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How TV Superchef Jamie Oliver's 'Food Revolution' Flunked Out

After two months, kids hated the new meals, milk consumption plummeted, and many students dropped out of the school lunch program altogether.

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Dr. Harris, co-director of West Virginia University's Health Research Center, says, "The standard school foods they show are far healthier than they appear. The French fries are baked, not fried. The pizza and other breads are typically made with whole grain products. But these are not necessarily highlighted to students."

That the school serves breakfast in the first place is an example of West Virginia's efforts to raise the standards. Goff says it "is the first state in the nation to have a breakfast program mandate that breakfast must be offered to children in all schools." He also points out that in 2008 the state enacted "the most progressive nutrition standards in the nation," which were drawn up by the Institute of Medicine. West Virginia has also removed soda sales during the school day, except for two counties out of 55 that allow it in high schools. Goff adds there are no outside vendors and "we do not permit a la carte sales."

Author Jan Poppendieck explains that a la carte food "undermines the nutritional integrity of school meals." She says kids "can pick at the parts of school lunch they feel like eating and then fill up with pastries. They have on their tray a meal that has been planned to meet nutrition standards, but then they can buy candy, and research shows that they do. Children who were in school without a la carte options ate more of the official lunch."

So even though these kids are eating "breakfast pizza" with "luminous pink" milk, it's probably more nutritious than what they would eat otherwise, assuming their parents were even able to feed them breakfast. The median household income in the city of Huntington is about 55 percent of the U.S. average. We never learn that a phenomenal 86 percent (pdf) of the children at Central City Elementary qualify for free or near-free meals because of widespread poverty. 

These schools are being blamed for being on the end of a broken-down system. Jamie never says a word about McDonald's, junk-food advertising aimed at children, or how the corporate control of food is squeezing out the very small, local producers he claims to value so much. Perhaps it's because he pockets nearly $2 million a year shilling for Sainsbury's, one of the largest grocers in the United Kingdom. One critic blasts Jamie for pushing "ready-made foods" while "there is little evidence of his stardust" at Sainsbury's, chock full of "hundreds of lines of salty, sugary, fatty foods."

Customers or Students?

Another reason Central City Elementary uses processed foods is budgeting issues. The federal government reimburses schools a paltry $2.68 for lunches and $1.46 for breakfasts (pdf) for children who qualify as long as the food meets specific guidelines. Goff, of the Office of Child Nutrition, says in Cabell County, where the elementary school is located, "they are cooking from scratch 50 percent of the time." He adds that "50 percent of the cost to produce a meal is in the form of labor. It's kind of hard to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables. You pay a premium for those."

Poppendieck says after school districts pay for labor, equipment, administration, transport, storage and other expenses, it leaves them with "somewhere between 85 cents and a dollar" for the actual ingredients for lunches. For breakfast, even assuming a generous ratio for purchasing ingredients, Central City has perhaps 60 cents to buy the food for a government-approved, reimbursable meal. Try buying breakfast for 60 cents; it won't even get you a Snickers bar.

The way the school food program is structured, the federal government only reimburses schools for what they actually serve. Goff says in West Virginia, "Participation in our program drives funding. ... You have to prepare foods and menus that children are going to eat or you're defeating the purpose." Boosting student participation increases food budgets in two ways: it lowers the costs of meals by creating greater economies of scale, and more meals sold mean a higher percentage of money can go toward purchasing food ingredients because labor, equipment and administration are mostly fixed costs.

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