February 09, 2017

Revenge of the Lunch Lady

How an unassuming bureaucrat outsmarted Jamie Oliver and pulled off an honest-to-god miracle in one of America's unhealthiest cities.

In the fall of 2009, the British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver arrived in Huntington, West Virginia, which had recently been named the unhealthiest city in America. Huntingtonians were suffering in record numbers from diabetes and heart disease. They were being destroyed by the mountains of burgers and fries and nuggets that filled their restaurants, schools, refrigerators and arteries. They were fulfilling the prophecy that this generation of children would be the first to live shorter lives than their parents. Oliver had come to save them—and to film a season of his new reality show, “Food Revolution.”

The first thing he saw when he walked into the kitchen of Central City Elementary School was the breakfast pizza. It looked like you remember school pizza: a rectangle of bleached dough spackled with red sauce and melted cheese. What made it breakfast, presumably, was that each slice also had crumbles of sausage scattered across it. That, and it was 7:40 a.m.

Oliver was disgusted by the school’s freezers (an “Aladdin’s cave of processed crap”), by the “luminous” strawberry milk that kids poured on their cereal and by the instant potato pearls that tasted like “starchy fluff with off nuts in it.” To his astonishment, all of these foods were considered part of a healthy diet by the standards of the U.S. government.

“This is where it’s at, guys,” he said as he strode through the cafeteria. “This is the future of America sitting here, having pizza for breakfast.”

The locals were even less enthusiastic about Oliver than he was about the breakfast pizza. Being tarred as the least healthy place in America by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had unsettled Huntington, a former railroad town at the intersection of the Rust Belt and Appalachia. The city, like so many others, had been ravaged by America’s manufacturing collapse, and it seemed as if the only time anyone paid attention to it was when something bad happened. In media coverage of the CDC report, out-of-town journalists gleefully reported that half of Huntingtonians over the age of 65 had no teeth.

Now, some fancy chef—a foreign one, no less—was scrutinizing how unhealthy they were on national television. To Huntingtonians, it seemed like the latest insult in a lifetime of ridicule and humiliation. When Oliver went on a local radio show, the DJ, Rod Willis, lit into him. “We don’t want to sit around and eat lettuce all day,” Willis said. “I just don’t think you should come in here and tell us what to do. I mean, who made you the king?”

Oliver had expected this reaction. He had seen it before, when he filmed a similar show in an industrial area of England. (“Same shit, different country,” he told me.) But Oliver genuinely wanted to help, and Huntington’s rejection seemed shortsighted to him.

Oliver had made his name in the late 1990s on a television show called “The Naked Chef”—not because he cooked in the nude, but because of his stripped-down approach, which emphasized fun rather than precise measurements or techniques. By the time he turned 25, he had cooked for the prime minister and established a mini-media empire that included a contract that reportedly paid him over $1-million-a-year to serve as the face of British retail giant Sainsbury’s. He could have continued on this path, making insane money flacking pots, pans and other products, as celebrity chefs do. Instead, he decided to use his power to champion a series of culinary crusades, including revamping school meals to showcase fresh food rather than, say, Britain’s beloved Turkey Twizzlers. That kids were the focus was essential; study after study had shown that lifelong eating habits are formed at a young age. And when kids eat well, they also perform better academically. In the U.K., Oliver had won the argument. The 2005 reality TV series, “Jamie’s School Dinners,” resulted in a government investment of over $1 billion to overhaul Britain’s disgraceful school meals.

Despite the locals’ resistance, it looked as if Oliver was replicating that success in Huntington. He built a gleaming cooking center in a long-empty building downtown. He introduced a range of made-from-scratch school dishes—beefy nachos, tuna pasta bake with seven vegetables, rainbow salad with creamy dressing. And he did righteous battle with the unimaginative bureaucrats who seemed to want kids to keep eating the same sludge. In scene after scene, Rhonda McCoy, Cabell County’s uptight and slightly menacing schools food-service director, reminded the chef that his revolution had to conform to the government’s endless standards and regulations. “I just wanted to cook some food,” a baffled Oliver protested. “This is like a math test.” When the show aired, McCoy’s inbox filled with hate mail from around the country. At home, there was grumbling that she should resign.

