Here’s how it works: The National School Lunch Program assists schools (public and non-profit private) with a meal program that promises to provide “nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reimburses participating schools with cash and/or donated commodities for each meal they serve. Sounds great, right? Well, not so fast.
Currently each of these “funded” meals are allotted $2.57, which means that after you strip away labor, energy and overhead costs, schools have $1 per meal to spend on ingredients. This leaves schools and cafeteria managers challenged to find good, fresh, local ingredients to serve their students.
Every five years, the Child Nutrition Act is reauthorized by Congress to address the evolving needs, requirements, and mandates of this National School Lunch Program. Currently, each school lunch must meet the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Yes, you heard me right: guidelines created nearly 15 years ago. These requirements state that each meal must allow no more than 30 percent of calories should come from fat, less than 10 percent from saturated fat. The school lunches must also provide one third of dietary allowances like proteins, vitamins, calcium and calories.
But walk through any lunch line in America and you are bound to see processed, cheap foods. You might also see partnerships with fast food chains or branded foods. According to a recent article in Time magazine, 80 percent of schools serve lunches that don’t meet the saturated fat rule and 42 percent don’t offer daily offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables. When milk and oil prices rise, it affects our schools in a major way and as the numbers rise, the less we have to spend on food.
Perhaps you are thinking, “How does this affect me?” Consider that one out of five children in this country is obese and at risk for diabetes. If we don’t address this crisis on the front end through prevention and wellness, all of our health care costs will increase.
The good news? The Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization in 2010 and is grabbing lots of attention, given the national conversation on health. Slow Food USA has launched a national campaign encouraging all parents, teachers, and citizens request that Congress increase the cost of school lunches by just one dollar. Other provisions in the bill would limit junk food sales in the schools, and increase funding for Farm to School programs, which would also stimulate local economies.
The better news? Birmingham City Schools is in the process of removing all fryers from public schools. But with Alabama ranking as the second fattest state in the country, coming in second nationally for high blood pressure, and ranking number four for diabetes, we have our work cut out for us. Slow Food Birmingham believes schools are the ideal place to start setting an example for healthy eating habits — for kids and families alike.
To spread the word, Slow Food Birmingham has challenged local chefs to come up with a kid-friendly, locally-sourced meal that costs just $3.57. Bettola, Continental Bakery/Chez Lulu, Jim ‘N Nick’s, Little Savannah, Satterfields and Whole Foods Market are teaming up for the event to illustrate how great a fresh school lunch can taste. The event is appropriately called, “Taste $3.57.”
“If you bring fresh food into schools and let people prepare it, children respond so strongly to that, in my experience.,” says Carole Griffin, a mom, chef and restaurateur. “It doesn’t need to be complicated. You take a few ingredients and you make something extremely tasty out of it.”
“Taste $3.57” will be held Sunday, Nov. 1, from noon-3 p.m. in Caldwell Park. Attendees can enjoy kids’ activities, samples from each restaurant’s $3.57 menu, live music and receive information on how you can have an impact on area schools. Donations are suggested and will benefit the Greater Birmingham Community Food Partners. Find out more by visiting: www.slowfoodbirmingham.com
Sign Slow Food USA’s petition: www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/campaign/time_for_lunch/
Learn about the National School Lunch Program: www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/AboutLunch/NSLPFactSheet.pdf
Contact your legislators by mail, phone, fax or use their online web forms to let them know, “Change Can’t Wait! It’s time to provide America’s school children with real food at school!”
Senator Richard Shelby
304 Russell Senate Office Building
District of Columbia 20510-0103
Senator Jeff Sessions
335 Russell Senate Office Building
District of Columbia 20510-0104
Representative Spencer Bachus
2246 Rayburn House Office Building
District of Columbia 20515-0106
Representative Artur Davis
208 Cannon House Office Building
District of Columbia 20515-0107