Don't you hate it when you are excited to see a movie because the preview was great, only to discover those are the only good scenes in the movie ? That was my reaction to school lunch reformer Kate Adamick’s new book, Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy
. The preview on Adamick’s website promotes Lunch Money
as a “timely book dispelling the myth that school food reform is cost-prohibitive,” and I spent the days waiting for the book to arrive immersed in a happy daydream of how school meals here could improve without breaking the bank. Despite my skepticism about school food miracle workers
, I thought this might be the real deal.
Adamick’s best suggestions - like switching from plastic “sporks” to reusable metal utensils, or serving breakfast in the classroom free to all students - sound intriguing enough to justify $19.95 for a book promising to show how these ideas could save our student nutrition department zillions of dollars. Sadly, for a school district like San Francisco, where the high cost of living drives labor expenses to among the highest in the nation, where school kitchens that can actually cook are few and far between, and where providing meals that meet the USDA’s Gold Standard
drives a $3 million deficit for the school meal program, there are no easy fixes to be found in Adamick’s book.
offers a good overview of how school meal programs operate, and makes a convincing argument for why we need to feed our children better at school. For those who have not already read Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America
, or Amy Kalafa's Lunch Wars, or Mrs. Q’s Fed Up with Lunch
, or Ann Cooper’s Lunch Lessons
, or any of the other recent writings on this topic, this is important information. What is unique to Adamick’s approach is that she provides specific cost saving strategies, and worksheets for the reader to use to determine the potential savings in their own school district.
Alone among school food reformers, who typically link better quality food and scratch cooking with higher cost, Adamick insists that schools already have all the money they need to scratch cook with higher quality ingredients, but that they are frittering it away on processor fees and other inefficiencies. If only schools would follow her advice, she maintains, they could reap sufficient savings to pay for staff training and additional labor hours to scratch cook, more equipment to upgrade kitchens, and higher quality food.
Although Adamick’s website promises “effective money-saving and revenue-generating tools for use in any school kitchen or cafeteria,” the first page of the book contains, in tiny print, this unusual disclaimer: "The advice and strategies contained herein may not be suitable for your situation, and you should consult with a professional where appropriate."
I finished the book in about 90 minutes, and it can be summed up thus: "If there is a rank amateur running your operation right now, here are some ideas you can try to save money; at least some will probably work for you, assuming of course that you have a functional kitchen in which to work, and low enough labor costs to staff it appropriately (she never states those two caveats, but she should); however, if you have a professional running your operation, someone who knows what the word "inventory" means, and that it needs to be performed more than twice a year, well, then 'the advice and strategies contained herein may not be suitable for your situation, and you should consult with a professional where appropriate'."
San Francisco's approximately 100 public schools lack even a rudimentary central cooking facility, and the few functioning kitchens which do exist in the middle and high schools are so woefully underequipped that it could easily take seven figures to upgrade even a few of them.
Adamick's suggested savings resulting from the use of dried beans instead of canned, or of commodity meat delivered in its natural state (such as cut up chicken or pork roasts), rather than diverted to a processor to be turned into nuggets or other processed dreck, are not feasible for districts which lack kitchens in which to roast those chickens or cook those beans. Once SFUSD builds the central kitchen
it so clearly needs, there will be an opportunity to save money over the current system of commodity utilization by cooking whole roasts and chicken on the bone, but for now, those suggestions are not workable here.
Other recommendations, like eliminating unnecessary sugary desserts (did that in 2004), implementing salad bars (did that starting in 2006) and doing frequent inventory (a standard "best practice" that any professionally run program is already doing) are not new ideas for SFUSD. However, the two ideas mentioned earlier - reusable utensils and universal breakfast - deserve a closer look.
The case for switching from throwaway plastic utensils to washable metal forks and spoons writes itself; no one prefers the plastic "spork." However, the worksheet Adamick provides to calculate potential savings takes into account only the initial purchase price of the metal flatware. There is no line item for replacement costs when some utensils inevitably are lost, pilfered or damaged.
Nor is there any accounting for the cost of washing the flatware, whether that be installation of dishwashers (plus additional cost for dishwashing soap, hot water and electricity to run the machines, and additional labor to load and unload the flatware) or the extra labor, soap, and hot water necessary to wash by hand.
It may still cost less to use real flatware, but it would be more helpful to have worksheets set up for calculating the true cost, including all factors. It is more than a little disingenuous to imply that the only cost of the switch is for the initial flatware purchase, and this failure to include all associated costs is something Adamick does more than once in this book.
It happens again when Adamick advocates the use of dried beans instead of canned. Beans are a bargain even canned, and the price drops lower still with dried. But it is not accurate to compare the cost per pound of ready-to-eat canned beans, to the cost per pound of dried beans, which still require several steps to be made edible.