A contrast in styles: Rhonda McCoy (left) and Jamie Oliver. (CABELL COUNTY SCHOOLS, GETTY)

But there was a problem with this made-for-TV narrative—several, actually. Shortly after Oliver left, a study by the West Virginia University Health Research Center reported that 77 percent of students were “very unhappy” with his food. Students who relied on school meals for nearly half of their daily calories routinely dumped their trays in the trash. Some did it because they hated the taste; others because it became the cool thing to do. And while Oliver’s meals used fresh, high-quality ingredients, many turned out to be too high in fat to meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards. Within a year, McCoy said, the number of students eating school lunch fell 10 percent, forcing her to cut her budget and lay off several cooks.

In almost every respect, it would have been easier for McCoy to drop this grand experiment in school-lunch reform that had been foisted on her. Her employees were overworked, and the fresh food was more expensive, even after McCoy abandoned the free-range chicken and organic vegetables that Oliver had insisted on (and that school officials say ABC Productions had paid for). There’s only so much you can do when you have $1.50 to spend on ingredients for each meal. But over the next few years, McCoy accomplished exactly what Oliver had set out to do himself: She saved school lunch in Huntington and proved that cafeteria food isn’t destined to be a national joke.

To those unfamiliar with the absurdist theater of school lunch, it is puzzling, even maddening, that feeding kids nutritious food should be so hard. You buy good food. You cook it. You serve it to hungry kids.

Yet the National School Lunch Program, an $11.7 billion behemoth that feeds more than 31 million children each day, is a mess, and has been for years. Conflicts of interest were built into the program. It was pushed through Congress after World War II with the support of military leaders who wanted to ensure that there would be enough healthy young men to fight the next war, and of farmers who were looking for a place to unload their surplus corn, milk and meat. The result was that schools became the dumping ground for the cheap calories our modern agricultural system was designed to overproduce.

This tension has played out over and over again, with children usually ending up the losers. A case in point: In 1981, America was awash in surplus dairy. The government’s Inland Storage and Distribution Center—a network of tunnels beneath Kansas City, Missouri—was filled with 200 million pounds of cheese and butter, stacked “like frozen pillars and stretching over acres of gray stone floor,” according to The Associated Press. In an effort to ease the glut, the USDA purchased millions of pounds of dairy for schools. But, according to Janet Poppendieck, a professor at Hunter College who specializes in poverty and hunger, this encouraged dairy farmers to keep on milking. So in 1986 the government had to create a new program, the Whole Herd Buyout, which paid farmers to slaughter the dairy cows. The government then bought the beef, which was turned into hamburger, taco meat and so on for school lunch.

That flood of meat and dairy hiked the fat content of school meals just as the country was descending into an anti-fat frenzy. In 1990, the federal government issued new dietary guidelines, declaring that a healthy diet should contain no more than 30 percent fat, with a 10 percent cap on saturated fat. But cafeterias simply had too much of the wrong food to comply. In a USDA study of 544 schools conducted several years later, only 1 percent met the requirement for overall fat and just a single school had managed to keep saturated fat to a healthy level. The deeply conflicted nature of the program was showing itself once again.

Since the 1990s, the USDA has made many improvements—it now requires that canned vegetables have less salt and insists that ground beef be 95 percent lean. But school lunch is still a disgrace, and the timidity of Congress is largely to blame. In 2011, the USDA proposed limiting the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables permitted in school lunches so that cafeterias could make room for healthier options. But the Senate, led by members from two top potato producers, Maine and Colorado, killed the idea in a unanimous vote. Then there’s the pizza lobby. When the 2010 revision of nutrition standards increased the minimum amount of tomato paste required for pizza to count as a vegetable from two tablespoons—the typical amount found on a slice—to half a cup, the National Frozen Pizza Institute and other groups howled, and Congress opted for the status quo. The idea that pizza might not be considered a vegetable was, apparently, un-American.

