The cafeteria corn dogs, Coke and curly fries of grade school yesteryears seemed innocent enough for millions of parents to sanction — that is, until they learned their precious children were human garbage disposals for surpluses of dirt-cheap government subsidies, or until they learned students allocated "lunch money" to high-calorie pit stops at vending machines.
During the past decade, muckraking journalists and riled PTAs have focused mostly on the nutritional betrayal of such menus, leaving less time to question relatively equal ecological effects of cafeteria food. School food and drink leave a shameful environmental footprint, mainly by serving industrially produced subsidies, relying on funding from package-filled vending machines, and wasting unwanted food from trays. Still, many schools do little more than schedule "Trayless Tuesdays"
to lessen their environmental impact.
Currently, Michelle Obama is championing the "Let's Move"
campaign to cultivate healthier school lunch menus, and the impending Healthy School Meals Act
is proposing more plant-based options for student meals. The New York Coalition for Healthy School Food is giving schools highly accessible tools to educate students on healthy eating and food marketer mystification. These initiatives for bodily health are all promising, but if they neglect environmental health, current agricultural policies and school funding methods could remain just as environmentally irresponsible as always.
Subsidy Taco Tuesdays
U.S. farm bills dictate which items frequent school lunch trays by establishing federal food subsidies. The government uses schools as dumping grounds to dispose of surpluses of these agricultural subsidies.
Meat and dairy: 73.8%
Sugar, oil, starch and alcohol: 10.7%
Nuts and legumes: 1.9%
Vegetables and fruits: 0.4%
According to these government mandated proportions, it is cheaper to overproduce meat, dairy and grain for national cafeterias while serving inadequate amounts of vegetables — hence the widespread reliance on high calorie meat from factory farms and crops from monocultures with excessive pesticides, both of which ravage the land and water beneath them. Cheap food for schools is the result of irresponsible industrial agriculture and stale farm bill policies. Thanks to this setup, most New York public schools
still serve highly processed chicken nuggets, grilled cheese or pizza daily, while fresh produce anywhere beyond iceberg lettuce and canned fruit is a rare commodity.
The Healthy School Meals Act would call for more plant-based and vegan options to curb overconsumption of animal products, but it would not necessarily keep the government from using schools to spike profits for environmentally irresponsible agribusiness. One proposal, for example, asks for soy milk to be offered as a healthy alternative to regular milk. This soy, of course, would boost revenue tremendously for industrial farmers whose subsidy-funded soy monocultures monopolizing most of the land in the American midwest. Reliance on such environmentally harmful subsidies will not shift unless farm bill policies are reformed or unless able schools opt out of the National School Lunches Program and buy from smaller-scale or sustainable producers.
Most schools rely on funding from exclusive vending machine deals with food corporations. These corporations gain exclusive rights to offer "competitive foods," such as snacks and drinks, alongside government provided school meals. Districts receive large sums of money for encouraging students to purchase the corporation's snacks and drinks with daily meals, in between class, and at all school events.
The Obama Administration is trying to banish or at least reduce soda in schools. In New York, some educational departments are striking new contracts in which corporations must provide products under a specific calorie limit
. Again, these are good starts, but they do not translate to reduced use of bottles or packages. Whether its Cokes or Vitamin Waters in the vending machine, competitive foods will continue to be a major source of school funding. Schools will use millions of bottles and packages daily unless they make it a priority to have fountain drink dispensers or find alternative food products and packaging for funding.
Serving surplus agricultural surpluses
A USDA study found that at some schools, up to 39 percent of their food
ends up in the garbage, while at best schools are found wasting a minimum of 10 percent of their food. When cafeterias do not offer a la carte menu items or interchangeable side dishes, children end up with unwanted food on their plates. And when these side items are free or of little charge, students throw away this extra food without much second thought.
Beyond the trayless Tuesdays
Reformed agricultural policy and funding outside of competitive food contracts will not come easily. Still, there are ways for individual schools to send dollars in a direction that will spark change and inspire positive interaction with the environment.
If government products are tainted and their crops aren't from sustainable operations, schools with adequate funding can seek local farm foods that aren't drenched in fossil fuels or pesticides. If a school needs Snapple or Minute Maid drinks to buy new computers, they encourage the use of fountain drink dispensers that call for reusable glasses. If several different side dishes or drinks are offered at lunch, students can individually pick each side to avoid taking food they'll waste. Certain uneaten foods on trays can also go toward donation programs or compost piles in campus vegetable gardens.
Many schools are already taking such actions, but not enough of them. To mobilize your district or state legislators, visit the Healthy School Lunches
website to find great advice for interacting with school administrations, advocating the passage of the bill, and improving local menus and policies. The New York Coalition for Healthy School Food website also details the environmental ramifications
of school lunches. By educating your district's schools and parents on the need for policy reform and more local foods in cafeterias, the changes you spark could improve bodily and environmental health drastically in your area.