Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Feeling heavy: A reminder of why school lunches exist

Hi everyone! I am writing my last post while in Croatia, and then it is off to Serbia! I’ll be making a pit stop in Plitvice Lakes, one of eight national parks in Croatia. Here is what it looks like below:

[So gorgeous!]

Amidst the beauty of Croatia, I have been growing increasingly uneasy while doing research on the US NSLP. Why? Read on to see why. This will be a short post, as I don’t want the main message to be diluted by multiple thoughts/threads.

The US National School Lunch Program: A Reminder of the Polarization of Wealth and Poverty
I came across a data set recently on America’s school lunch participation over the last 50 years, as well as the percentage of meals that are free/reduced price. This is what the data set looks like:

I’m a visual person, so I put this data into a graph.

The blue line represents total participation (millions) over time, the red line represents the total number of free/reduced price meals (millions) in the program over time. So, the blue shaded area - the area between the red and blue lines - represents the number of meals that are not subsidized by the government. This space - the number of meals that are being purchased at full price - is shrinking. The number of families who are able to afford lunch is decreasing. Financial stability is decreasing.

This is a graph of America’s poverty level throughout time. Poverty is rising, which correlates with the rise in the number of free/reduced price meals in the NSLP. It is important to note, however, that many families are above the poverty line but are still struggling to make ends meet. These families are not recognized in this graph, but their children likely receive free/reduced price meals at school.

My inner tension

Here is where I am feeling heavy. I have the invaluable opportunity to study these programs abroad - to see how the American program can be improved, to see how other countries’ programs relate. However, the improvement of the NSLP is inherently tied to the notion that its consumers are struggling financially. In order for me to do my research, I rely on hungry American children - children who don’t have access to nutritious food (or food at all). I want the NSLP to serve its students in the best way possible … but I would wish away the NSLP’s existence if that means all children have enough food at home.

Yes, I am proud of how the NSLP serves American children, and its nutritional quality is improving! But on days like these, my heart is burdened by the reality of my research.

Friday, October 21, 2016

American and Croatian Commonalities: Infrastructural Difficulties

Good morning from Zagreb! I hope you are having a wonderful day today! Here is a cool painting that I “stumbled upon” while in Zagreb:

[The famous French artist, √Čtien, painted this turtle and a few other sea creatures - basically in 3D. Check out this picture below, it actually looks 3D if you back up enough!]

The budding Croatian school lunch program

Unlike many of the other countries I have visited, Croatia’s lunch program has only recently taken off. I am staying with a woman, age 27, who said she did not receive school lunch at any point during her schooling. She mentioned receiving bread or sandwiches during the lunch hour, but she did not describe that as “lunch.” Though I haven’t been able to find an exact date online, it appears that Croatia’s school lunch program started between 7-10 years ago (right after my host graduated from high school, bummer for her!). Furthermore, school lunch is primarily served in elementary school, and finding lunch in high schools is less common.

It makes sense that Croatia has not had a long-standing school lunch program, as the country is officially less than 30 years old. After the Yugoslav Wars during the 1990s, the Croatian government was tasked with rebuilding parts of the country that had been decimated by war. There were little funds to go to programs such as school lunch.
[Photo of decimated Dubrovnik from Yugoslav Wars]

Now, the government is better-established and is channeling funds into school meals, and is experiencing “growing pains,” if you will. Though the American NSLP has been around much longer than Croatia, it is also experiencing similar difficulties.

Growing pains: Changing infrastructure and equipment in school kitchens

Now that the Croatian program is up and running, school lunch officials recognize that school kitchens are not prepared to cook hundreds of daily meals. There are the obvious equipment needs, such ovens, freezer spaces, etc. - but there are also less-obvious needs, such as increased electrical capacity, ventilation, and mere space to hold everything.

[Looks pretty different from America, huh?]

Since the process of improving infrastructure is incremental, Croatian schools are seeing great diversity in the quality of school meals; a school with updated equipment will serve vastly better food than a school with no updated equipment … which will serve better food than a school that lacks a kitchen.

America is experiencing similar infrastructural issues as well. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required school meals to have higher nutritional content (Pew study). However, most schools lacked the infrastructure to support these changes; The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project found that 88 percent of school food authorities report needing one or more new pieces of equipment to comply with the new standards. Over half of school food authorities polled need significant infrastructural change to comply with standards. But why are so many kitchens in need of these changes?

American kitchens have historically relied on serving processed foods to their students. The good ol’ “pull it out of the freezer and nuke em” fish sticks, the bread that could sit on the shelf for several months … yeah, you know what I’m talking about.

[Fish treasures ... these were my jam in elementary school.]

With these the government’s new nutrition standards, kitchen staff need more than the giant microwave needed to heat up food. But did the government allocate enough money to fund infrastructural change?

Sigh, of course not. Actually, the government had not given any funding for school lunch equipment since the early 1980s. Yikes! After the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed, the National School Lunch Program requested $630 million for infrastructural changes. The government gave them $100 million.  So, like the Croatian lunch program, American kitchens are slowly waiting their turn to receive funding for new equipment. Kitchen staff have taken incredible, unconventional measures to comply with these nutrition standards (cooking food offsite and bringing it in - like the St. Paul Public School system, bringing in coolers to keep foods cold, etc.).