What makes school lunch so contentious, though, isn’t just the question of what kids eat, but of which kids are doing the eating. As Poppendieck recounts in her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, the original program provided schools with food and, later, cash to subsidize the cost of meals. But by the early 1960s, schools weren’t receiving enough to feed all their students, and many pulled out of the program. As a result, middle-class students, whose parents could cover the difference between the government subsidy and the actual cost of a meal, ended up benefiting the most from school lunch, while the truly needy went hungry. This moral failing became clear in 1968, when a landmark report called “Their Daily Bread” revealed that only one-third of the 6 million children living in poverty were receiving free or subsidized lunch. Schools’ ability to pay for food was so limited that one in Mississippi rotated 100 lunches among more than 400 students, while another in Alabama had just 15 meals for 1,000 needy kids. School lunch had its first official scandal.

In response, Congress, which had preferred to let schools decide who got to eat and who did not, established a three-tiered system. Students from families with incomes up to 25 percent above the federal poverty line—about $3,300 for a family of four, or around $24,000 in today’s dollars—were entitled to free meals. Those from families with incomes between 25 and 95 percent above the poverty line paid a reduced price, while everyone else paid the full price. (Just to make things extra confusing, schools also received a small subsidy for those meals as well). This system had the virtue of guaranteeing that the poorest children would be fed. But it also transformed school lunch from a program designed to feed all students into one for the poor.

Once school lunch was perceived as welfare, it became a target. President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 on a promise to slash domestic spending, attacked the program. It was one thing to help the genuinely needy, Reagan’s budget director David Stockman declared, but it was “wasteful” to support middle- and upper-class families who could afford to buy lunch. What he didn’t mention was that the cutoff for a free meal was nowhere near a middle-class income and excluded many kids who needed the help.

A Brief History of School Lunch
The National School Lunch Act is enacted, with the support of the military (which was worried, post-World War II, about having enough healthy recruits to defend the nation) and of the farming industry (which stood to make a lot of money). Participating schools agree to feed needy children and meet minimum nutrition standards.
A report reveals that only one third of the country’s six million school-age children who live in poverty are receiving school lunch. The following year, President Richard Nixon says that “the honor of American democracy is at issue.” Congress responds by introducing income guidelines to ensure that everyone who needs lunch gets lunch.
The Reagan administration slashes the school-lunch budget by 25 percent, or $1.46 billion. With fewer federal dollars, schools buy cheaper, more processed food and allow “competitive foods” (like cookies and candy) to be sold outside the official lunch line.
Michelle Obama lends her support to an ambitious school-lunch bill that provides an additional $4.5 billion in spending, but imposes new standards on all food sold in public schools. The legislation also includes the Community Eligibility Program (CEP), which helps low-income schools feed all their students for free. It passes with bipartisan support.
In its efforts to erase Obama-era regulations, the new Republican congress suggests that it will roll back school-nutrition standards and kill CEP.

Still, Congress agreed to cut the small subsidy for full-price lunches by more than a third. The effect was quick and severe. Lunch prices rose, and in the space of just three years, more than a quarter of the kids in the full-price tier stopped buying school lunch. With fewer students participating and smaller reimbursements for each meal served, schools lost their (already limited) economies of scale. The ensuing budget crisis forced schools to seek out even cheaper food—the highly processed stuff, such as chicken nuggets and corn dogs, that they are now condemned for serving. And on it goes.

Not that any of these cautionary tales have diminished the Republicans’ desire to gut the program. In 2014, now-House Speaker Paul Ryan said that public assistance, including school lunch, offered a “full stomach and an empty soul” because it made kids reliant on government handouts. With the party now in control of Congress and the White House—and with Michelle Obama, the program’s greatest defender, gone—school lunch is as vulnerable as it’s ever been.

One Republican strategy to hobble school lunch involves changing an innocuous-sounding proposal called the Community Eligibility Provision. The formula for CEP is complex, but it essentially allows schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals to all students. This alleviates the administrative burden of keeping track of who qualifies for which tier, and allows money that would normally be spent on administration to go toward paying cooks or buying better food instead.

