14 votes

USDA proposes new rules that would allow schools to cut the amount of vegetables and fruits required at lunch and breakfasts while giving them license to sell more pizza, burgers and fries

25 comments

  1. [25]
    skybrian
    Link
    It's hard to argue against healthier meals for children, but on the other hand, isn't it kinda weird to try to regulate such a personal decision as what a kid eats for lunch at the federal level?

    It's hard to argue against healthier meals for children, but on the other hand, isn't it kinda weird to try to regulate such a personal decision as what a kid eats for lunch at the federal level?

    3 votes
    1. [19]
      cfabbro
      Link Parent
      Not really. When federally funded schools are acting in loco parentis, I would argue it's the responsible thing to do. Especially since children aren't exactly known for making the best choices...

      isn't it kinda weird to try to regulate such a personal decision as what a kid eats for lunch at the federal level?

      Not really. When federally funded schools are acting in loco parentis, I would argue it's the responsible thing to do. Especially since children aren't exactly known for making the best choices when it comes to their nutrition. This is part of the reason why even allowing vending machines in schools with "junk food" in them, is a bad idea, IMO.

      22 votes
      1. [18]
        skybrian
        Link Parent
        It seems like in an ideal world, the school itself would make decisions about things like whether to install vending machines based on what would be healthy for the children it serves? (In...

        It seems like in an ideal world, the school itself would make decisions about things like whether to install vending machines based on what would be healthy for the children it serves? (In consultation with parents, etc.) And if the schools are trustworthy then the federal government could give them money and they would do what seems right? Apparently the schools are not trusted on this.

        The article is written in terms of what the federal government is "allowing" schools to do, but apparently that's not how it works. If the federal government wants to only subsidize healthy food I guess that's okay in principle.

        5 votes
        1. [17]
          cfabbro
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          Sure, I guess that would be the ideal? But given the choice of many school districts to outsource their food programs to uncaring, penny pinching, billion dollar mega-corporations like Aramark,...

          Sure, I guess that would be the ideal? But given the choice of many school districts to outsource their food programs to uncaring, penny pinching, billion dollar mega-corporations like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass Group, etc.. who don't really have the children's best interests at heart, and don't exactly have the best track record when it comes to providing quality services (see below)... I personally think the Federal government should go beyond just providing mere subsidies and hoping for the best.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aramark#Negative_history
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodexo#Controversy
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compass_Group#Criticisms_of_Compass_Group

          BTW, this isn't a uniquely US problem either. We have similar issues with our government funded/subsidized food programs in Canada too, and the reach of these corporations is global.

          8 votes
          1. [16]
            skybrian
            Link Parent
            Okay, that sounds bad, but why does it happen? Why don't schools make better decisions about how to provide student lunches? It seems like they could either choose a different vendor or do it...

            Okay, that sounds bad, but why does it happen? Why don't schools make better decisions about how to provide student lunches? It seems like they could either choose a different vendor or do it in-house?

            2 votes
            1. [8]
              kfwyre
              Link Parent
              School lunches are all about volume and efficiency. Cafeteria workers will be tasked with feeding hundreds or thousands of students in a matter of minutes. I did some quick math on my current...

              School lunches are all about volume and efficiency. Cafeteria workers will be tasked with feeding hundreds or thousands of students in a matter of minutes. I did some quick math on my current situation:

              The lunch period I'm in lasts 21 minutes and has approximately 400 students. If all of them get lunch from the line, the cafeteria would have to crank out meals at a rate of 1 every 3 seconds in order to serve everyone, though that means there would be kids still getting their lunches mere seconds before the bell to leave. It's unreasonable to assume that all students will order lunch, so if we drop it to just a third of the population eating, and we leave five minutes at the end of the period to make sure that all students have time to eat, that's still a pace of 1 meal every 7 seconds.

              This is just one lunch period in one school in my district. If I scale that up to the district level or the city level, we see that every day school lunchrooms are pushing thousands and hundreds of thousands of meals in the span of an hour or two. This reality forces school meals to be things that are able to prepared, cooked, and distributed quickly and in bulk.

