Like many parents after a long family holiday, I usually welcome the moment when my kids head back to school. But this year it has got me thinking about what kind of schools our kids are returning to—and whether or not we are providing them with the best environment to learn. Mostly I am concerned about food, the fuel we give them. As a chef and as a father, I am very upset by what's on the menu at most schools: chicken nuggets and tater tots and ketchup and pizza.
The lunch ladies, the administrators, the people who feed our kids want to do better. But they are limited by one thing: a lack of money. The federal government spends about $2.51 per child per day to feed them lunch. Out of that you have to pay for labor, facilities, and administrative costs, leaving about a dollar for food. Imagine trying to feed yourself a nutritious meal every day with only a dollar. Very difficult. Now imagine trying to do that while satisfying the picky palate of a typical school kid.
Right now, we have an opportunity to change that. Every five years, Congress takes another look at the issue when the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is voted on, opening the door for discussion about possible improvements to these programs as well as increased funding. Among other things, the CNR provides money for and sets nutritional guidelines school for school lunch programs. Every five years it comes up for renewal. It is the most important piece of legislation that no one has ever heard of.
Through my work with DC Central Kitchen and the Solar for Hope project, I've learned how the power of food transforms lives. I've learned that feeding someone is more than giving them a meal. It is a way of saying "you are part of my community", "you are my neighbor", "I see you", "I care." These children need that in their lives.
As a chef and father, it kills me that children are fed processed foods, fast food clones, foods loaded with preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup. How can it be that our schools are full of soda machines and that many kids go without fresh fruit or vegetables?
I know that some people ask why we need to spend more money on feeding children when we are dealing with an epidemic of childhood obesity. Seems like a contradiction. But I want them to understand that hunger and obesity are the children of the same father. It is hard to eat healthy because it costs more. A gallon of milk is maybe $3.50, nearly $4.00, but a two-liter bottle of soda is only 99 cents.
The most recent CNR is set to expire on September 30, 2010. Before going on break, the Senate passed a bill that calls for a $4.5 billion increase. Sounds great. But almost half of that money comes from cuts to SNAP (the food stamp program). This is not the answer. We can't take food from already struggling families to fund school lunch programs.
Leaders in Congress and the White House were calling for $10 billion over 10 years. The House of Representatives settled on $8 billion—so they are two times as generous as the Senate! But no one who watches Washington politics thinks child nutrition is important enough to invest $800 million a year.
The fact is that we CAN find the money, especially such a small amount—congressional budget outlays are in the billions for many less important programs than those that FEED OUR KIDS—when it is a high priority for our country. And now is the time to make that investment. So when the House comes back to D.C. from summer break, I hope they will have the brains to find the money quickly and pass their bill so we can begin the new school year with a new promise to our kids, based on a REAL investment.