.  In fact, anticipating the release of these standards, CPS has already convened a working group to map out a strategy for moving the program toward compliance with these standards.  

5) The reporter seems to overlook the important role that nutrition education plays in students’ decisions to eat healthful and often unfamiliar foods.  She cites one expert who states that children will choose the healthier options if only healthy options are offered. While we do agree that kids will often eat healthier options if offered, significant research establishes the importance of nutrition education to support students’ ability to make healthful food choices. The full picture is that if you only change the food without also offering nutrition education, plate waste will increase and meal participation will decrease, thereby countering the goals of the program. And there is universal agreement that getting more kids to eat breakfast is an important strategy for improving children’s health.

Again, we thank the Tribune for  recognizing the importance of  school food to student health and achievement and hope that future coverage will provide a more complete context  to enhance public understanding of this important issue.