              The reality is that companies like the ones @cfabbro mentioned are really the only ones who can operate at this level. They benefit from the economies of scale mandated by the need to feed thousands of kids each and every day, so we can't choose fresh local foods prepared by trained chefs over, say, Sodexo.

              This efficiency squeeze applies to labor too: most cafeteria workers are only employed part time which often makes them ineligible for benefits. I did a quick search of open food service positions and, of the ones I could find that posted wages, all of them were in the ballpark of $12 an hour (or, $240 a week for a four-hour-a-day workweek).

              The regulations mentioned in this article are effectively less about schools and more about these companies that contract with schools. The regulations for school meals establish the floor that companies have to meet, and these companies have already achieved maximum efficiency with that floor in place. They're great at volume and speed, and they have cut costs as much as possible (which is important, because I believe the per-meal reimbursement offered by the National School Lunch Program is pretty low, though I couldn't find any numbers when I searched around). They're undoubtedly trying now to change the regulations because it's in their best interest to lower the floor. They've maximized fast, cheap, and easy to the best that they can by law, so the next step is to change the law to allow them to keep going down that road. This is what they, as a company, are designed to do. Without regulation they'll continue to do so to the severe detriment of child health.

              A good example is Coca-Cola, which offers no health benefits (and plenty of detriments). They're pretty infamous for signing exclusive contracts with cash-strapped school districts. This was after their industry lobby changed USDA regulations that previously barred their product as detrimental:

              In most states, secondary schools follow the minimum federal regulations and allow soda to be sold throughout the day, except in school cafeterias when government-subsidized breakfast or lunch is being served. In the late 1970s, the USDA tried to impose much wider restrictions, prohibiting the sale of soft drinks and other foods with "minimal nutritional value" throughout schools from the beginning of the school day until 30 minutes after the end of the last lunch period.

              The National Soft Drink Association challenged the regulation, and in 1983 the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the USDA prohibition.

              From another article on the issue:

              In Florida, the cola war is likely to spread to other school districts. That's because the Florida Cabinet may revoke a rule that prohibits the sale of beverages from vending machines in high schools at least one hour after the lunch period. Gov. Jeb Bush recently went on record favoring the repeal, which would boost soft-drink sales.

              The government should be the one to hold the line for what's right for our kids. They're the only entity with the size and ability to counter profit-seeking companies. Parents can't do it; schools can't do it; even whole districts can't do it. We need something in place that companies have to bow to, and we need rules that they fear breaking. Right now companies are still responsive to government mandates, but we also know that, rather than stay on their side of the line, they love to influence government to move the line, and always in their favor. This is why standardized testing has all but co-opted American education. They were able to so successfully redraw the line that for-profit testing looks like a social good and teachers are seen as a social ill.

              The nutrition and health of our nation's kids simply should not be subject to a profit motive. There's too much money to be made in doing wrong by them.

              10 votes
              1. [5]
                Akir
                Link Parent
                The way you refer to cooking paints a picture that is unrealistic. The problem is not cooking a full meal every 3 seconds, but in preparing enough food ahead of time to be able to assemble and...

                The way you refer to cooking paints a picture that is unrealistic. The problem is not cooking a full meal every 3 seconds, but in preparing enough food ahead of time to be able to assemble and serve the meals quickly. And it is the preparation where we find the problems.

                Schools just don't have the money to maintain equipment or staff to make preparing good meals a possibility. Say for instance I want to prepair a dish that contains potatoes, carrots, onions, or garlic. How am I supposed to do that if I don't have a commercial vegitable peeler or a staff to peel them? Most schools in the US rely on their big ovens to prepare almost everything, which is why it Is so common to see meals with tater tots, chicken fingers, and pizza. Combine that with a handful of nearly-zero-prep-needed fruit and government-mandated milk and you have your average sad school lunch.

                And of course the reason why school cafeterias are this bad is simply because it is poor people who suffer the most from this. Middle- and upper- class families can just bring their own lunch, which means that the cafeteria gets even less funding.

                5 votes
                1. [2]
                  kfwyre
                  Link Parent
                  I wasn't trying to say that they cook a meal every three seconds -- sorry if I came across that way! I was trying to highlight the fact that a school cafeteria resembles an assembly line much more...

