In the Quest for Healthy School Food, Is Privatization the Answer?

  • October 4, 2009

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By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Over on Grist, Tom Philpott wrote a great article about school lunches and whether or not the answer to improving school food should be privatization. His conclusion is that the federal government needs to spend more on school food, and schools need to prepare their own meals.

It's a great and thoughtful piece, and I recommend you read it. And while I do agree with many of his specifics, I also think he leaves out a few key issues. And I have a slightly different conclusion.

But first of all, Tom made a great point stating that private companies aren't solving the problem; their meals are still more expensive than the federal reimbursement. So while there are many creative and nimble companies getting involved with school food, the primary message is still: we need more money for better food. 

To illustrate this point, Jane Black wrote a great article about Revolution Foods (free registration may be required) that discusses how private companies, specifically Revolution Foods, can save money by bulk purchasing, in-house cooking and centralized distribution systems – all the while focusing on healthy and fresh foods. No doubt they are doing great work, and anyone trying to invest in this type of improvement deserves accolades. However, when it comes down to providing the meal to students, this stood out to me:

The price (of the Revolution Foods meal), between $2.90 and $3 per lunch, is not much higher than the current $2.68 the government pays (the school).

OK. At face value this is true that $0.32 is not much. However, let's put that in perspective, because $0.32 adds up quickly for a large school. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for example, serves 280,000 lunches each day. So if you lose $0.32 on each meal, that means CPS would loose $89,000 every day that they serve that meal. And if you figure that the average starting teacher salary is around $55,000, losing this kind of money would have a clear impact on the district's ability to put dollars into teaching and education.

But the reality is actually worse.  When you add in facility, administrative and labor costs, large urban school districts are actually losing closer to 70 cents.  This is not sustainable.

So back to Tom's piece and a few of the issues that I had with it. First, Tom makes a blanket assumption that commissary style food service leads to low quality food. He writes:

I have no reason to doubt the quality of what Revolution produces, but that already seems like a major quality concession here. The commissary-to-consumption scheme is essentially the airplane model of food service. 

While I can't justify comparing mom's homemade soup to airplane food, there is a big difference between sitting in coach and first class. Commissary doesn't mean bad food. Low quality ingredients, poor distribution strategies and lack of investment in healthful options mean bad food. I'd prefer cooking from scratch, but let's not eliminate a potentially important strategy immediately. And there are schools employing a cost-effective commissary approach to meal distribution that are actually pretty good.

That brings me to my other point. To move toward schools making their own food, there would be a need for major facility improvements to build and repair school kitchens because, as Tom writes, “kitchen equipment slowly decayed.” It is true that as a whole, schools don't have adequate commercial kitchens. So private food providers are still necessary to fill this void of inadequate infrastructure due to historic trends towards privatization in schools. And increasing the reimbursement rates through Child Nutrition reauthorization, while hugely important, won't fix our kitchens. That money will go toward food and operations, not capital expenses. 

So improving school kitchens would require more money on top of the money needed from Child Nutrition reauthorization. And yes, there was stimulus money to do this, but $100 million across the nation doesn't go far at all. The dollar amount would have to be closer to ten billion dollars.

One more point. There are dozens of small companies doing creative work trying to get better food into schools. Good for them. Keep innovating. But let's also not forget that some big guys are doing some creative work too. In Chicago, the food is provided by Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, and they have created a distribution system where they now serve regionally grown, flash frozen produce in CPS schools five days a week. They've also eliminated trans fats, only serve low fat milk and cheese, are increasing the prevalence of salad bars.  And the list goes on. Yes, the food still needs to get much better. And yes, we need more money in the food programs. But there are many creative programs, even from large companies, that are driving positive change. 

Ideally, I'd love to see scratch cooking in all schools. But until that happens, we need to leverage all the resources at our disposal to improve the food for our kids. What are your thoughts?