School Lunch: Private vs Public

by on January 20, 2015

My head may explode if I read one more article gushing over a fabulous private school lunch program, complete with a celebrity chef insisting that any public school can easily do what he does. The latest such tale appeared recently in Star Wars creator George Lucas’ Edutopia, a website with a vision of “a new world of learning” and a claim to “provide not just the vision…but the real-world information and community connections to make it a reality.”

The story about the lunch program at the tony Calhoun School in Manhattan may provide a vision, but if Edutopia offers any “real-world information” here to make this vision a reality in the typical budget-challenged public school, it is well hidden.

The Calhoun School program, called Eat Right Now, does indeed sound wonderful, and comes with all of the must-haves on any school food reformer’s wish list – a menu of nutritious whole foods, locally sourced and freshly prepared each day (right down to the dressings on the bountiful salad bar) by trained chefs in the school’s own kitchen. There is also a powerful food education component, and after school cooking classes for all ages.

If that were not enough to make a school food crusader swoon, there’s the price. Edutopia reports that the designer of Eat Right Now, Chef Robert Soules (aka “Chef Bobo”) is able to produce these wonders for the school’s 700 student diners for just $3.12 per student. Wow – that’s almost exactly the amount of money that the USDA gives schools to pay for a free lunch for a low income child!

So, it stands to reason that replicating Chef Bobo’s program in any old public school should be easy, right? Especially at a school with lots and lots of low income kids, who are eligible for those government-paid free lunches that generate just over $3 a pop.

And that would be true, if food were the only expense of a school meal program.

Food is just one cost

Alas, food costs account for only about 45% of the budget for a nutrition department in most school districts; labor and benefits cost about another 45%, with utilities and other overhead (like pest control, equipment replacement, repair and maintenance, and non-food supplies) making up the remaining 10%. In other words, of that approximately $3 that a school gets for a free student lunch, only about $1.35 is available for food.

Chef Ann Cooper, who is probably the nation’s most famous “lunch lady”, told me that her scratch cooked school lunch program in Boulder (CO) spends about $1.20-1.25 per student on food.

I checked with Chef Bobo to be sure that the $3.12 figure Edutopia cited really was all spent on food, and he confirmed that it was, and also shared the happy news that since doing that interview, he had been able to connect with some local farms and bring his per-student food cost down to $2.89. That great news for Calhoun’s lunch program, but it still means that this private school is able to spend more than twice what Chef Ann spends for her public school meal program.

It’s completely misleading for Edutopia or anyone else to hold Chef Bobo’s program up as an example of what any public school would be able to do, if only they had the vision to do so. “According to Chef Bobo, Calhoun’s food service model is easy to replicate,” Edutopia crows, but I find it hard to believe that someone who has been in food service as long as Chef Bobo would make such a reckless claim.

Public school cafeterias face challenges privates don’t

I’m pretty sure Chef Bobo is aware of just how privileged his situation is at Calhoun, with all of his food costs paid upfront as part of the annual tuition, and with a well-equipped kitchen for his ample staff to use to turn those farm fresh ingredients into tasty meals kids love. The main reason why most public schools don’t cook their own food is not because they don’t have the vision; it’s because they don’t have functioning kitchens.

The hard reality is that public schools don’t have the whole $3 to spend on food because they also have to rely on that money to pay for cafeteria workers and overhead to run the operation. A more fair comparison than what Edutopia provides would include all of the costs of Eat Right Now, including labor and overhead. Add those costs to the $3.12 spent on food, and the full meal cost per student is likely to be closer to $8 than to $3.

Clouding the picture further, there are other expenses incurred by public schools that Chef Bobo and the Calhoun School never have to worry about.

Unpaid meal charges

For example, there have been dozens of articles in recent years about school districts grappling with the issue of unpaid meal charges. These charges occur when a student who has not been approved for free meals shows up in the lunch line with a tray of food and no money to pay for it.

The cafeteria worker has to make a snap judgment call – let the child have the meal (or an inferior “meal of shame” like a cheese sandwich) by recording it as a charge against a school meal account with no money in it, or yank the tray of food away from the child and send him away hungry?

Sad to say, there are schools where the policy is to do the latter, but most opt for the former. Some districts, like San Francisco Unified School District, even have an official policy that no child will ever be turned away from the lunch line due to lack of money. However, these meal charges add up; at times the SFUSD total has exceeded half a million dollars annually. If parents don’t eventually pay for their child’s meals, the cost comes out of the student nutrition department’s budget.

Chef Bobo doesn’t need to worry about unpaid meal charges, because at the Calhoun School, the $42,000+ annual tuition includes the cost of school lunches. All meals are guaranteed paid for and no child ever has to face the prospect of being turned away hungry, or given a “meal of shame” cheese sandwich because her lunch account was empty.