                  I wasn't trying to say that they cook a meal every three seconds -- sorry if I came across that way! I was trying to highlight the fact that a school cafeteria resembles an assembly line much more than a restaurant.

                  Your last point is salient. The first school that I worked in was 100% free and reduced lunch. We had a secondary community program that supplemented the school lunch program and regularly provided dinners to certain students for dinners, weekends, and breaks. I'd never thought about it until I'd started teaching, but for a child who is food-dependent on the school, the weekend is a regular recurrence of food insecurity.

                  I now work at a school in a far wealthier area, and we'll have students whose parents regularly bring in decadent homemade meals, or, more often, take-out from local food places or Panera. The disparity in both availability and quality of food is significant.

                  4 votes
                  1. Akir
                    Link Parent
                    I wrote that comment about 15 minutes before I fell asleep last night so I'm sorry if it appeared combative. I was just trying to fill in more details about why things are the way they are right...

                    I wrote that comment about 15 minutes before I fell asleep last night so I'm sorry if it appeared combative. I was just trying to fill in more details about why things are the way they are right now. It's largely because people just don't care. If you're poor enough to get free lunch (the cutoff in the US is far lower than it should be), you'll be grateful for the free food. If you have enough money that you don't even get reduced fee lunch, you're pretty likely to simply opt out of the system. More people need to care, plain and simple.

                    4 votes
                2. [2]
                  skybrian
                  Link Parent
                  But on the other hand If some kids bring their own lunches, that also reduces the scale at which their kitchens have to operate. If the problem is providing lunch at scale then reducing scale...

                  But on the other hand If some kids bring their own lunches, that also reduces the scale at which their kitchens have to operate. If the problem is providing lunch at scale then reducing scale should make things easier?

                  1. Akir
                    Link Parent
                    In this case, it's almost the opposite. Food (especially raw food like vegetables) is cheaper in bulk. A smaller order could mean that that the cost per meal goes up. It's also easier to push for...

                    In this case, it's almost the opposite. Food (especially raw food like vegetables) is cheaper in bulk. A smaller order could mean that that the cost per meal goes up. It's also easier to push for more funding if there are more people taking advantage of the program, which will allow schools to buy important commercial food prep tools and machines, which are necessary to provide fresh high quality meals.

                    1 vote
              2. [2]
                skybrian
                Link Parent
                Thanks for explaining at length but I still have questions. (Maybe it's not anything you can answer easily; my point is to show gaps in our understanding, or at least in mine.) I do appreciate...

                Thanks for explaining at length but I still have questions. (Maybe it's not anything you can answer easily; my point is to show gaps in our understanding, or at least in mine.)

                I do appreciate that providing lunch for hundreds or thousands of students is a major operation. But it also seems like this isn't new? It's something schools been doing for a long time now, and a core part of what it means to have a school?

                Maybe my experience as a kid wasn't typical, but as I recall, in elementary school, classes would show up every ten minutes or so, and we'd have a half hour to eat. Some kids would get whatever the hot lunch was that day and others might get "soup and sandwich" or buy some milk to go with a lunch they brought in from home. The tables were very long and the whole class would sit in a line on one side of one table, so you could choose who you sit next to but the other side would be whoever happened to sit there from a different class.

                It seems pretty regimented, in retrospect, probably for good reasons involving the logistics of small children. In high school you had more choices.

                When you say that the government should hold the line on nutrition, I don't disagree but I'm wondering which government. Public schools are government entities too, and there is also state-level regulation. It seems like federal funding is pretty important due to inequality, but I am not sure that it needs a lot of strings attached? Are local schools really going to say "okay, we don't care about nutrition anymore" because the federal guidelines give them more leeway? Do we know that they make worse decisions if given the chance, and if so, why?

                Also, it's true that most food workers are generally not highly paid. Does outsourcing make things better or worse? Also, how do nutritional requirements affect labor issues?

                It seems like if schools make tough decisions because they don't have enough money then this doesn't mean they are bad at making decisions? Maybe they would make better decisions with more money in the budget?

                3 votes
                1. kfwyre
                  Link Parent
                  Apologies for getting back to you on this so late! I've had an unexpectly busy past few days. I don't know that I have satisfactory answers for you, as I will admit to similar gaps in my own...