There should be space on the worksheet for the labor not only to wash and sort the beans, and cook them, but also to wash out the steam kettle afterwards, not to mention the cost of utilities to run the steam kettle, or for training employees to make sure the beans are properly cooked and don't come out “crunchy.” These may be modest expenses, but they are
expenses and a true accounting of the savings would include them, not just the purchase price of the beans.
Adamick shows that money can be saved buying dried beans, but she provides the reader neither an awareness that there are additional costs, nor the means to determine if the savings will outweigh those added costs.
Then there is universal breakfast in the classroom. Using Adamick's worksheets, implementing a universal breakfast looks like a real windfall, as most kids who get free school meals are only eating lunch, not breakfast. The relatively lower cost of a breakfast means that even though the government payment for that meal is also lower than for lunch, the "profit margin" on each meal is a bit higher; serve enough meals and your district can drive some real revenue.
Again, the assumptions Adamick makes in her worksheets do not account for any additional labor, which may be a workable model elsewhere, but in SFUSD cafeterias, with currently just one worker paid for just one hour at breakfast, a meal for every child delivered to each classroom could not possibly be accomplished with no additional labor. The estimated food cost Adamick uses is well below the cost in expensive SF.
Finally, she bases her sample worksheet on 100% participation, which is a virtual impossibility, since there are always some students absent, and others who ate breakfast at home and don't want to eat again. According to a Food Research and Action Center report from
January 2012, only 3 large urban districts have achieved even a 70% rate of participation for breakfast in the classroom.
By coincidence, SFUSD's student nutrition director Ed Wilkins recently estimated the potential revenue for a universal breakfast at elementary schools, using an assumption of 75% of students eating, which is still extremely optimistic, given the current approximately 10% participation.
After accounting for the extra labor required, and the cost increase for food going into effect next year, it turned out that breakfast in the classroom would only drive about $100,000 of additional net revenue. For a school meal program which runs millions of dollars over budget, this is hardly a drop in the bucket to reduce that deficit, and not enough to be able to pay for any of the higher quality food, staff training or kitchen equipment which Adamick recommends funding with the savings from her suggestions.
The giant elephant in the room, which Adamick barely acknowledges, is labor costs. I suspect this is why her worksheets don't include a line item for extra labor when figuring the "savings" from using dried beans or pork roasts; labor costs vary from community to community. Districts which pay their cafeteria staff starting salaries of less than $8 an hour can get twice as much labor for their money as those like San Francisco, where the lowest paid workers start at $14-16 an hour. It takes the same number of hours to cook a pot of beans or roast chicken parts, but SF pays twice what Greeley, Colorado
does for those hours.
These lower labor costs probably help explain why so much of the work Adamick's Cook for America consulting firm has done, helping district convert to scratch cooking, has happened in Colorado. According to the New York Times
Colorado, which has been the least obese state in the nation since federal health measurements of American girth began, is a leader in the back-to-scratch movement. Of the 100 or so districts nationally that have worked with Cook for America, a group that trains school cooks in healthier lunch-ways and ran Greeley’s boot camp, more than half are in Colorado, including schools in the largest districts in Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder.
I originally thought that Lunch Money
was intended as a how-to manual for school food service professionals, but I now believe it is aimed at those who know very little about school food service - parents and community members wanting better school food. The danger in not including all of the expenses in an estimate of how much money can be saved using dried beans instead of canned, is that while a food service professional would see right away that there were extra costs to be included for labor and utilities, that important point isn't on the radar of the typical parent wanting a better school lunch.
That's the downside of a book offering to show how to save money on the food, without including all associated costs - it is aimed at those who want to help, but may instead lead to more people thinking they now know all about how to run a profitable and healthy scratch cooking operation, when they don't know the half of it.
Adamick wants to promote lunch ladies to the role of lunch teachers, in a stroke elevating these valuable school employees from "hairnet lady" to educator, and good for her for doing that; she is among the first to call for respect for these hard working cafeteria staff who have become an iconic target of ridicule.
However, her simplistic work sheets, which fail to account for all of the expenses attached to the changes she advocates, inadvertently undermine the job of another underappreciated school food worker - the student nutrition director. Implying that anyone, no matter how inexperienced in school food service, can arm themselves with a pencil, a calculator, and her worksheets, and magically produce savings that the school nutrition director never thought of, is completely unrealistic, not to mention disrespectful of that profession.
SFUSD's nutrition department deficit will probably never go away so long as the federal government provides the same lunch money to schools in high cost SF as it does to schools in lower cost communities. All the penny pinching in the world cannot produce enough savings to build a central kitchen, staff it with union workers, and purchase sustainably raised food in our town, even if Adamick has had success with her method in towns where union wages are close to minimum wage, and where working school kitchens already exist.
Labor costs and functioning kitchens are make-or-break issues in improving school food, and her book ignores both. Her advice may work for some communities, but more federal money would work for every community.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.