It appears the global food shortage and the resulting spike in wheat and milk costs is hitting Maryland school lunchroom budgets hard. Area schools reported spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more for food this year than last, even as reimbursement they get from the USDA rose just about 3 percent. For more detail, read my story today on meal prices rising and some creative penny pinching in cash-strapped Maryland school systems.
But there's a whole angle to this I wasn't able to fully delve into: How does this crunch undermine schools' efforts to provide healthier meals and address childhood obesity? Since 2006, there have been increasingly strict federal standards on upping the nutritional value of food served in school cafeterias. These standards call for lower-fat, lower-sodium options, more whole grains and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet when I spoke to a USDA spokeswoman yesterday, she talked about how they're encouraging schools to start buying and offering canned veggies -- which are cheaper but aren't as healthy as the fresh version. The canned stuff contains lots of preservatives and is often higher in sodium.
I wonder if the pressure to save money amid this spike in food prices will turn back the clock on the few, but precious, gains public schools have made in making meals healthier. What do you think?