                  Apologies for getting back to you on this so late! I've had an unexpectly busy past few days.

                  I don't know that I have satisfactory answers for you, as I will admit to similar gaps in my own understanding. While I'm somewhat knowledgeable about education, I've got a very teacher-centric focus, so I'm out of my element when it comes to stuff like this topic. I also wrote my first post in the scattered fog of a sleepless night, so upon re-reading it, I'm not even entirely sure what I was going for. It feels more haphazard than I like, which no doubt fueled many of your very valid questions.

                  I'm also in a weird place where I simultaneously believe that government should do right by its people and also that government is susceptible to corruptive forces. For all my talk of wanting government to protect children's health, I don't believe they'll actually do it. Much of this is the career-related pessimism you might be familiar with if you've seen my other posts on teaching around here.

                  As such, I don't know what the solution is. I don't think more money is great, as I already don't trust schools and districts to use what they have effectively. Some of that can be attributed to poor management, but some of it can also be attributed to poor policy. For example, we have to continually have "professional development" to maintain our credentials, and there is little to no oversight on the quality of the programs providing this PD, so districts spend large sums on crappy companies to provide crappy trainings so their teachers can check required bureaucratic boxes to keep jobs that we already have. It's a complete waste, but we also don't have a choice in the matter. It's why I'm hesitant of any solution that has us throw more resources at something, because so many of our resources are already ill-spent.

                  With regard to child nutrition, I also think the answer isn't really a straight line from problem A to solution A. For example, in other posts, you talked about parents being in charge of nutrition, which is absolutely the right ideal. The presence of federal subsidies and regulation regarding child nutrition could be looked at less as a public health statement and more of an economic one, with the prevalence of the free and reduced lunch program highlighting the reality that many parents aren't financially able to provide adequate nutrition for their children. If we see this situation as a symptom of that, then the correct solution has little or nothing to do with the subsidies or regulations in place there, as those are simply cover for the larger issue of parental economic hardship. Solving that problem would likely benefit child nutrition more than these particular guidelines.

                  I wish I could provide you with a more complete answer, and my first post spoke with a conviction that made it sound like I had one, but the truth is that I genuinely don't know what the right answers are here. I apologize if that's unsatisfying to you, but it's the truth. Thank you for your questions, though, as they gave me a lot to think about.

                  2 votes
            2. [3]
              cfabbro
              Link Parent
              I imagine in the end it almost always comes down to cost. These massive food services Corporations operate on a scale that no local vendor or in-house service could ever hope to compete with, and...

              I imagine in the end it almost always comes down to cost. These massive food services Corporations operate on a scale that no local vendor or in-house service could ever hope to compete with, and they also have entire divisions dedicated to lobbying, managing contract bids, etc. which gives them even more of an advantage.

              5 votes
              1. [2]
                skybrian
                Link Parent
                It seems like it wasn't always that way though? Maybe my experience wasn't typical, but there was a cafeteria, an industrial kitchen, and kitchen workers. Buying in bulk gets you cheaper prices,...

                It seems like it wasn't always that way though? Maybe my experience wasn't typical, but there was a cafeteria, an industrial kitchen, and kitchen workers. Buying in bulk gets you cheaper prices, but when buying for a whole school you're already operating at scale.

                I'll also point out that there are many cafeteria-style restaurants that operate at similar scales. Also, there are a lot wholesale food distributors.

                How is it that schools could afford to hire kitchen staff and cafeteria workers before but they can't now? Has some capability been lost? Are budgets lower?

                2 votes
                1. cfabbro
                  (edited )
                  Link Parent
                  Honestly, I don't know the answer to any of those questions... and at this point we're so far beyond my depth of knowledge that I wouldn't feel comfortable even speculating, since I suspect we're...

                  Honestly, I don't know the answer to any of those questions... and at this point we're so far beyond my depth of knowledge that I wouldn't feel comfortable even speculating, since I suspect we're getting into territory where an Education Public Policy expert or Educational Historian might be needed.

                  2 votes
            3. [4]
              krg
              Link Parent
              I imagine it's because schools are run by people, and most people just wanna end the day without much hassle. So, choosing status-quo options make sense. I mean... who would even be qualified to...

