The Virginian-Pilot had an article entitled Rising food prices pinch local school menus about how food prices are affecting Virginia schools, and it's not pretty. For the most part, the schools are having to cut important food items, or raise prices, and as with the whole food system price crisis I can't bring myself to use the argument that maybe it will teach people that food should be expensive when it's causing such hunger and misery in the moment. (hopefully a longer term change will happen as the unsustainability of our system becomes clear to more people, but I'm not giddy to see the difficulties its causing people.) But there are a couple of things in the article that made me think:
Disposable service products and baby carrots are some of my pet peeves about food in general--neither necessary nor environmentally sustainable. I know that labor makes up a major part of school lunch service budgets, and I'm assuming that washing trays is just not in the budget (though I suppose disposable trays could also be about dreaded germs or something). And baby carrots are served because kids will eat them and they come prepared so no one has to wash or cut them. But as food prices soar, will it again become more economical to buy the basics and prepare them in the cafeteria? And will schools make the investment in re-usable utensils and trays, and pay someone to wash them? Oh wait, I just realized--disposable service products are used because individual schools don't have equipment for washing, just as they often don't have the facilities for preparing carrots and other fresh fruits and vegetables. (really, I just realized it and didn't do that for effect, I promise) So not only would there need to be an investment in personnel, there would also need to be some reinvestment in school facilities, and in some cases schools were designed without kitchens from their beginning, so it would be a major project.
Helen Phillips, senior director of Child Nutrition Services for Norfolk schools, said school divisions are taking a hit as well when purchasing disposable supplies, including Styrofoam trays and "meal kits" with a plastic fork, a straw and a napkin.
"Every student that eats every single day gets a meal kit, and they've gone up 18 percent," Phillips said.
To make ends meet, Peterson said, schools also are combining fresh and frozen vegetables, replacing grape tomatoes with less expensive varieties and cutting full-size carrots instead of serving the popular, but more expensive, baby carrots."The name of the game is examining every little cost to determine what makes sense economically," he said. In Suffolk, Williams said he relies on a la carte snack items that meet wellness guidelines - such as reduced-sugar fruit snacks, baked chips and juices - to generate revenue.
I would love to see schools get kitchens and have staff to cook whole foods and use real trays and utensils. So far it's not seen as important in the scheme of skimpy school budgets. We need to consider more carefully the link between food and learning and behavior, and the long-term value to our society that could result from a new food culture and focus on food system citizenship and personal nutrition. Only then does it become an obvious and vital necessity that we fund our school food programs adequately and incorporate education about food and its links to health, rural economies and the environment.