School lunch in WNC: a long way to go for a passing grade

I'd like to take the opportunity to thank Ms. Elsa Berndt for her letter about school lunches in Buncombe County [“Buncombe Schools can do Better,” Sept. 15, Xpress]. Sadly, the situation in Henderson County is no different, and I'm sure that there is little variation throughout the state.

School lunch in the United States nowadays is a self-enclosed private business that is charged largely with keeping itself afloat financially. The amount of federal money available for the reimbursement for free and reduced school meals has not substantially increased with the rising costs of foodstuffs, or even with inflation. Competitive foods (i.e. foods that are competitive with the USDA-approved meals served) are allowed in order to provide the cafeterias an opportunity to financially break even. Without them, most school lunch programs would simply cease to be.

Additionally, the federal government keeps a close eye on the amount of food waste that takes place with respect to the USDA-approved meals served, including not only food that isn't served, but also food that is disposed of by the students. Foods that are not regularly consumed become wasteful in the government's point-of-view, and less money is rewarded over time for the schools with high amounts of waste. To combat this, the schools choose for their USDA-approved meals foods that can compete with so-called "competitive foods," largely mimicking some of the a la carte items that seem to be the source of Ms. Berndt's ire. But what choice do the school cafeterias have if choosing foods that cannot compare to the junk-laced "competitive foods" will ultimately result in significant cuts to their funding?

I hope that people familiar with the school lunch system will please excuse my oversimplification of the problem, but the children of Western North Carolina deserve better.

The bulk of the problem often is laid at the feet of people who are not to blame: the school boards and the school system food-service managers. Instead, let us not blame any one person, but the system that led us here, and fight to change it.

Efforts from people like Laurey Masterton, who is leading the charge to re-imagine school menus in Buncombe County by pairing local chefs with elementary schools, should be supported, applauded and duplicated. The fight to get competitive foods out of the cafeteria should be recognized as essential to our stand against childhood obesity. And school cafeteria staff, especially school food-service managers, should be recognized for the difficult and nigh-impossible job with which they've been charged.

I urge all interested parties to contact Rep. Shuler and ask him to support Bill HR 4870, the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010, which would support more plant-based content in school lunches and dairy-free beverage alternatives for schools at no additional cost to the school systems. (It currently sits stagnant in the House Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities.) Our WNC community may just be the enlightened and motivated population needed to enact an “Act of Congress,” if you'll pardon a cliché.

— Paul Trani, MD
Blue Ridge Community Health Services

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