Want better school lunches? Don’t pick on the lunch lady

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O. Henry Middle School has a contract with Revolution Foods to provide school breakfasts and lunches that are prepared in Houston. Photo by Laura Skelding.
O. Henry Middle School has a contract with Revolution Foods to provide school breakfasts and lunches that are prepared in Houston. Photo by Laura Skelding.

O. Henry Middle School has a contract with Revolution Foods to provide school breakfasts and lunches that are prepared in Houston. Photo by Laura Skelding.

The privatization of school lunches in Austin has begun.

Today, my colleague Julie Chang tells us about a new partnership at O. Henry Middle School in West Austin in which a California-based, for-profit vendor is now overseeing the food served in the school’s cafeteria.

O. Henry is one of 89 schools in Texas, the first in Austin, to partner with Revolution Foods, which works with about 1,000 U.S. schools, including many in the Bay Area, where it is based.

This was a parent-led change, principal Pete Price emphasized at a press conference last week, aimed at giving children “healthy eating options” that will help them focus and “give them their best shot” at learning.

Isn’t that what the current school nutrition program does already?

As both a food writer and a parent whose elementary student eats the school lunch just about every day of the week, I’ve become a staunch defender of public school food.

In 2010, the year that Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” revealed some of the dirty secrets that take place in school cafeterias from coast to coast, I wrote about what’s really going on in with food in Austin’s public schools.

It’s not the gourmet food Oliver might have hoped, but it’s a nutritionally focused menu, prepared by people who care about kids’ well beings and who are thoughtful enough to know how to find the delicate balance of preparing food that’s good for kids and food that they’ll actually eat.

Austin Independent School District provides healthy, nutritious lunches to thousands of children, but one middle school now has a pilot program with a private company to provide breakfast and lunch at a higher cost to parents or, in the case of the free/reduced lunch, the district. Photo by Addie Broyles.

Austin Independent School District provides hot breakfast and lunch to thousands of students, but one middle school now has a pilot program with a private company to provide breakfast and lunch at a higher cost to parents or, in the case of the free/reduced lunch, the district. Photo by Addie Broyles.

In the face of public scrutiny that seems to grow by the day, schools across the country are tasked with providing meals that meet strict federal requirements but that stay within their increasingly limited budgets.

All things considered, AISD seems to be doing a pretty great job of making good food available every day for every student, no matter how much money their parents make.

But apparently at O. Henry, that food wasn’t meeting the quality that their students deserved.

The parents decided they could pay an extra $1 per meal, and the district decided they could afford to pay the difference for the students who eat a free or reduced lunch.

All told, the contract with Revolution Foods will cost the district $157,250 by the pilot’s end, the school estimates.

The Revolution Food lunch costs $3.50, fifty cents more than the Revolution lunches in San Francisco schools and a dollar more than the AISD lunch. Breakfast at O. Henry now costs $2.65, $1.40 more than what it costs in other middle schools in Austin. That’s an extra $7 a week for the “better” breakfast, in case you were counting your quarters.

Here’s another kicker: The food is prepared in Houston and delivered to Austin every day.

I’m sure they’d move production here if they had more schools participating, but until then, those middle school kids are eating food made in a city three hours away. No wonder the lunches are more expensive than what they cost in San Francisco, and I’ll let someone else figure out the real environmental impact of all that driving five days a week.

One of the biggest goals of creating this pilot program, parents and school officials said, was to boost the number of students eating the school’s lunch and reduce the “stigma” that existed around it.

They’ve already achieved the first part of that goal, if minimally. Since implementing the program a month ago, they’ve seen an 8 percent increase in the number of students eating the school lunch. That’s about 25 more kids eating the school lunch today than this time last year.

But let’s talk about the second part of that goal.

“It tastes like it’s made by humans now,” one 11-year-old from O. Henry is quoted as saying in today’s story about the new “high-quality, freshly-prepared real food” being served at the school.

Funny. I wasn’t aware that AISD was not serving “high-quality, freshly-prepared real food” by people who were not humans. Not many people would get riled up about the language used to promote this program, but I do.

The use of all of those feel-good adjectives implies that the current school food is anything but fresh, real or high quality. The logic that follows is that the people who make it are failing at their job and thousands of AISD students who eat the current menu are worse off because of it.

When we tell kids that something is wrong with the food (or the people who prepare it), they think something is wrong with the food.

This kind of hate-the-lunch-lady attitude is learned behavior and it has to stop if we’re going to make school food better for everyone.

If parents had more open minds about school lunches, we’d notice the hard-working employees behind the lunch line who have been there since 6 a.m. to make sure every kid has access to a hot meal.

We’d look carefully at the school lunch menu and appreciate the effort that goes into it to make it appealing to as many kids as possible, while meeting the nutritional expectations of parents at a price that pleases taxpayers.

And if you sat down to lunch with a student, you’d also notice that school lunches today are not the ones you might remember from your youth.

Just last week, I saw a produce delivery truck — the same you’d see making a delivery to any restaurant in town — pulled up the dock at my son’s school.

I was there to eat lunch with him. They were having ground beef tacos, pinto beans, canned peaches, and what is likely the exact same low fat milk served to students at O. Henry.

Julian loved it.

At O. Henry last week, students had the choice of “sustainably-raised beef hot dogs, vegetarian green chili cheese tamales, smoky BBQ chicken wraps and build-your-own sunbutter and jelly sandwiches.”

You read that right. Kids will have the opportunity to make their own sunbutter and jelly sandwiches (for $3.50) if they don’t like the sustainably raised beef hot dogs offered to them.

This news brings many questions to mind, especially how we assume that a sustainably raised beef hot dog that not everybody can afford is better for society than ground beef tacos that more people can, but the most pressing is this: If districts have enough money to further subsidize the (federally mandated) free/reduced lunch program, why don’t we just give lunch officials more money to work with in the first place?


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