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It is lunchtime at Lawrence K-8 Center, and as a teacher leads a line of children toward the cafetorium, he pauses, tilts his head back, and takes a belt from a can of Coca-Cola. He doesn't notice Nora Kracer, but she spots him, all right. "Don't drink that in front of the students," she says, chiding the teacher in a low-key manner but with a killer glare. He is a young man, clearly taken aback, and attempts making light of the situation, smiling broadly. Kracer isn't smiling back. "If you really need to drink it, do so out of view." His grin evaporates. "Yeah, you're right, I'm sorry," he says sheepishly, and you can almost feel the can of soda go flat in his hand.
Kracer arrived at the Lawrence Center as program coordinator of a Healthy Eating Choices grant from the Health Foundation of South Florida. Her son attends the school. "We came here because we heard it was going to have an organic cafeteria. We're not only not going to have an organic cafeteria, but, as one of the vendors told us, we're getting what all the schools get the cheapest and the worst of the worst. Which is just unacceptable. We don't want that in our school."
Here's how such things come to pass: The federal government purchases more than $800 million worth of farm surplus products each year and turns them over to the school lunch program. The USDA, which administers the system, considers this a win-win situation: Schools receive free ingredients while farmers are guaranteed a steady income. Trouble is, most of the commodities provided have been bottom-of-the-barrel meat and dairy products laden with saturated fat and cholesterol. On the plus side, any kids who later in life end up in a penitentiary will probably find the cuisine behind bars comforting the USDA sends prisons the same foods they deliver to schools.
"It's about the money," laments Osborn. "It's always about the money." The average cost to produce a student lunch is $2.88. About 60 percent of that goes to labor and overhead, which leaves $1.15 for the food. Nora says, "The school gets top-of-the-line computers, top-of-the-line books, gym machines, everything, but when it comes to food, they're not getting anything." She tells of receiving juice "in plastic packages that didn't even have the ingredients listed. I asked about them and was told they're nine cents each. Well that told me everything I needed to know. What can we be getting for nine cents?"
Osborn and Kracer have attempted to improve food quality within their budgetary restraints by establishing relationships with local businesses. "Companies want to do business with the school system," says Osborn, "but when it comes time to committing, they say, 'Forget it; we can't get what we need to get [enough of a profit] from this.' And I'm talking about Fortune 500 companies; a donation of $100,000 that will go towards purchasing better food quality for our children isn't that much money to them and would be great publicity." Kracer adds, "I'm surprised more local companies aren't eager to get on board with us. We could put up a banner reading öWhole Foods Market Cafeteria.' Why not?"
Well mostly because Whole Foods Market ($5.6 billion in 2006 sales) wasn't interested. Neither was Sysco ($32.6 billion in 2006 sales), whose marketing manager seemed intrigued by the notion of T-shirts bearing the company name distributed throughout the school until he was informed that the food offered by Sysco would be a donation. "We didn't hear back from them," says Osborn. They were also rejected by Jamba Juice ($253 million in 2006 sales), "and they're right here in the neighborhood. A good portion of our families go there. We need a company willing to put their money where their mouth is."
So far only smaller businesses such as Soli Organic Ice Cream and The Juice People have agreed to help. There will be a smoothie machine in the cafeteria. And there will also be low-fat chocolate chip cookies donated by Kraft Foods, one of a veritable who's who of powerful American food conglomerates that contributes considerable clout and funding to the School Nutrition Association, a.k.a. the American School Food Service Association. This eight-million-dollar-a-year foundation's 55,000 members have joined forces with its agribusiness backers in vigorously opposing any efforts at reforming school menus. At the same time, these very companies are frantically marketing themselves as being proactive about consumer health concerns thus the free low-fat cookie crumbs tossed upon the table.
Meanwhile students at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center will be handed the same weekly rotating bill of fare as those in every other public school in the county. "We'll still be serving hamburgers," says Osborn, "but hopefully better hamburgers," as well as more fresh fruits and vegetables, baked fries, and sweet-potato fries. Bernard remains exceedingly optimistic. So does Kracer, who notes that "Every day I make progress, and every day I find somebody who is willing to support us. There are other schools coming to our lectures and asking us what we're doing here, and the Miami-Dade Department of Food and Nutrition [the middleman between the USDA and local schools] is looking at the Lawrence Center as a pilot for the rest of the county."
Osborn, Kracer, and an increasing number of parents in this community, as well as others across the country, are acting on the proposition articulated by President Truman when he signed that school lunch bill 60 years ago: "In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children."