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Flash in the Pan

School lunch 2.0

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Rarely in our history have food politics so dominated the national spotlight. Two food-related bills are currently circling the legislative drain, and their backers are running out of time to get them signed by the end of the current lame-duck session—because once the new Congress takes over, all bets are off.

The so-called food safety bill passed the U.S. Senate Nov. 30 on a vote of 73–25—a level of bipartisan agreement rarely seen of late. Even so, the bill, en-route to Obama's desk, was taken hostage by a congressional contingent sworn to prevent anything else from happening until tax cuts for the wealthy are extended. Thanks to the discovery of a procedural error, they're poised to send the bill back for proper processing, followed by another round of new debate that many fear will kill the bill.

Meanwhile, the food safety bill's little brother, the so-called school lunch bill, passed the House 264–157 Dec. 2 (it passed the Senate last summer), and awaits a date with Obama's pen. Given his wife has made children's nutrition a priority, the smart money expects him to sign it.

But after years of wrangling, the bill is a mere ghost of what was originally proposed.

"Two years ago we started out very idealistic," says Dr. Susan Rubin, who teamed up with Slow Food USA on a campaign, called "Time for Lunch," that worked to get the bill passed. "We wanted a dollar more per day, per kid, in funding, because that's what we thought it would cost to feed kids properly. And now we're celebrating an increase of six cents."

While it's a smaller increase than they'd hoped for, it's still a bigger increase than school kitchens have had in more than 60 years (not counting adjustments for inflation).

In addition to increased funding, the bill also increases the efficiency of the money it spends. Section 205 of the bill bans certain accounting practices by which wealthy schools have been accessing money intended for low-income students. Getting the kids of families who can afford it to pay their school lunch's true worth—about $2.30 per meal—will save the program a lot of money. Section 205 also prevents government reimbursement program money from being spent on snacks sold outside of the lunch line, and mandates the creation of standards to regulate foods sold in schools outside of the subsidized meals. This includes the food and beverages sold in school vending machines, and a class of school foods called "a la carte" options—things like bags of chips, and cupcakes with the extra-thick frosting—which are sold alongside the subsidized meals, but aren't subsidized themselves.

The school lunch bill also calls for an update of the nutrition standards used to create meals funded by the school lunch program. "Right now, for example, USDA standards don't promote whole grains. You can be sure the new standards will," one optimistic school nutrition professional told me, requesting anonymity.

While there are many ideas about how best to feed children, there's little debate that water is the best drink. The bill mandates access to free drinking water in all schools.

"No child should be forced to choose between buying a Coca-Cola product and being thirsty," says Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA.

A big chunk of the bill, $375 million, will be divided among the states as grants to fund nutrition education and anti-obesity efforts. Forty million dollars will fund research on food-related childhood health issues. And another $40 million will be allotted to farm-to-school programs, especially in schools with high populations of low-income students.

Farm-to-school advocates are pleased. Forty million might not sound like a lot of money in terms of the federal budget, but according to Viertel, "That will start a lot of really great farm-to-school pilot projects." Unlike, say, a cruise missile, a farm-to-school program can be built for just a few thousand dollars.

One nagging string attached to the bill is that more than $2 billion—about half its annual budget—is currently earmarked to come out of the food stamp budget. The president has promised to find another source for this money, and here is where the strong arms of Michelle, frying pan in hand, will help ensure he does.

Despite the bill's bipartisan support, Fox News has been harassing the bill with fabricated concerns that it "could ban bake sales at schools."

What the bill does do is state that bake sales and fundraisers could fall under regulation if they become so frequent that a significant portion of students' calories are coming from such foods, a point that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went to pains to make in a widely circulated letter. Nonetheless, days later "Fox & Friends" co-hosts kept the "bake sale ban" narrative going, even after a guest correctly pointed out that the bill does not ban bake sales. Later, "Fox & Friends" co-host Gretchen Carlson teased another segment on the bill by saying, "Don't touch my muffins! A new bill headed to President Obama's desk would give the government the power to limit school bake sales? Is that any of the government's business?"

Sarah Palin chimed in, via Twitter, criticizing the "school cooking ban" as she seized the opportunity to point out another instance where the federal government wants to make our decisions for us.

Of course, the ones who rake in the most money on school fundraisers, from the Girl Scouts to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers, have publicly come out in support of the bill. Using the manufactured bake sale issue to kill a bill that aims to curb children's hunger and thirst is the height of cynicism.

I came of culinary age exposed to a Reagan-era school lunch program that famously considered ketchup a vegetable, and some of my memories of the food itself are disturbing. Sometimes I ate it, but even then I regarded school lunch as a distinctly low-grade reflection on humanity. Luckily for me, my parents were usually able to pack me a lunch. Luckily for a lot of kids, the school lunch program, and public school nutrition in general, are getting a much-needed upgrade.

Ask Ari: Gift of Grub

Q: Dear Flash,

'Tis the season for gifts and I have a foodie on my list. Can you recommend any cookbooks, kitchen tools or other food-inspired items to gift this year?

—A Giver

A: Never underestimate the holes in even a seasoned foodie's arsenal. Just today I found myself steaming a batch of tamales, and since I don't have a steamer I had to rig something out of a plate, a bowl, and an old aluminum pie tin inside a big pot. It worked, and the tamales came out beautifully, but come on. I'm getting tired of this game every time I want to steam some broccoli.

So despite how sure you are that this foodie of yours has everything, you might want to inquire. If you asked me I'd ask for the following: steamer, large thick-bottom kettle, steam juicer, FoodSaver vacuum sealer bags, and meat grinder and sausage attachments for my Champion juicer.

Just sayin'.

If you were hoping for more cutting-edge advice, I really like my Sodastream home bubbly maker. We used to buy bubbly water by the case, for over $1 per bottle. Now we make it whenever, and if it loses its fizz, we simply add more fizz. One of my favorite drinks in the world is bubbly mixed with grape juice.

As for cookbooks...I don't really use them. Call me lame and a-sensory, but when I'm in search of recipes I can usually find about 48,592 variations of what I'm looking for in seconds by going online.

That said, here's an interesting book that just landed on my desk, straight from Italy: The Slow Food Dictionary to Italian Regional Cooking.

If your foodie is going to Italy and wants a true Rosetta Stone for Italian menus—or if he or she just has a burning desire to know what imbrogliata di carciofi is ("Young, tender spiny Ligurian artichokes sliced, gently fried in oil with garlic and parsley, smothered with scrambled eggs and sprinkled with grated Parmigiano."), they'll probably like this book.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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