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School Lunches: The Other School Reform

As public educational reform has become a hot topic via elections, protests, and even the cineplex, a similar movement is happening with the food served at public schools. Both present similar difficulties.

school lunch trays


A Q&A with filmmakers Michael Graziano and Ernie Park on the school food movement

While we’re on the subject of school reform, it’s worth noting two good reads from today on school lunch reform: both on the occasion of the FamilyFarmed Expo and Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives, two conferences taking place this weekend (the former’s here and opens to the public tomorrow).

First, Sam Worley reports from the former, which today focused on food policy and school lunches. Take note of this:

And there’s the infrastructure challenges inherent in preparing noninstitutional foods in institutional settings. “It’s really tough to cook healthful meals from whole foods when you’ve got a box cutter, a can opener, and a warming tray,” Kathy Lawrence said.

And keep it mind when reading Monica Eng’s report on Paul Boundas*, owner of the Country House in Alsip and cook at Holy Trinity High School in Wicker Park, who’s serving freshly prepared meals within the low maximum price set for federally funded school lunches (Eng has been on the school lunch beat for awhile). Eng found the same problem:

While some of Boundas’ techniques could be employed in the Chicago Public Schools, creating food from scratch is difficult in a system with few highly skilled cooks and no working kitchen in about a third of its schools. The district awards a single food service contract for its 600 schools, discouraging the kind of relatively small, nimble operation Boundas runs.

It’s interesting to see these two stories on the same day I was reading up on the educational reformers rumored to have caught mayor-elect Emanuel’s eye. Here’s a passage from a New York Times article on Andres Alonso:

Under the old system, principals fulfilled directives from the central office. Now principals have full control over the schools’ budgets and are held accountable for performance. They are required to consult with a committee of parents and community representatives when deciding how the money will be spent.

The approach, not unlike the one taken by Mr. Klein in New York, has its critics. Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” argues that making individual principals more accountable shifts responsibility away from those who run school systems.

(I’m not exactly sure the second paragraph exactly squares with Ravitch’s critique, based on this, but I haven’t read her book yet.)

In some ways, it’s the same challenge. We (as city, state, and national voters) demand accountability, as we should, but demonstrating accountability calls for data, which calls for standardization, which calls for structure across schools, districts, and even states. Which isn’t to say that the worst-case scenario is unwanted simplicity; sometimes it’s unwanted complexity. And that can make it hard to run a “small, nimble operation,” whether it’s a school or a school cafeteria.

* Boundas’s program seems to have first attracted attention via Jamie Oliver; here’s Oliver’s TED talk on school lunches.


Photograph: PinkMoose (CC by 2.0)


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