Judging by its popularity among food service directors, CEP has been one of the most successful innovations in school-lunch policy in decades. Studies show the program reduces the long-standing stigma for kids getting free lunch and enables those who don’t qualify for subsidized meals, but who actually need them, to eat if they’re hungry. This prevents situations like the one that took place last fall, when a school cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania resigned after having to take away the lunch of a first-grader whose parents failed to pay their bill. Not surprisingly, CEP has been embraced in impoverished areas like North Dakota, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, where food-service directors have been forced to hire collection agencies to chase down parents who haven’t paid for their kids’ meals.

Conservatives insist that it’s not the taxpayers’ job to cover for negligent parents. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees school food, called CEP “perverse,” alleging that it incentivizes schools to give free meals to students who either already pay or are capable of paying for school lunch. This despite the fact that schools, like most places in America, have become increasingly segregated by socioeconomics over the last two decades. So the throngs of coddled middle-class kids Rokita thinks are eating for free don’t actually exist.

Rhonda McCoy is emphatic that kids shouldn’t be punished for their families’ financial situations. “It’s not their fault that the parents didn’t pay the bill,” she said. Before CEP, she remembers getting calls, which she said “broke my heart,” about students who chose to go hungry rather than have an embarrassing conversation about money. But if Rokita wins this battle, more than 7,000 schools, feeding nearly 3.4 million kids, will once again have to start charging for some meals. In West Virginia, the new formula would exclude 327 schools, including all 26 in Cabell County. “This would all be over,” McCoy told me. “It would kill us.”

There are people who are comfortable with silence, and then there is Rhonda McCoy. Even the most innocuous question can bring conversation to a halt. When I asked her once what she likes to cook for dinner, she looked startled, then tucked her hands beneath her thighs and swung nervously back and forth in her swivel chair. She never answered. And it wasn’t as if I were a stranger; we’d known each other for six years.

I have learned not to take this personally. Jedd Flowers, Cabell County Schools’ voluble, upbeat director of communications, has worked with McCoy for 11 years. But when I wondered aloud to him whether McCoy had any grandchildren, he shrugged and said he really didn’t know. Maybe one or two. “She’s CIA,” James Colegrove, another longtime colleague, told me. “I call her Secret Squirrel.”

This does not make McCoy a lousy co-worker. Nearly everyone I spoke to—from a school dishwasher to the county superintendent—mentioned that she has a way of making people feel part of something. She’s fastidious and never misses a deadline, they added. She doesn’t pick favorites, and the cooks who make far less than she does notice that she works as hard, if not harder, than they do. Frances Hickman, the cafeteria manager at Cabell-Midland High School, has served under four different food-service directors in her 33-year career. But she told me (after McCoy left the room, since she couldn’t bear hearing a compliment) that she’d never met a person so skilled at her job and can’t imagine working for anybody else now. “When she goes, I go,” Hickman said.

Tori Evans, a junior who ate school lunch every day, declared the chicken and potatoes “okay,” but rated the salad as “boring.” Asked what the cooks might do to make it better, she answered: “Put ham in it.”

A crucial part of McCoy’s appeal is that she is a West Virginian—an insider, one of them. She grew up in Lincoln County, a rural area at the edge of the southern coalfields, the poorest region in a very poor state. Her family, like many others, had a garden where they grew much of what ended up on the kitchen table. And the tastes of those homegrown meals left a mark. She told me that it took years before she could bring herself to eat a canned green bean from the supermarket. She wanted the students in her district to have a real relationship with food.

Long before Oliver had ever heard of Huntington, McCoy had begun to improve the meals in Cabell County. Notwithstanding what “Food Revolution” viewers saw on TV, McCoy’s cafeterias were downright enlightened by the dismal standards of America’s school-lunch program. In 2008, the West Virginia Board of Education had imposed tough new rules that required meals to include fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, low-fat milk and water. McCoy, a registered dietician with 25 years of experience, pushed her district even further. One of the first things she did was remove the saltshakers from cafeteria tables—a move that prompted students to steal salt packets from fast-food restaurants and create a black market for them at lunch. At a time when 94 percent of U.S. schools were failing to meet federal guidelines, Cabell County hit, and often exceeded, every one.

This was a surprise to Oliver’s advance production team, which assumed that the schools in America’s most unhealthy city would serve junk. “That,” Jedd Flowers said, “is when the show became about ‘fresh.’”

