Last year chef Jamie Oliver made a big splash by heading into a small school district in West Virginia and looking at what the kids were being fed … and then tracking back to homes and seeing the source of the issues. While our own kids are not overweight, several of their friends are (and there are some kids – girls in particular – with fed issues of different types) so it was a great discussion. It turns out that the food choices our kids have might be somewhat better than those in the West Virginia school system shown, but they are still not great.
Our kids enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables and get decent choices at home, but we know that puts them in the minority – and with the recent economic downturn and uptick in consumer prices, getting fresh and health foods has never been more difficult to do on a limited budget. It seems like everything is conspiring to help our kids eat poorly at home and at school.
How bad is it? A recent Buzzfeed feature looked at the obesity trend on a picto-map basis year by year. I took that data and created a ‘cumulative obesity factor’ that factors out states that didn’t report statistics until a federal mandate. However, there is no way to account for changing standards and how states compiled the reports until guidelines were established. But none of that really matters in the big picture:
Needless to say … things are getting worse and worse each year.
A couple of weeks ago Jamie Oliver started his second season in Los Angeles … and has immediately run into issues with being able to get into schools. Hoping to deal with the larger problem of what is happening in homes across America, he tries to work with a local Los Angeles fast food burger shop. After looking at the place, Jamie has ideas – and immediately gets to one of the major issues that lingered from the first season: cost.
Jamie could produce a great tasting, full quality beef burger with healthy condiments and about 75% less fat and calories than the standard burger at the place – but would cost twice as much!
When working with the school system in West Virginia, Oliver brought in great ideas of ways that the schools could use fresh and local ingredients and worked with the local cafeteria workers to create healthy and nutritious choices for the kids each day that worked within the school budgeting guidelines (more or less).
But to do so required having the cooks at schools completely retool how they operated, work extra hours, use new (or idle) equipment, and so on. It is not clear how it works on a bottom line basis, but it is clearly a challenge for existing infrastructure.
One thing is simple, and is symbolic of the ‘Food Revolution’: flavored milk. What we never realized is that there is more processed sugar in a strawberry milk than in a soda! So you take a nice healthy product, load it up with sugar and assume this is the only way kids will take it?
My kids like this as an occasional treat, and again, since they have ‘normal’ milk with breakfast and dinner we don’t quibble with them over ‘candy milk’. The problem is with how many kids have ‘juice products’ (i.e. not fresh juice) for breakfast and soda for dinner. For them this could be the only chance to get milk – and instead of growing their bones it is rotting their teeth!
Human Cost Versus Shrinking Budgets
My older son starts high school next, and has been fortunate to take German as a language for the last two years. He has been told to ‘double up’ on German for next year, since they have no idea how long it will be before the extra languages are canceled. The same was told to students taking French.
My younger son plays violin in the orchestra, and it is pretty much guaranteed that the middle school string teacher is getting cut this year, leaving the district director to handle it all alone (4th – 12th grade). The story repeats for sports, arts, music, and all sorts of extra-curricular activities: taxes are being raised, ‘rainy day funds’ raided, and still there is a shortfall.
My point in all of this – in our district, the Food Revolution would be a hard sell. If they could save a teacher by shifting to more pre-pack foods that would allow for one less cafeteria worker, they would do it in a second … so long as it meets ‘nutritional standards’.
And that is a major problem. Because while conscientious parents want only what is best for their kids, at a time when everyone is feeling the pinch of our own budgets, while simultaneously seeing the fed shift burden to states, and states shift burden to localities, and all of them raising taxes and fees while cutting services … it becomes harder and harder to fund.
So Jamie Oliver has gotten his revolution televised. And it is critical – because every dollar we DON’T spend doing it now we’ll be spending a hundred-fold on health costs in the coming years. But for now, local schools are still stuck wondering how they can do these things – even if they know it is the right thing to do.
What is happening in your area? Have you seen any push in your schools?