The Cost of Good Food in Schools

In Panama it is mandatory that all rural schools have either a vegetable garden or a chicken project.  These projects are used to teach children about agriculture and to grow food for the school lunches.  Lunches are prepared by a rotating schedule of mothers who come once a week and prepare and cook the food.  Above you can see a special lunch of Arroz con Pollo and Ensalada de Papas (chicken fried rice and potato salad). 

This might be one area where Panama is ahead of the US.  Compare this to the average American school lunch and garden program. The garden programs are usually afterschool extra circular activities, if they exist at all and the school lunch programs are run federally.  The incentives are to use cheap, premade food with limited cooking and staff to keep costs down. 

There are some new initiatives to create healthy school lunches.  Kath at Kath Eats Real Food is doing an internship with the Child Nutrition Program that brings fresh food to school lunches, but these programs are far and few between.
In Panama the school garden, chicken projects and lunch fall under the duties of the Padres de Familia, basically the Parent Teachers Association (PTA). All parents must participate. This system is successful because the parents are directly involved. Moms generally make lunch and dad and older kids help maintain the school grounds and garden. It's a level of involvement that isn't seen in America. Culturally we place more importance on using our time to earn money than to work directly with our kids and their school. Money can buy our kids a good education, pay for their sports equipment, make sure they have a house and cars to shuttle them around.
I had never questioned this system.  Money makes the world go around.  Then I lived seven kilometers off the paved road in rural Panama and saw different.  I no longer equate my time to money.  It's so easy to do.  I know the thought process, "My job pays $25 dollars an hour so it makes sense to work for one hour and use the money to buy a school lunch than it does to take two hours to do it myself".  This creates a disconnect; or at least a couple steps between parents, schools and school lunch.  It is easy for corners to be cut and poor quality and unhealthy food to be served because the investors (parents) are not directly involved. 

The picture at left is from Aim High website and their article on School Lunch Programs. I believe for food to be at its healthiest, create the least amount of packaging waste and go through the least processing it should be made on site from local ingredients.   Aim High points out most school lunches are "like airline meals, today’s school lunches of mystery meat and frozen vegetables are shipped to schools in single-serving containers and reheated in the “prep area” [they don't have a kitchen]."

The schools that are now working to integrate nutrition programs and gardens on the school grounds are finding it very difficult. They don't have the support of the parents or the school system.  In most cases it is a couple dedicated volunteers trying to find the funding and labor to plant, maintain and harvest the garden.  I can see a couple solutions to this problem.  If parents would invest their own time into the school they would be more aware and the problems would be visible and actively address.  Or as The Slow Cook's Behind the White House Photo Ops, School Gardens Desperate for Help article by Sarah Bernardi recommends creating a fulltime garden coordinator position.  Either way our schools' food and garden programs need more attention.


  1. It is so important to change the look of what's on the lunch tray at school. Healthy School Lunches, a campaign aimed at bringing plant-based meal options to kids, is working to do just that. Such meals are low in fat and high in fiber. Perhaps once there is more support for garden programs, school-grown produce can figure into such meal options.

  2. I fully agree and support your statements. Kids should have better, more nutritous food. They need to have a better understanding of what it is they are eating and where it comes from. Parental and community involvement in schools is proven to be incredibly beneficial for students, especially those that struggle or feel alienated by "typical" school environments.

  3. I think you would be interested in watching this video of Jamie Oliver, discussing his mission to Teach Every Child About Food.


  4. I agree with your comments also. My daughter attends The Waldorf School of Princeton. She is lucky enough to have a garden on school grounds and many parents help work in the garden as do the children. I always make her lunch and send her whole healthy food. I am sure I could be at a much more "high powered" job which would perhap not allow me to always do this and other things. These are my choices. We eat simply and in season. We do not eat at chains. Instead if we do go out we will split something that is healthy and made from a chef connected to his or her food supply. It works for us.