School Food Gets Its Close-Up -- But Is It a Fair One?

A lot of readers have recently asked for my thoughts on the Fed Up campaign, sponsored by Do Something, which asked kids around the country to send in photos of their school meals. (While the project has been going on for a while, it's gotten a lot of press in the last few weeks.)

Over 25,000 people reportedly responded to Fed Up and there's no question that some of the meal photos submitted are awful by any measure. (And a few were really lovely.) But is the Fed Up campaign a fair portrayal of what's really going on in cafeterias around the country and, if it is, what can we learn from it?

First some thoughts about the photography itself. When I started blogging on The Lunch Tray in 2010, I had a regular feature called "Notes from the Field" in which I shared cellphone photos of school meals served in my own children's elementary school. I eventually ended that feature because my now-teen and pre-teen kids would rather die a thousand deaths than have their mother in their cafeteria, but I also started to have some misgivings about whether these photos were fairly portraying the food in my district.

For one thing, I've learned the hard way that even the best food can look disgusting if poorly photographed. For example, sometimes when I make a particularly nice dinner at home, I have the urge to share a photo and recipe on my blog. But I've never bothered to learn the basics of food photography, nor do I use a real camera, and half the time the meal looks so downright gross in a cellphone photo that I decide not to share it.

Here's one example I found in my photo library -- I think this was some sort of Indian-themed dinner with whole wheat naan, raita and chutney. I'm sure it was delicious but..blech, right?

You can imagine how much worse this nutritious, home-cooked and mostly organic meal would have looked slopped onto a styrofoam tray and photographed under a cafeteria's fluorescent lights.

Dayle Hayes, the registered dietitian behind School Meals That Rock, discussed this potential for misleading photos in a comment she submitted to NPR's The Salt blog:

It's not shocking that got young people to collect photos of gross food - they called the campaign Fed-Up and urged their followers "to start a food fight." When I viewed the photos, many were from community colleges, universities and other sites not covered by any K-12 school meal regulations. And, to further compound the inaccuracies, they did not show food as served, but as arranged on a tray by the photographer, maybe to look particularly mysterious or unappetizing. Some schools may have had salad bars and many other items not chosen - just to make things look as bad as possible.

And I also agree with Hayes that some of the Fed Up photos don't seem to be "school lunches" at all. Take a look at this one, for example:

No school is allowed to sell soda as part of the federally subsidized meal program, and fruits and vegetables are now required meal components. This meal could've come from a school snack bar line (though not after the new competitive food rules go into effect in July 2014) but I suspect it might not have been purchased in a K-12 school at all.

On a related note, to the extent that any of these photos were taken before this school year, they also don't reflect the huge gains made with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the first major overhaul to school meal standards in many years. Dale Hayes articulates this point well in this Huffington Post article.

But let's assume that the majority of the bad meals in the Fed Up gallery are accurate depictions of what's going on right now in school cafeterias. What can we do?

Fed Up hopes to empower kids to take action by providing an advocacy kit geared toward students. I love the idea of involving kids in school food reform -- who has more of a stake in the issue? -- and I like how the kit lays out, in understandable terms, all the basics of school food advocacy. (Indeed, it's a great starting point for interested adults, too.) I was also glad to see that Fed Up reminds kids to approach reform with a positive attitude and to "RESPECT WHOMEVER YOU ARE SPEAKING WITH. Remember everyone works hard to make sure every student has access to lunch." Amen to that.

But I do worry that Fed Up is creating some unrealistic goals for kids when it comes to school food. For example, my hair stood on end when I read this highly misleading statement from Fed Up:

There is no major cost difference between nutritious and not nutritious food at schools: 55 percent of student being served very healthy food report their lunch costing under $2, compared to 55 percent of students being served food with no nutritional value

Just because two meal programs charge the same price for lunch doesn't mean that they can produce the same meal. One district might be in an area with low labor costs, which would make scratch-cooking more feasible, while another might have to pay top dollar for labor. One district might have a gleaming, well-equipped central food preparation facility like Houston's (at the cost of $51 million to taxpayers) and another might have school "kitchens" that look a lot more like a janitor's closet. (Check out this recent infographic for more on the state of school kitchen infrastructure.) One district's food services program might get milked by the district for various overhead costs (garbage collection, electricity, etc.) while another district might absorb some of these costs. All of these factors (and many more) can affect how much money a district can direct toward the food itself.

Similarly, Fed Up tells kids to agitate for more local produce ("We want our food delivered, not FedEx'd!"). That's a great goal but Houston ISD, arguably one of the leading districts in the country when it comes to improving school food, has been struggling for years to source local produce and it has yet to meet its stated goal of sourcing 25 percent of the produce from local farms. Indeed, for a while Houston and other districts were having real trouble sourcing any fresh fruit at all, from any part of the country, due to the higher demand created by the new school food regulations, which resulted in USDA actually canceling confirmed orders for commodity fresh fruit.

My bottom line is this: Empowering kids to speak up about their food is a fantastic idea, and districts doing a legitimately bad job in preparing school meals certainly need to be taken to task. But districts are still unconscionably underfunded when it comes to school food, and Big Food still plays too large of a lobbying role in shaping what appears on kids' trays. So I'd love to take all the youthful energy stirred up by Fed Up and channel it where it might do the most good -- the United States Congress.

What do you think about the Fed Up photos? Am I being too much of an apologist for school districts? Let me know what you think.


[No doubt in light of the media attention created by the Fed Up photos, USA Today is now getting in on the action, asking kids to submit photos this week for their own feature on the subject. Dayle Hayes is ready with some tips on how to better photograph a school meal.]