Top Chef DC Taking on School Food: But Why the Extra Cash?

June 16, 2010

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

It's hard not to get excited when you see an issue you care about
get elevated in the media, so you can imagine how I felt when I heard
that Top Chef is taking on childhood obesity and specifically school
food.

But what happens when the media portrayal elevates
information that's just wrong?

According to ObamaFoodOrama, the chefs
competing to create a “healthy, kid-friendly meal” in a local school
kitchen will be doing so on a budget:

Chefs can only spend $2.68 per child,
which is the reimbursement rate schools receive for each child who is
eligible for free lunch under the federal program.

I'm glad to see the chefs have a budget, but I have to object to
the amount.

Sure, schools get reimbursements of $2.68 for each
free meal they serve, but that's not close to the amount that school
food directors have available for ingredients for each meal. As we've discussed before on this blog, that $2.68 has to
cover the cost of overhead, labor, administrative costs, maintenance,
cleaning, transportation. . . the list goes on. When it comes to
spending on ingredients, the amount that most food service directors
have to work with is less than a dollar. (In large urban districts, it's
generally closer to $0.70.)

Unless Top Chef is going to have
its competitors get into the details of covering overhead and systems
costs, it's only fair to give them the same funding the schools are able
to spend on ingredients.

Every year, we engage with
teams of students at the Cooking up Change healthy
cooking contest. We challenge them to create a healthy school meal on a
dollar's worth of food ingredients, and they come up with some creative
and healthy stuff. Yes, they all wish they had more to spend, but that's
the challenge that schools deal with everyday. If you can do this, or this or this with a limited budget and ingredients,
imagine if you had an extra 50 cents, or even a dollar.

Getting
that extra dollar per meal for school food could require an extra $20
billion per year of funding in the Child Nutrition Act. And in
one fell swoop, Bravo gave schools an extra $1.70.

Chef
Ann Cooper was right on the money when said on the Slow Cook:

Perhaps instead of restaurant chefs trying to cook a
meal for $2.68, we should have 'Lunch Ladies' competing to showcase
what’s actually possible when we cook fresh food from scratch for our
kids. After that, let’s give the professional chefs the USDA commodity
food to deal with.

With this show, Bravo has a real
opportunity to raise awareness of the significant funding problems in
our school food system. So maybe this reality show could be just a
little more real.

And the reality is that right now, Congress has
an opportunity to do something about that problem. The Child Nutrition Act is up for
reauthorization and both the House and Senate have introduced
legislation with proposed funding that falls short of making healthy
school food — and kids' health — a priority. Take a moment to raise your voice and urge
Congress to provide adequate funds for healthy meals.