What’s the most-requested piece of equipment at the moment? The combi-oven.

[It's ... beautiful.]

Here’s why (this is taken from Wikipedia, but I figure that there is little benefit to lying about what a combi-oven does):

"Combi steamers can produce both dry (convection) and moist (steam) heat, and are capable of shifting between them automatically during the cooking process. They can thus simultaneously steam vegetables or potatoes quickly and gently, while also roasting or braising meat and fish, or baking bread. The appliance is fit for many culinary applications, including baking, roasting, grilling, steaming, braising, blanching and poaching. Combi steamers expand upon standard convection ovens in that they also generate steam or a combination of steam and superheated steam. They help gastronomy-industry professionals bridge the gap between economy and menu diversity while also maintaining the desired food quality."

Doesn’t that sound perfect for a school kitchen? Yes. And this is what all the schools are duking it out for.
Thank you again for taking the time to read my blog, I appreciate it so much. I’ll talk with you soon!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Finland and Sweden: Evaluation

Greetings from Zagreb, Croatia! It is a beautiful, chilly day here, which is why I’m snuggled up in my room with a cup of tea and my computer.

[St. Mark's Cathedral, a beautiful and patriotic church in Zagreb.]

The topic I will be discussing today, evaluation, is highly regarded and frequently used in Finland’s and Sweden’s programs. However, since I was in Finland first, I will mainly frame this discussion around the Finnish (and American) programs.

[I love this video. I like that they think of providing healthy meals is a “secret weapon” - because, really, nutrition and satiety have an incredible impact on a child’s ability to learn.]

What is program evaluation?

Though I am sure many of you know what evaluation is, I want to define the term before moving forward. Program evaluation can be defined as “the systematic collection of information about the activities, characteristics, and outcomes of programs to make judgments about the program, improve program effectiveness, and/or inform decisions about future program development.” Evaluation is used to gauge and improve a program. But It is important to note that effective program evaluation incorporates assessments beyond the outcomes alone. While the product or result of the program is incredibly important, it is not the only facet of a program that can/should be evaluated.

When thinking about national school lunch programs, there are dozens of factors to evaluate:
  • Nutrition
  • Cost efficiency
  • Food waste
  • Consumer/customer approval (I.e. by sticking a plate of spinach and fish vs. french fries and chicken nuggets in front of a student, you learn what consumer approval looks like pretty quick)
  • Food sourcing
  • Labor efficiency
  • And the list goes on!

Evaluation: essential for NSLP and social welfare programs at large
Evaluation is important for the NSLP simply because the program is underfunded. This makes evaluation a necessity for cutting costs and staying within an already-insufficient budget. This was mentioned in an earlier post, but nutrition regulations were recently passed by Congress without increasing the amount of funding needed to enact these changes; in other words, Congress wants salad bars and healthier meals, but did not pass the bill needed to fund these changes … which places the national school lunch program in a major pickle. No pun intended.

[This movie outlines the current state of the US NSLP: optimistically healthy, horribly under-funded.]

This phenomenon has occurred throughout history, and in almost every social welfare program. From the 1960s-1990s, the NSLP was so underfunded that charities were funding significant portions of the program’s budget. In terms of other welfare programs,there has never been enough government-sponsored and subsidized housing. Food stamps and WIC are not adequately providing enough money per individual child and mother. In the social welfare world, program evaluation is necessary for a program’s survival. Evaluation can highlight unnecessary costs, allowing its beneficiaries to receive more substantial assistance. It also better protects the program from losing additional funding; if a program is consistently evaluating/improving itself and trying to stretch its budget further, this increases its legitimacy and likelihood of receiving funding.

[Finland keeps track of its students favorite meals, so it does not waste money in creating unsavory meals that the children will not like. Also, I love their phrase "seasoned with a dash of the exotic. Hahaha. It's perfect!]

But wait, it gets cooler.
The reason why I especially love Finnish and Swedish evaluation measures is that these countries evaluate unexpected variables that result in positive impacts on the kids. For example, over the last 10 years, Finland has evaluated the gender differences in school lunch.


I am not sure how they measured this, but they have documented what portions of the meal girls vs. boys are more likely to eat. And, unsurprisingly, male students ate all of the protein and carbohydrates, leaving some of the salad/veggie option. In contrast, female students ate more salad and less protein.

These same researchers also looked into how (and if) food consumption differs among different income groups. I’ll be posting about this soon, but researchers found that children from lower SES backgrounds tend to eat less of the school lunches than students from higher SES backgrounds. More on that in the future though ;)

These unconventional measures provide beneficial information beyond the NSLP’s improvement. For example, if evaluation shows that there are significant differences in the foods that males and females eat, this could prompt additional services needed (i.e. more educational resources to increase the veggie intake for males; perhaps counseling services for females who are eating a sufficient amount of calories, etc.). In other words, Scandinavian evaluation measures serve as a gateway to program improvement as well as other relevant services to help its students.

How does the US program compare? More on that, next time!

[I took the plunge and went hang-gliding in the Alps. It was amazing.]