school lunch flickr imeldaHere’s a pretty typical public school lunch today: hot dog on a bun with ketchup, canned pears, raw celery and carrots with ranch dressing and chocolate milk. And this is what the menu of the future may look like: whole wheat spaghetti and meat sauce, a whole wheat roll, cooked green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi halves, 1 percent milk and low fat ranch dressing.

That’s what this chart from the White House suggests, now that President Obama has signed the most important piece of legislation to affect school lunches in decades. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, to be sure, does a lot of great things. It allows more children with genuine needs to receive free and reduced-price lunches. It provides funding for school gardens and collaborations with local farms. It will put healthier options in school vending machines and stores.

It also promises to update school lunch nutrition standards, incorporating recommendations from a recent National Academy of Sciences report. Those include doubling the amount of fruit and vegetables per meal, limiting starchy ones like potatoes, requiring schools to offer green and orange vegetables, serving more whole grains and switching to low-fat milk.

To help schools make that transition, the federal government will offer an additional 6 cents per meal. In some ways, this is a gigantic step forward and the first meaningful increase in school lunch funding since Richard Nixon was president. But then consider what 6 cents will buy – maybe a quarter of an apple?

To put the funding increase in perspective, here’s a video from the Lunch Love Community Project about the Berkeley Unified School District’s pioneering efforts to transform the way kids eat and think about food. As you watch workers chop fresh herbs, wash bathtubs of greens, cube squash and mix dough for school lunches that look better than what you may cook at home, watch for these numbers: $4.90 vs. $2.72.  

That’s the difference between the average cost of producing one lunch serving versus what the federal government currently pays. And Berkeley, with foundation help, has been working for ten years to realize its revolutionary school lunch/garden/education program. So an extra 6 cents isn’t going to move a more financially strapped school district from hot dogs and pancakes-on-a-stick to beautiful scratch-cooked meals overnight.

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  • So how much better can school lunches get on a strict budget? You’ll find a whole spectrum of opinions on that question. Some argue that by completely blowing up school lunch programs, it’s possible to find efficiencies and free up money. Others counsel schools to take baby steps – substituting real chicken for nuggets or fresh fruit for Del Monte cups. And low-cost changes to cafeteria design can have real impacts on what food kids choose to eat. But here’s how Michael Vetter, food director for the school district in Independence, OR, described to the Oregonian how things look from his vantage point:

    “We really are a business of pennies,” he explains. “It’s amazing what 6 cents means to us”—but doesn’t expect the change to remodel his menu.

    “It’ll maintain my programs, and I’m thankful for that,” he says, “but it’ll be hard to do the things they want us to do.”

    We ought to set a high bar for the food that fuels our kids brains and bodies as they learn to do everything from tie their shoes to solve quadratic equations. But we also need to recognize that new regulations and a nickel are unlikely to solve all the challenges that food directors face. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act may be a monumental step, but hardly the end of the road.

    School lunch photo courtesy of flickr user .imelda via a Creative Commons license