McCoy was a proponent of fresh food. But she recognized that kids had to like what they were eating—and that she had to be able to pay for it. She started by assembling a group of cooks to rework Oliver’s recipes so they reflected local tastes. A friendly competition developed over who could come up with the best adaptation. The snap peas with mint, a quintessentially English combination, lost the mint; the garlicky greens became a lot less garlicky; the cinnamon in the chili was eighty-sixed. That McCoy let the cooks decide what tasted good made them feel important and helped win them over to the new, more labor-intensive way of doing things.

At every level, practicality took precedence over idealism: Where Oliver had been skeptical of government handouts on principle, McCoy happily accepted 2,000 cases of raw chicken from the USDA, because it left her more money to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables. Where Oliver had insisted the cooks peel and slice 50 pounds of carrots, she ordered pre-sliced frozen coins that were ready to cook. McCoy also holed up in her office writing federal and state grants for money to buy equipment. It is an arduous, unsexy process, exactly the sort of thing she’s great at. In the first year after Oliver left, she was able to secure an extra $50,000 for her district.

McCoy has been smart about spending the money, using a lot of it to pay for new equipment that’s expected to save the district thousands in the long term. Take the tilt skillet, a hulking, $15,000 vat about the size of a six-burner stove that can cook up to 60 gallons of food. Before the cooks had one, making enormous quantities of chili, taco meat or spaghetti sauce was backbreaking work. For each batch, cooks had to use several big stock pots. The process took hours, the pots were heavy to lift and it was awkward to transfer the finished sauce into containers. A slosh or two inevitably ended up on the floor. But kids really like chili and tacos and spaghetti, which meant that cooks spent too much time making red sauce. Now, with the tilt skillet, the whole thing takes a few hours, doesn’t make a mess and yields enough sauce for more than a month.

It’s weirdly beautiful watching one of McCoy’s kitchens at work.  At many U.S. schools, the food arrives ready to be reheated. Mixing a jar of commercial sauce into boil-in-the-bag pasta is considered “cooking.” But at Cabell Midland High School, the 18 cooks—all women, all dressed in medical scrubs, all engaged in constant small talk with one another—start arriving at 6 a.m.; it’s the only way to make sure that lunch is ready for the first wave of students who eat at 10:49.  Over the course of one morning, I watched two cooks quarter red potatoes and toss them in olive oil with a shake of garlic powder and paprika, then move on to rubbing chicken breasts with a 17-spice seasoning. I saw cooks top rounds of pizza dough with homemade tomato sauce and cheese and mix olive oil and vinegar for salad dressing. (Commercial dressings, packed with sodium and calories, undermine the health benefits of most salads.) One cook’s full-time job consisted of making homemade desserts and fresh bread—fluffy, delicious parkerhouse rolls whose yeasty scent wafted down the school’s hallways.

The only items not regularly made from scratch are the ones for breakfast. Some, like the heat-and-eat whole-wheat sausage biscuits, looked fine. Others, including the sausage-stuffed pancake on a stick, could have made a school lunch Most Wanted list. When McCoy saw me inspect one, she blushed and opened her mouth to explain, but ultimately said nothing. To make breakfast from scratch, a cook told me apologetically, “we’d have to get here in the middle of the night.”

The Triumph of Food Lobbyists
Lawmakers have long tried to boot soda out of school. In 1978, several proposed that the USDA restrict foods of “minimal nutritional value.” The National Soft Drink Association sued the USDA, and won. In 1994, Senator Patrick Leahy argued that “kids have no money, no political clout. … If Coke wins, children lose.” It took until 2010 for Congress to restrict “full-calorie” sodas in schools. And that happened largely because Coke and Pepsi were making more from other types of drinks by then.
Since 1989, the USDA has counted pizza not as a cheese- and fat-delivery device, but as a half-serving of vegetables, thanks to the smear of tomato paste. But in response to new nutrition standards set in 2010, the USDA attempted to double the amount of tomato paste each slice needed to remain the in the veggie category. The National Frozen Pizza Institute raised hell, the American Frozen Food Institute nearly doubled its campaign contributions to members of Congress and the old rule still stands.
In 2011, in an effort to “encourage students to try new vegetables in place of the familiar starchy ones,” the USDA proposed a limit on potatoes at lunch. But senators from two leading potato-producing states denounced the proposal. Susan Collins of Maine went so far as to say that potatoes are a “nutritional bargain” with no cholesterol and more potassium than bananas. The rest of the Senate voted along with her, and the primacy of French fries on cafeteria trays continues.

