“We need every voice:” School food advocacy beyond the $1 billion question

March 09, 2010

by Mark Bishop

Ann Cooper got it right on when she wrote this in the Washington Post the other day:

The
administration has proposed an additional $1 billion per year for child
nutrition in its fiscal 2011 budget. At first blush, given the state of
the economy and the president's call for a three-year freeze on
discretionary spending, this might seem like a win… But the truth is
that $1 billion is a far cry from what's needed to get good food into
schools. In fact, $1 billion for child nutrition per year translates to
mere pennies for every school lunch. That's not even what it costs me
to put a fresh apple on each lunch tray.

The truth is
that this $1 billion per year increase is the largest increase in
history of the child nutrition programs. This is a huge step forward.
But we need to see this as the floor for our efforts, not a ceiling. 

In the weeks since President Obama released his proposed budget, we've seen the school food advocacy community align along two different responses:

The
first side clearly sees that the $1 billion is not enough. According to
the School Nutrition Association, schools are already losing an average
of 35 cents for every meal they serve due to increases in food and
overhead costs. So this side points out that increasing the funding by
$1 billion may only cover ten to twenty cents of this existing
shortfall for many schools. In some schools this money could truly mean
the difference between serving whole grains or not, between additional
fresh fruit or not — but in many schools it could only be the
difference between a school losing more money or losing less money.
While this is very important, it's not the school food revolution that will create the far-reaching change we need.

The
second side emphasizes that $1 billion is the largest increase ever
proposed for this program and that schools desperately need this
funding, even if it's not adequate to make sweeping reforms to the food
program. This side sees the need to hunker down to make sure we get at
least what's currently proposed in the budget. In this economy,
competition for every penny in Congress is fierce. We need to defend
every dollar that gets allocated for school nutrition programs. And
there is a concern that fighting for more would mean taking energy and
resources away from the current effort to find at least the $1 billion
for the proposed budget. 

So what do to? Should we defend
the proposed increase or advocate for the higher amount that we believe
schools really need? Does asking for more than $1 billion put all the
funding at risk, or does it give you a better chance of ensuring that
schools get at least that much?

The reality is that
right now, sides don't matter. We need every voice from every corner of
the school community to speak up for more money and better food.

If
you believe in voicing support for the proposed $1 billion, contact
your legislators
. If you believe in asking for $5 billion, contact your
legislators
.

We need every voice asking our legislators for
increased funding for good food in schools. Ask for $5 billion, ask for
$1 billion, ask for $1 per meal. Right now, the specifics matter less
than the fact that you are telling Congress that school food funding
must be a priority. We need our elected officials and administration
staffers looking at budgets to find every dollar that can be allocated
to children's health.

We need our legislators to hear voice
after voice speaking up to say that child nutrition is important. Our
elected leaders need to know that school food is a priority for the
people they represent.

This is the moment to ask. So pick up
the phone, send a letter, and let Congress know that increased funding
for better school food  is an investment in our health, in our food
system, and in our future. You have to decide how much that is worth.

As we work to raise awareness, we need Congress to raise the money. So first things first: now's the time to raise your voice.