School lunches were associated with fights back in the Stone Age when I was growing up. As I recall, the fights could happen in at least a couple of ways.
Inside fights occurred mostly during the winter when the cafeteria was just a convenient place to pick up on a dispute that started on a school bus or after some sports practice the day before. Outside fights usually occurred in the early fall and spring when most of us would get through with lunch early and head out to the corner.
Outside fights were all about throwing rocks at the public school kids across the street. Those public school boys threw the biggest rocks, but they usually fell short. Some of those public school girls though, throwing smaller rocks, could zing their targets but good.
What I do not remember are any fights over the nutritional value of whatever was on the school lunch menu in those days. I do remember fish sticks and blocks of yellow cheese, but I really was not paying that much attention.
This past week, however, we saw just how serious people can be about what ends up in school lunches.
Indeed, I learned that one of my own U.S. senators, Mark Udall, D-CO, and a neighboring congressman, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, have squared off over how often schools should serve potatoes.
And some event sponsored by the National Potato Council in Washington D.C. included a just-retired Denver Public School (DPS) lunch director, who said enriched nutritional offerings in the Mile High city’s 81 public schools might prove to be so expensive that the district will have to drop free breakfast and lunch programs entirely. Leo Lesh, the retired director, said DPS might also have to cut out programs that promote local vegetables and meats.
The prediction stirred up enough reaction that DPS had to send out an official — one still on the payroll — to say the city’s schools had not taken a stand on USDA’s new nutritional standards.
USDA wants to limit “starchy vegetables,” including potatoes, to one cup a week. That is not going down well in potato-growing states. And the fight is revealing the real costs of the nutritional changes being forced on local school districts.
A survey of 245 school food service directors, conducted for the National Potato Council, found most think the new rules will be more expensive, result in more wasted food, and lead to lower participation in the school lunch program.
Udall and Sen. Michael Bennett, D-CO, already succeeded in carving out an additional $7.5 billion for more fruits and vegetables in school lunches. But Udall does not want rules that discriminate against “certain vegetables,” including white potatoes, corn, lima beans and green peas.
The two major growing areas for potatoes — the West and Northeast — form a powerful bipartisan bloc in the Senate that USDA might not want to alienate over what some call a nouveau riche view of what amounts to a good vegetable.
Republican Susan Collins also spoke at the National Potato Council event, saying she grew up in rural Maine eating potatoes every day with her five siblings and not one of them is overweight. She said “potato bars” in schools are proving to be a good way to get kids to eat other vegetables like spinach and broccoli.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has defended the proposed standard, saying it’s needed to cut the amount of french fries school kids eat. Rep. Polis also favors the government setting limits on potatoes.
But the National Potato Council sees that as just more politically correct thinking coming out of a disconnected Washington D.C.
Schools have moved on from french fires. The council says only 10 percent of schools even own a fryer today.
School lunch prices and what’s on the menu are getting plenty of attention around the country. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation into pricing. And this week, Sarah Wu, a 34-year-old speech pathologist in the Chicago public schools, “outed” herself in USA Today as “Mrs Q.”
As Mrs. Q, Wu has been photographing, eating and writing about Chicago school lunches for the past year. Her blog is titled: Fed Up with Lunch.” Once her identify was known, she was invited on Good Morning America and The View.
Requirements for more fruits and vegetables go into effect in 2012. Fights in and around school lunches will likely continue well beyond that time.