School-lunch reform has become one of the rallying cries of the good food movement. It is also a subject of great interest to me personally. Food Forward plans to devote an entire episode to the subject. It is a pretty easy cause to get behind, right? I mean, who can argue against feeding kids healthy, fresh food? Unless you’re the federal government or a member of the industrial agricultural complex, just about everybody supports school lunch reform. The tricky part is actually pulling it off.
I spent two days in L.A. recently and visited the tiny WISH charter school in the Westchester neighborhood, where I met David Binkle, deputy director of the L.A. Unified School District’s food-service program. Because many schools lack even basic kitchen facilities, the solution isn’t simply preparing healthier food for kids. First, you have to figure out where to make the food. Then you’ve got to find a way to pay for it. Before WISH opened, a dedicated parent spearheaded efforts to create a healthy food-service program. The school contracted Revolution Foods, an Oakland-based company that makes healthy foods at centralized kitchens and then delivers them to school sites. WISH, a K-5 school, is incorporating a school garden into their curriculum. They’re also installing a chicken coop for Fluffy, a much-loved chicken.
After my trip to WISH, I met Binkle at Newman Nutrition Center, the food-services hub of the mighty LAUSD. The facility opened in 1979 and originally made 8,000 lunches a day for 50 schools. Today, it prepares 22,000 meals for more than 425 schools, many of which have no kitchens.
Binkle, a chef turned food-services director, surprised me. I thought he was going to tell me what the district needed was greater per-pupil spending (currently 77 cents per student) to improve the quality of the food. While the district has increased servings of fresh fruit and vegetables, done away with soda pop and banned flavored milk, what Binkle really wants is to do away with the entire federal school-lunch program because of the waste and inefficiency he says it creates. Federal regulations stipulate what children must be served, whether they want it or not. As a result, thousands of pounds of food are thrown in the trash every day.
“There’s clearly enough money,” he says. “It’s just being wasted. The whole [federal school-lunch program] needs to be blown up.” The system is clearly broken. So who is going to push the detonator?