I didn’t taste the pancake on a stick. But the chicken and roasted potatoes at lunch were pretty good. I might have used a little more salt, but then I don’t have the USDA looking over my shoulder when I cook. Were it not for the red plastic tray, I would not have even known this was school lunch, so tight are my associations with metallic-tasting green beans, bland pizza and desiccated crinkle fries. I was impressed.

The kids? Not so much. The first few times I visited Cabell Midland, in 2013 and 2014, most students didn’t have much to say about the improved quality of the food. They didn’t hate it; it just didn’t register as anything special. Tori Evans, a junior who ate school lunch every day, declared the chicken and potatoes “OK,” but rated the salad as “boring.” Asked what the cooks might do to make it better, she answered: “Put ham in it.”

But the students have apparently gotten used to it. The younger ones don’t know any different, and with the older kids it helps that fast-food restaurants have adopted the lingo of “fresh.” McDonald’s now boasts of using “freshly cracked” eggs and is even trying out non-frozen beef for its hamburgers.

McCoy has also gotten kids to accept better food by buying seasonal produce from enterprising student farmers. She didn’t do this to mimic what was happening in Berkeley or Brooklyn—nor does it make her job any easier. The first crop of local peppers she purchased from a student arrived covered with dirt, not clean and shiny like the ones from a mega-distributor. But she understood that kids are more likely to try something if a friend had a hand in growing it. It was just another way for her to build a healthier food culture in a place that had been colonized by the drive-thru. McCoy has since helped several students win grants to buy seeds and equipment. One of McCoy’s first student farmers, Zachary Call, was so successful that after graduation he continued to farm full-time—no small feat on the industrial western edge of West Virginia. All told, McCoy now buys more than $85,000 a year in local produce.

It’s an article of faith that processed food is cheaper than the good stuff. But each one of the made-from-scratch meals that McCoy dishes out costs only $1.50 in ingredients—about 2 cents less than when Jamie Oliver arrived. Counterintuitively, it is the huge number of students served (about 10,000 a day) that makes the numbers work. The more kids who eat, the easier it is to achieve economies of scale. And McCoy couldn't have done that without the Community Eligibility Provision. 

CEP lets schools feed everyone for free. But the trick is that schools are only reimbursed for the number of meals actually served. So if the kids don't eat all of the meals that are prepared, the county has to bank the losses. McCoy needed her conservative, cash-strapped board to accept that risk. 

Her pitch to the board was a meticulous demonstration of how CEP could work. Each year, beginning in 2012, she added a few schools and watched what happened. At Huntington High School, where McCoy worried that teenagers would shun hot lunches—even free ones—she conducted a pilot before officially signing up. The school went from serving 700 or so meals a day to nearly 1,300. Because of successes like this, she earned the board's trust and was the first food-service director ever to be invited to join the superintendent's cabinet and the weekly meetings where big decisions were made. “She knows her figures,” said William Smith, Cabell County Schools’ superintendent. “By the time it came to make the decision [to implement CEP at all schools], we knew it was working.” When I returned to Huntington last fall, the number of students eating school lunch had jumped 15 percent.

Oliver, for his part, has moved on from school lunch. He had little success delivering change in the second and final season of “Food Revolution” in Los Angeles, and in 2015 he admitted to a British magazine that his campaign to improve school meals had failed because he hadn’t applied himself single-mindedly to the issue and because eating well was a “very posh and middle-class” concern. Oliver has since focused his attention (and his television time) on railing against the ubiquity of sugar and raising awareness of so-called Blue Zones, areas of the globe where healthy diets help a surprising number of residents live to 100 or more.