              I imagine it's because schools are run by people, and most people just wanna end the day without much hassle. So, choosing status-quo options make sense.

              I mean... who would even be qualified to really make nutritional decisions at an elementary school? No one who works at a school really has that kind of knowledge. Some kind of district dietician? Another salary to pay for.

              4 votes
              1. [3]
                skybrian
                Link Parent
                It's not clear to me that you need a professional dietician to know what a healthy meal looks like? Especially since schools do sometimes teach kids about nutrition. What do they teach?

                It's not clear to me that you need a professional dietician to know what a healthy meal looks like? Especially since schools do sometimes teach kids about nutrition. What do they teach?

                1. [2]
                  krg
                  Link Parent
                  Well, common-sense and actual-sense are often at odds, so sometimes something validated by education+science works better than what seems to be obvious. Right? Also, nutrition is often personal....

                  Well, common-sense and actual-sense are often at odds, so sometimes something validated by education+science works better than what seems to be obvious. Right?

                  Also, nutrition is often personal. People's needs vary. There's probably a meal plan that works for >80% of kids, but still...

                  As far as what schools teach....whatever lesson plans are provided, usually. I remember when we were taught the food pyramid. The American industry that benefited the most was the largest chunk, go figure.

                  3 votes
                  1. skybrian
                    Link Parent
                    Well, that sort of proves the point. The federal government put out a lot of information about the food pyramid and schools were able to teach it, and presumably it influenced what they served in...

                    Well, that sort of proves the point. The federal government put out a lot of information about the food pyramid and schools were able to teach it, and presumably it influenced what they served in the cafeterias. How is it better if schools are required to do what the federal government says? Federal guidelines could still be wrong due to industry lobbying.

                    It seems like a school being able to go its own way, maybe based on better science, would be better? Or is there some value in uniformity?

                    3 votes
    2. [2]
      spit-evil-olive-tips
      Link Parent
      If a kid brings their own lunch to school, the nutrition content (or lack thereof) is solely between the parent and the kid, with no government involvement. If a school serves lunch to their...

      If a kid brings their own lunch to school, the nutrition content (or lack thereof) is solely between the parent and the kid, with no government involvement.

      If a school serves lunch to their students, then by default, the federal government is not involved either.

      Where the federal government does get involved is if the school accepts federal subsidies in order to offer free or reduced-price lunch to students. At that point, the federal government is paying the bill, and basic fiscal responsibility means they should set standards about what they are and are not willing to pay for.

      The principle that if the federal government is paying the bill, they can dictate terms about how the money is spent is also found elsewhere. For example, states can set whatever minimum drinking age they want, but if it's under 21 they lose 10% of their federal highway funding.

      11 votes
      1. kfwyre
        Link Parent
        To add on to this, I believe it's over half of the students in the country who are eligible for free or reduced lunch. I couldn't find full national data, but I did find data by state and spot...

        To add on to this, I believe it's over half of the students in the country who are eligible for free or reduced lunch. I couldn't find full national data, but I did find data by state and spot checking seems to confirm this, so this policy potentially impacts a majority of kids nationwide.

        6 votes
    3. jwong
      Link Parent
      What level would be appropriate? I think leaving it up to schools with competent staff in charge of managing & designing a menu would be great. But all too often, all this gets hoovered up by...

      What level would be appropriate?

      I think leaving it up to schools with competent staff in charge of managing & designing a menu would be great. But all too often, all this gets hoovered up by Sysco, and it ends up both:

      1. costing more
      2. a lower quality product for students.

      I see Obama's rules as trying to address 2), though maybe something that handles both issues would be better.

      I'd really prefer a more personal touch with someone taking a more community role. I don't know how to hire for that role, or encourage people to stay in it though. There's an NHK show called "Lunch ON!" that often features employee cafeterias/schools and looks pretty close to ideal.

      7 votes
    4. [2]
      krg
      Link Parent
      Think "Federally." Kids are potential future soldiers. If the majority are obese, the potential fighting force is decreased. In that sense, meals and exercise ought to be regulated.

      Think "Federally." Kids are potential future soldiers. If the majority are obese, the potential fighting force is decreased.

      In that sense, meals and exercise ought to be regulated.

      3 votes