You might already know that I teach 10th grade English at a rigorous, low-income charter school called YES Prep. What you might not know is that more than 80% of our students qualify for free and reduced meals -- and what you almost assuredly do not know is what “free and reduced lunch” looks like.
Well, here you go. It looks like this.
Students qualify for free and reduced lunch, of course, because their families cannot always afford to pay for or provide regular meals. Oftentimes this lunch is the only meal of substance a child receives in a day. And when that “substance” consists of an off-color hot dog plus a few tarnished pieces of canned pineapple –- or about 350 calories total –- we’ve got a problem. It’s called Hollow-Eyed, Malaisical, I-Have-No-Energy-to-Pay-Attention disease. [Sigh.]
This problem is not new. Plenty of people are loud about the fact that school lunches absolutely blow. Chef Ann Cooper, the Renegade Lunch Lady, is one of them. A few weeks ago, Cooper came to town to tout the School Lunch Revolution, an idea she successfully implemented in Berkeley, CA. This plan seeks to make lunches healthier and more substantial, yet still tasty: Whole wheat crust and veggies on pizza, roasted potatoes instead of French fries, baked chicken instead of mystery meat. In short, her idea looks like this meal, sponsored by Whole Foods and served to us at the info session.
Chef Cooper has even put some numbers behind her idea: She says that 25% of our country’s healthcare spend goes to obesity/diabetes (that’s $260 billion of $1 trillion). And her solution is simple: We currently spent $8.5 billion on school lunches, and we need to up that number to... $14 billion.
I’m sorry, what?
It’s a great idea in theory: We can pay for better, healthier food now, or we can pay even more for fancy-pants healthcare treatments later. And where do we get all this unaccounted-for money? Easy, she says -- We need $1 more per student per day, so quit funding money-suck initiatives like Cash for Clunkers and the Iraq War.
The simplicity is *almost* refreshing -- yet also completely infuriating.
There’s no one out there that’s opposed to serving healthier, more substantial lunches in schools. But the question remains: If you had $5 billion to spend on education, would you put it towards food?
Consider the alternative.