THE BLOG

School Food Problems Are American Food Problems

02/26/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015
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The biggest problem with school food isn't that it's too healthy, or that students are being offered too little. The biggest problem is that industry is feeding our kids, and we're letting it happen.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, focusing solely on the nutritional value of the items being served at schools is not the best gauge of healthfulness. More important is how, when, and where the food is made, and by whom.

Items such as pizza, pork patties, and biscuits can be found in school meal recipe books published in the 1950's, but that pizza of the past wasn't 'bake and serve.' It was made and baked in-house by people who knew how to cook. Same goes for the biscuits. Regardless of how many servings of grains or how many grams of saturated fat it contained -- home-cooked items were better for us than something made by industry. Several studies illustrate this.

Research aside, this is common sense. Something made more or less from scratch isn't going to contain the added preservatives, emulsifiers, and artificial flavors and colorings that are endemic to most pre-made meals.

So why then, is the school lunch debate focused on rolling back whole-grain requirements and sodium restrictions? Why isn't it focusing on the fact that the majority of food served in schools are pre-made items provided by food manufacturers? Why isn't the same debate we are having nationally about our own health, that people are eating too many processed-foods, the same debate we are having about school lunches? Why do the health and well-being of our children deserve any less consideration?

It's because the same food industry feeding our children is the same one feeding the debate. School food is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the revised school meal patterns released in 2012 threaten to hurt the bottom lines of dozens of food behemoths. These food giants fund half of the operating budget of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), an influential group representing 55,000 cafeteria professionals.

The SNA was one of the strongest advocates of Obama's Let's Move! campaign and helped lobby for the passing of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the legislation at the heart of this debate. Recently though they have been singing a different tune. Now the SNA has successfully lobbied to give schools waivers from nutrition standards for a full year, to the satisfaction of their industry partners.

Why not refresh the system? Any school that can show they are cooking at least 70 percent of their meals from scratch and serving whole fruits and vegetables every day, should receive automatic reimbursement for their meals. Schools should not have to depend upon industry to serve their students, just as we should not depend on industry to provide all our own meals.

Many schools today lack a proper kitchen. Just as cooking has declined in the household, it has become all but obsolete in most schools. Returning scratch cooking back to schools will take investment, but some schools are already doing it, and the numbers indicate that this is a financially viable option. If the USDA would be more flexible in their reimbursement requirements for scratch-made meals, then the excuse that cooking in schools is too complicated would no longer be acceptable. And it would give school districts around the country more flexibility when it comes to providing both satisfying and healthy options.

Many researchers have realized that relying on the processed-food industry is not going to solve our own health problems. What makes us think it can solve those of our children?