Taking School Lunch Back to the Drawing Board

New Orleans, LA – It's pretty hard to find lunch for under $5 these days. But thousands of New Orleanians are getting their midday meal for about a buck.

They're school children, and one dollar is approximately the total spent for the food that reaches each of their trays for school lunch. That finding comes from the food activist group Slow Food USA. The nonprofit is campaigning to improve the meals kids eat in schools, and a coalition of local groups is gathering support for the effort here in New Orleans.

Some people may have fond memories of school food, prepared in real kitchens on campus. But times have changed. In many schools, lunch service has been outsourced and the result is cheap, heavily processed and nutritionally questionable - nachos, chicken fingers, fried tacos, the stuff you find at sports stadiums. Further, vending machines loaded with candy, chips and soda line many cafeterias, providing profit centers for suppliers and temptation for kids. Critics say factors like these contribute to the country's childhood obesity epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control says one in four American children is overweight, and one in three will someday develop diabetes.

Whether you have kids in school or not, if you're an American taxpayer, you're helping fund these processed meals. Under the National School Lunch Program, the government reimburses schools for meals served in their cafeterias. Last year, most school districts got $2.57 for each free lunch served to kids from families poor enough to qualify. In New Orleans, 84 percent of public school students qualified for free or reduced lunch, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Deduct costs for labor and overhead, and Slow Food calculates that schools are left with only one dollar per student for the actual food. That isn't much to work with, and when the food hits the plate, it really shows.

Things didn't get this way overnight, and making substantial change won't be easy. Food safety regulations and insurance requirements have made it very difficult to get fresh food grown by local farmers into school kitchens, and many schools no longer even have functional kitchens.

But local food activists groups believe that by raising awareness they can start to change the way kids eat at school. For instance, the Food Policy Advisory Committee at Tulane University will target all of its recommendations for the city this year to improving school nutrition.

Meanwhile, Slow Food and its local partners have launched a campaign called Time for Lunch to demonstrate a base of grassroots support for change. The groups are circulating a petition to Congress that outlines policy goals, including financial incentives for schools to buy local foods and programs to build on-campus gardens for growing and learning about natural foods.

But the policy priority is clear: Congress will consider the Child Nutrition Act Congress this year, and Slow Food wants it to include an extra $1 per child per day for healthier food. With the debate on health care reform raging, supporters of this increase pitch it as a down payment on the future, arguing that if kids start healthier eating habits in school today, they'll have fewer health problems, and few health expenses, as they grow up.

To learn more about Slow Food USA's petition to Congress, click here.