Still, he told me that he is proud of all that he accomplished in Huntington. In an email interview, he called McCoy’s efforts “amazing” and suggested that this is exactly how he hoped things would go. “My part involved putting a spotlight on the town,” he said. “Ultimately, when it comes to making a real change only local people can help local people.”

The success that McCoy has achieved in Cabell County is rare, and was due to a propitious confluence of factors. Not every district has such a supportive superintendent, for instance, or such an overwhelming determination to prove a reality TV star wrong. But what McCoy did isn’t magic. Much of what made the Huntington experiment work is transferable to other places—so long as they have someone like McCoy.

Schools need an ambitious leader at the helm, one who understands both nutrition and how to manage complex operations. In the mid-2000s, I visited two schools in the Boston suburbs that were minutes away from each other, but belonged to different districts. In the one run by a motivated dietician, the food was colorful, fresh and reasonably tasty. In the other, administered by a disinterested box-ticker, the food was appalling: stuff like chicken nuggets packed with fillers, gray hamburger patties, bagel dogs.

“You have to have someone who goes against the flow at every turn,” says Toni Liquori, executive director of School Food Focus, a nonprofit that pushes for better school meals. “How can this be more whole? How can I get fresher? You have to be driven to do that or you will coast along and hit all the targets that are in the standards, because they are pretty low.”

The problem is that it’s hard to find people like McCoy. There’s been a historical lack of respect for her job that is reflected both in the pay and in the hiring standards. Forty-one states have no requirements at all for food-service personnel, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education’s most recent assessment. And in states that do, like Mississippi, they often are as minimal as a high school diploma or its equivalent. West Virginia has the most stringent standard by far, though that isn’t saying much: It mandates competency tests for all staff and specifically requires food-service directors to have a college degree and a minimum of six hours of nutrition training. In 2015, the USDA issued its first professional standards for school nutrition directors, and it required continuing education, too. But these standards only apply to new candidates, so real change could take a generation.

The best school food-service directors are the ones who are able to tap into, or build, a culture around healthy eating. In Burlington, Vermont—where even the airport has a local-foods café—Doug Davis spends about a quarter of his $1.1 million budget on goods from local farmers. In Detroit, Betti Wiggins, a leader in urban farming, opened up her own 2-acre farm to help feed the system’s 46,000 students. And in the university town of Oxford, Mississippi, Eleanor Green runs a comprehensive gardening and education program that offers, among other things, a weeklong “Carrot Camp” for elementary school students. What connects these seemingly disparate efforts (and McCoy’s in West Virginia) is that each one makes school lunch more enticing without resorting to the cheap trick of always serving pizza. This helps to boost the number of children eating lunch, which, in turn, gives districts more money to spend on further improvements to their programs. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Obvious as it sounds, one effective way to spend that extra money is on kitchens you can actually cook in. As the School Lunch Program turns 70, many school kitchens are almost as old, and the ones in new schools are often no more than a warming oven in a glorified closet. The shift to processed food has helped to hasten this neglect. But it is important to note that it was the decision to wipe out federal funding for kitchen equipment under Ronald Reagan that started the problem. For 27 years, Congress provided zero dollars to upgrade or improve kitchen equipment. It took until 2009—and a near-collapse of the economy—for Congress to appropriate $100 million to it as part of a sweeping federal stimulus. (Due to pent-up demand, the USDA received requests for more than $600 million.)

Correction: In the “A Brief History of School Lunch” sidebar, we mistakenly said that the Reagan administration spent $1.46 billion on the Pentagon's five executive dining rooms. They spent closer to $2 million. We regret the error.


This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a non-profit investigative journalism organization.

Story - Jane Black
Jane is a Washington, D.C-based writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
Video & Photo - Sam Kaplan
Sam shoots for a wide range of clients including Budweiser, Gatorade, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Google, Hershey, Kraft, Leo Burnett, Men’s Health and Square.
Creative Direction & Design - Sandra Garcia
Sandra is the creative director of Highline.
Development & Design - Gladeye
Gladeye is a New Zealand-based digital design agency.
Sidebar Icons - The Noun Project
Soda: Nick Bluth; Pizza: Miguel C Balandrano; Potatoes: Pavel Melnikov
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