For the first time in 15 years, the federal government has rewritten the rules for what must — and can’t — be served in its public school lunchrooms. Meanwhile, some OUSD staff, parents and local organizations are formulating some plans of their own, which they presented at the last school board meeting.
It was well into the evening, and some of us joked about having to sit through the presentation on an empty stomach. It later dawned on me how remarkable that was: the thought of cafeteria food inducing an appetite, rather than ruining it!
Although the presentation coincided with the new federal standards, it wasn’t focused on compliance. (Speaking of compliance, you’ll find more information about the new USDA rules here.) Instead, we heard about ideas to radically change the system so that children who rely on subsidized meals — and those who buy their lunches — will be healthier and more focused in class.
The recommendations included cooking classes for food service workers; new recipes inspired by global culinary traditions; organic produce from local farmers; kitchen and equipment upgrades that would allow 60 percent of all food to be made from scratch and the rest to be minimally processed; a new model for delivering semi-prepared food to schools without kitchens, and spaces that could be leased in the evenings to local vendors or others in the community.
And, of course, no central kitchen would be complete without an organic farm. The current proposal calls for a 1.5-acre vegetable garden to be built right outside.
The estimated, up-front costs listed on a feasibility study by the Center for Ecoliteracy (you’ll find links to the presentation and executive summary here) total at least $26 million, a sum that OUSD would be hard-pressed to raise without another local bond measure or a heavy duty grant.
The better-quality food would also cost about $1 million extra a year, a 6.6 percent increase from the 2009-10 budget, according to the study. Jennifer LeBarre, director of OUSD’s nutrition services department, says she believes the department could break even by leasing out space and serving more meals to students (and possibly to charter schools), increasing the department’s federal reimbursement funding.
FUNDING NOTE: Most school lunch programs operate without the support of a school district’s general fund. They must survive on food sales, combined with federal reimbursement funding from the National School Lunch Program and grants.
FOOD STATS: More than 70 percent of OUSD schoolchildren qualify for a federally subsidized meal, according to the feasibility study. OUSD serves about 6.6 million meals a year, including breakfast and snacks. If you’re curious about what’s on the menu, here’s what cooking in February for elementary school kids. There’s also a page with links to all of the menus.
QUESTIONS FOR YOU: What is your school’s food like? Do you support this effort? What suggestions would you make for the plan itself, its funding or its implementation? Lastly, tell us about the most popular meal (or snack) at your school this year!
A story about this issue is scheduled to appear in the Tribune later this week. Stay tuned.