Kitchens, Funding & Fresh Meals: Alice Waters Discusses School Food Reform

February 23, 2009 | Written By:

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

In a New York Times editorial on Friday, Alice Waters, renowned chef and president of the Chez Panisse Foundation, reminds us that, “Every public school child in America deserves a healthful and delicious lunch that is prepared with fresh ingredients.”

Waters calls for a major overhaul of the National School Lunch Program so that all schools can serve meals that are cooked from scratch in a well-designed and fully functioning kitchen. (Today, many schools have kitchens that are equipped only for re-heating rather than scratch cooking.) Waters describes programs around the country that have made great strides in this direction.

Currently, considerable outside funding would be required to operate programs like these – much more than schools currently receive from the federal government. Waters estimates that about $5 per meal (or $27 billion per year) plus an additional one-time investment in kitchen upgrades would sufficiently fund programs like these for the whole nation.

The current funding provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each lunch served by school ($2.57 for free lunches, $2.17 for reduced-priced lunches and $0.24 for paid lunches) is widely acknowledged as inadequate to cover the costs of preparing and serving lunch to students. Even without increasing the amount of fresh cooking that goes into meals, schools need more funding to cover the basic costs of serving nutritious meals. This is confirmed in the School Nutrition Association’s Sept. 2008 white paper, “Heats On:  School Meals Under Financial Pressure” [pdf] which reports that 79 percent of school districts indicated that the reimbursement they receive from the federal government is insufficient to cover the costs of producing the school meals they serve.  A full 98 percent of programs generate additional revenue through a la carte sales. 

In this context, I was pleased to see that the stimulus bill [pdf] signed last week reflects a commitment from Congress and the Obama administration to address child health through school nutrition; the bill includes approximately $100 million in funding to improve school kitchen facilities around the country. This funding can help take many schools a step closer to the ability to cook from scratch, an important foundation for the type of fresh meals that Waters describes.

We applaud Waters for taking a strong position on this important issue and for helping raise awareness of the many issues involved with feeding children good, fresh food.

Alice Waters is one of the best-known and most influential American chefs since the 1970s, often credited with single-handedly creating a culinary revolution in the U.S. It is when Alice and others like her speak out about the importance thinking differently about our food – and in this case, the programs that deliver food to children – that people around the country begin to listen and think about the importance of the issues.

Next week, congressional briefings about child nutrition will take place in Washington. The central theme in these briefings will be the important contribution that school meals make to children’s health and education. At HSC, we believe that healthy students are better learners and that healthy school food is an important part of kids’ education.

One of the most concrete and time-sensitive ways that we can all raise our voices for healthy school food in the coming months is through support of a strong, robust reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. To learn more about HSC’s policy recommendations and sign a petition in support of healthy school meals, click here.

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