As I write this month’s column, I have on my desk four major reports on school nutrition programs that have all been released in the last six weeks.
Two of them, from the U.S. General Accounting Office, are briefly summarized in this month’s Front of the House section on page 16. Another one, the School Foodservice and Nutrition Operations Survey that is commissioned by ASFSA every several years, was covered last month. A fourth deals with a USDApilot program to help schools obtain and offer more fruits and vegetables in their programs. (Yet another one, on school foodservice plate waste, is due out later this summer).
There are lots of details in these reports—we clearly know a lot about how public school meal programs operate if we want to devote the time to analyze the available data. But just as we as a society prefer to be ignorant in so many other areas, we often do not want to know or understand the details in these matters.
At the same time, that ignorance doesn’t stop us from deciding we have specific expectations for these programs, or from mandating the results we want them to achieve.
The public wants "accountability" from schools. And just as it demands higher student test scores, it wants less childhood obesity, school foodservice programs that are self-supporting; better nutrition education, higher quality food, and so on.
What the public usually doesn’t want is to know why these things can be so difficult to accomplish given the way school meal programs are funded and the lack of control foodservice directors have over the school environment outside their cafeteria doors.
Worse, the general media, which often find the subject of school lunch to be popular grist for "sensational" stories (witness the recent cover story in Time magazine) typically fails to dig deep enough into these issues to make the same distinctions.
The result is a public perception of school foodservice that does not recognize how well most school programs really do do in meeting nutritional and other goals. It also does not acknowledge some of the forces that keep school foodservice directors from doing an even better job.
Plus, when it comes to subjects like a la carte lines, the sales of competitive foods, vending contracts and so on, directors are often not in a good position to be the lead educators because of the political fallout that is often associated with doing so.
What I want to suggest is that the rest of us with a vested interest in school foodservice—whether we are food manufacturers, distributors, trade media representatives or others—need to look for ways to better educate the broader public about how school foodservice programs work and what some of these key issues are.
Consider the way the GAO reports just mentioned were summarized in the general media. Typically, reporters got the numbers right, but failed to adequately describe the context in which those numbers were achieved.
Where are the letters to the editors correcting those views, highlighting the how and why competitive foods are available in so many schools? Pointing out that meal programs can only do so much to change the eating habits of students who are accustomed to high-fat snacks and low-nutrition beverages that are readily available in household refrigerators and pantries? Noting that the vast majority of most kids’ calorie and fat intake comes not from school lunch, but from family dinners at fast food restaurants or high fat foods from the home freezer?
We need to find ways to make the often complex details of school foodservice programs more transparent to the parents, school board members and taxpayers who have so much to do with setting the rules under which school nutrition programs must operate.
School foodservice programs and budgets have always been difficult to manage. Expectations have always been high and funding has always been constrained. But I think it’s fair to say the expectations for school foodservice programs today—from parents, from federal, state and local government, and from the kids themselves—are the highest they have ever been.
If we are not meeting those expectations, we need to make sure we all understand the reasons why. Ignorance may be bliss, but it will not give us the nutritional programs and results we say we want.