School Food Reform: Can’t We All Get Along? (We Can and We Have To)

In the last few weeks I’ve been surprised to find myself in the role of School Food Reform Naysayer, which isn’t what you’d expect from someone who serves on her district’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and its Student Health Advisory Council and who is a daily kid-and-food blogger.  If I really thought that school food reform was a nonstarter, believe me, there are other ways I could be spending my time.

The shift began two weeks ago when I objected to an interview with Jane Hersey (over at Kelly the Kitchen Kop) which, in my opinion, too blithely dismissed the difficulties many districts face in trying to bring about school food reform.  But in taking on Ms. Hersey’s position, I found myself in the undesirable (and uncharacteristic) role of saying “No, We Can’t!” to someone else’s “Yes, We Can!”

That post led to a lot of back and forth on TLT about what reform is possible (and what’s not) under current USDA reimbursement rates.  As a result, I decided to ask Dana Woldow, a school food reformer in San Francisco, to guest blog about the realities her community has faced (financial and otherwise) in trying to improve school food there.  Dana’s primary point is that places like Boulder, CO (Chef Ann Cooper’s current district) and Berkeley, CA (Chef Ann’s former district) use outside and/or community-raised funding to bring about change, and her own San Francisco district operates at a deficit that’s grudgingly paid by the school board.  Therefore, she felt, the successes in these districts may not be replicable everywhere in the country.

Dana’s post drew a long string of comments, including some from Ed Bruske (The Slow Cook), who has written extensively about Boulder and Berkeley.  Several people involved in Berkeley’s school food program, including Bonnie Christensen, executive chef in Berkeley’s school district, were also kind enough to stop by and leave their thoughts.  And the debate may continue to rage on in the comments section of that post.

After all this back-and-forth, what’s my own personal takeaway?

I wholeheartedly agree with Dana Woldow that we have to continue to fight hard for increased funding at the national level.  If we rely on local communities to raise funds to improve food, we’ll soon have a patchwork of wealthier (or more committed) districts with good food, and poorer districts (where, I would note, more children are reliant on school food) with less healthful offerings.  As Dana succinctly put it: “I worry about what happens to the poorer parts of America when the wealthier communities take a ‘I’ve got mine, now let everyone else go get theirs’ attitude.”  So as discouraging as it can be to try to bring about change in Congress, we can’t give up.

That said, I’m deeply impressed by the people of Berkeley and Boulder who are willing to put their money where their mouth is to fix school food, and the dedication and ingenuity of the people they’ve hired to do it.  Bonnie Christensen described in a few comments the financial and professional sacrifices she’s made to take on her current job (after working in prestigious restaurants) and the challenges she still faces — regardless of funding — in improving school food.  She also praised the professionalism of her well trained staff in dealing with those challenges.

I guess my conclusion would be, then, that we don’t have to pursue one path to the exclusion of the other.  Those who live in commuities fortunate and forward-thinking enough to self-fund school food shouldn’t forget those in less affluent districts for whom such funding is a pipe dream — nor should they neglect to mention that funding when they tout their achievements, lest they create false expectations.  Similarly, those who live in districts dependent on federal reimbursement should learn what they can from more successful districts — the reduction of inefficiencies, etc. — that may be replicable even without additional funding.  Successful school food reformers, even if they are working with more money than most, still have much to teach us.

The bottom line, of course, is that we all want the same thing: fresher, less processed school food for our children.  Debate over our differences shouldn’t be squelched — we learn from that debate — but neither should we let our differences divide us or distract us from the task at hand.

So, with that said, I place myself firmly back in the camp of “Yes, We Can.”

And now, back to work, everyone!  🙂

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