Any budget can close the nutrition gap

By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2010

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Ann Cooper, a professionally trained chef known as the “renegade lunch lady,’’ who turned around the Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., school lunch programs, thinks everyone needs to take a hard look at the bottom line. “I have yet to go into a school district without being able to find money that’s currently wasted,’’ she says.

There’s waste in payroll costs, says Cooper, author of “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.’’ In a restaurant, payroll runs about 30 to 35 percent, she says. By contrast, “most schools are running at least 50 percent and as high as 65 percent.’’ Her formula is simple: Lower labor costs and there will be more money for food. That’s a challenge. Food-service staffers, says the chef, “are not historically the most efficient. If you go into a well-run restaurant, you’ll see all these people hustling their butts off. You walk into any school food service, you’ll see someone sitting down.’’

Another obstacle is that schools lean heavily on commodity foods from the US Department of Agriculture, which are discounted or even free. Sometimes highly processed, commodity foods have taken some of the blame for school lunch’s shortcomings. Yet to Cooper, it’s not commodity foods per se that are the villain. It is possible to pick and choose among the offerings and find cheese, whole-grain pasta, and fresh fruits and vegetables. But the system also makes it easier to get, say, chicken nuggets, rather than raw, unprocessed chicken, and the “cleaner’’ commodities can sometimes be difficult to find.

Cooper is not opposed to turning lunches over to food service giants such as Sodexo and Aramark (an effort to do this in Boston, a few months back, has been put on the back burner for now). But she’s convinced that just about any district can do a better job. “If we believe education is really important, we’re not going to succeed if kids are hungry. The number-one goal is to bridge the achievement gap. But we never will, unless we close the nutrition gap.’’