Counting and claiming

The article mentions the 6 chefs who work in the Calhoun kitchen, and Chef Bobo tells us that everyone does a little of everything – menu planning, cooking, serving, cleaning up, even teaching about food – but unlike public school cafeterias, Calhoun’s kitchen staff don’t have to “count and claim” student meals at the end of the lunch line.

Counting and claiming is the process by which every student passing through the lunch line has their meal recorded as either “free” (qualifying for the highest government payment of about $3), “reduced” (bringing in about $2.60), or “paid”, (bringing in only about 30-35 cents in government money, with the rest paid by the student.) Counting and claiming is why, even with swipe cards or touch screens, school lunch lines still move pretty slowly.

Students can’t just grab whatever food they want and head for their table; in addition to counting and claiming, public school cafeteria staff need to look over each lunch tray, to ensure that the student has taken all of the parts of the meal required by the USDA. Schools must offer 5 food groups – protein, fruit, veg, grain, and milk – and each student must take at least 3, and in some cases all 5 parts, in order for their meal to get the government payment. Student who have not taken enough parts of the meal must be sent back to take more.

Chef Bobo’s students can take whatever they want from the choices offered at Calhoun, and there is no counting, claiming, or qualifying for government money because all meal costs are included in the tuition. Calhoun does not need to rely on the federal government to fund their school meal program.

But with 70% of the students who eat public school meals coming from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced price in 2013-14, most public school cafeterias couldn’t survive without the government payments, and with those payments come inflexible rules.

Free meal applications

Chef Bobo’s students and their families don’t have to fill out free and reduced price meal applications either, and that means his program doesn’t have to pay the costs of printing and distributing those forms, collecting them, processing them, and getting the information into the school’s computers, so that each time a student goes through the lunch line, his meal is properly accounted for. But public schools do.

Other challenges

Chef Bobo doesn’t need to pay office staff to fill out the mountains of paperwork necessary to collect that government payment, nor does he have to wait the 3 months that can legally elapse between when a claim is submitted and when the government makes the payment. But public schools do.

Nor does Chef Bobo have to worry about inspectors from the USDA coming through his school every 3 years checking to make sure that his program is operating according to government regulations (and the regulations covering school breakfast and lunch programs are the size of the telephone directory for a good sized town.) But public schools do.

Chef Bobo doesn’t ever have to look at his kitchen workers and wonder if any of the cash students paid for their lunches was disappearing into their pockets (or their bra.) But public schools do.

Competitive food sales

Then there is the issue of competition. Open campus remains a challenge for many public high schools, where students have for years been allowed to leave campus in search of lunch from nearby fast food or takeout options. Other school meal programs must compete with nearly non-stop food fundraising by student groups and clubs at lunchtime.

Both open campus and food fundraising draw money away from the cafeteria, as students with cash to spend choose these other options. This in turn stigmatizes those who do show up at the cafeteria to eat the government-provided free lunch, which may be all their family can afford.

No one wants to self-identify as poor, especially in front of peers, but that is exactly what happens to students who must rely on cafeteria lunch while their better-off classmates choose a Burger King run or a slice of pizza sold by the school band to raise money for new uniforms.

With a year’s worth of lunches included in the tuition, parents at Calhoun are unlikely to want to hand their kids additional money to pay for an off campus meal, especially when the school culture is that everyone eats the school lunch. With 700 guaranteed customers a day, Chef Bobo never has to worry about making too much food, or running out, as happens at public schools, where cafeteria staff never know how many students will show up each day.

None of this is to criticize the Eat Right Now program, which sounds like a wonderful blend of healthy food and hands on nutrition education. If for no other reason, people need to hear about programs like Chef Bobo’s to counter the position expressed by some members of the food-industry-supported School Nutrition Association that kids won’t eat healthy food. I bet any child would be happy eating food from Chef Bobo’s kitchen; I know I would be.

Face facts

But let’s not get so caught up in our enthusiasm that we lose sight of reality. Chef Bobo is running a meal program so well financed that he is able to spend on food more than twice what even the best-run public school can spend. His program does not have to face many of the challenges, nor incur many of the expenses, of a public school cafeteria that relies on government payments for most of its revenue.

There is a lot more to getting an Eat Right Now program going in most public schools than just putting out a salad bar or hiring a chef or two.

Edutopia needs to get its head out of the clouds and face facts. Chef Bobo’s Eat Right Now program is terrific for the students privileged enough to be able to attend a pricy school like Calhoun, but presenting it as something that any cash strapped public school could easily copy is as much a fantasy as Star Wars.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.


Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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