‘Top Chef’ fails school-food test, but Colicchio passes with flying colors

In Episode 2 of this season's "Top Chef," the contestants took on school lunch: the 16 contestants divided into four teams, each of which had to cook a nutritionally acceptable lunch for 50 students with a budget of only $2.60 per meal and 30 minutes to plan, 30 minutes to shop, 2.5 hours to prep, and 1 hour to heat before service. Although the episode had the kind of drama you expect from the best of reality television -- squabbling between contestants, frank confessions, potential sabotage, and stunningly bad judgment -- the show came up short when it came to the reality of today's school lunch programs.

Most of the Web coverage has been recaps of the show's events or paeans to the hunkiness of White House staffer Sam Kass. (Obama Foodorama has an extensive list of commentary about the episode). Looking at it from a policy perspective, the show flamed out.

The video test: D-

The $2.60-per-meal budget has rightly received a lot of criticism — for example, Ed Bruske at the Slow Cook wrote that the show "flunks school math." The "Top Chef" producers didn't account for the fact that labor and other expenses eat up more than half of the school meal program budget. A USDA-funded survey of schools across the country (PDF) found that actual food accounts for only 39.8% of expenses, with labor using 44.4%, and other expenses using 16.1%. So a budget of about a dollar per meal would have been a lot more realistic. Perhaps they figured that a budget of $1 per meal for food might have led to terrible television. Or perhaps they didn't dig enough or talk to the right people.

On bigger policy issues, I'd give the episode a pretty low grade. Admittedly, "Top Chef" producers have to pack a lot into each 50-minute program — the contests, trash talking, minor kitchen disasters, stern admonitions from the judges, and so on — but it's unfortunate that they couldn't find even a few minutes to give some background on school lunch topics.

The most serious omission was Congress's current efforts to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act* — even just a short mention might have brought some new advocates to the cause. And there was nothing about some of the hopeful happenings, like the rapid expansion of farm-to-school programs, makeovers in school districts like Berkeley and Baltimore, and the White House's new adopt-a-school program for restaurant chefs (covered by Jane Black at the Washington Post). A mention of this fairly new initiative might have caught the attention of chefs who are fans of the show while also possibly securing some pledges from the contestants to help a school when they trade "reality" for reality. I wonder if having a representative from the White House as a guest, instead of a school lunch activist like Ann Cooper or someone from the Farm-to-School Network led the script writers to keep policy out of the discussion.

The written test: A-

Over at the blogs, however, the program partially redeems itself, notably with a commendable post from chef-judge Tom Colicchio. In his multi-page post, Colicchio carefully lays out a case for a better school lunch program. He makes a number of policy suggestions, including that breakfast and lunch should be universal in certain schools. He points out that some children avoid signing up for free meals because of the stigma attached them ("one kid I know explained that she'd rather be hungry than labeled and teased," he writes). A pilot program in New York found better academic performance and behavior among children who ate a school-provided breakfast in their homeroom. Savings accrued by cutting out the onerous eligibility paperwork could help pay for the expansion of subsidized meals.

Near the end of his post, Colicchio has some words about the Food and Farm Bill*. I think it's great to see the Food and Farm bill being mentioned by people outside of the policy world — especially someone with so much popular exposure like Colicchio — and I hope it is just one more step in knowledge of the Food and Farm Bill spreading far and wide, breaking free of the circle of lobbyists and policy wonks, so that the debate on the next bill will include members of all sectors of society. (Whether the staff of "Top Chef" can come up with a good Food and Farm Bill-related elimination challenge is an open question —how could the ultimate in food wonkery translate to reality TV?)

Colicchio's excellent blog post is just one of three good pieces I've seen from him in recent days. The second is part of an article about celebrity chefs' charity causes in Food & Wine. Colicchio's cause is Hungry in America, an in-production film about the history of hunger in the U.S., for which his wife is the co-director and he is executive producer. Again he mentions the 2012 Food and Farm Bill, noting that the filmmakers hope to have the film finished before the debate on the legislation begins.

The third was a trip to Capitol Hill last week to testify at a House hearing in support of Rep. Miller's (D-California) proposal for the Child Nutrition Act**. Obama Foodorama and La Vida Locavore (in parts 1 and 2) have detailed coverage of the hearing. I'll let part of Colicchio's opening statement close this post:

I'm wearing a few different hats at this hearing today: First off, there is my public one; as host and judge of a popular television program, I find myself in the slightly surreal position of being able to comment on issues of importance to me to a public willing to listen. I've decided to use this to the advantage of the millions of American children who rely on school, preschool, after-school and summer feeding programs for adequate nutrition, who don't have lobbyists with deep pockets at their disposal advocating on their behalf.
[...]
There can be no better investment -- no better stimulus to our economy -- than feeding this nation's children healthily and well. If we give the kids in this country delicious and nutritious food, we will instill in them a lifetime preference for healthy eating that will translate into vast savings in health care costs down the line. Providing the building blocks for millions of kids to grow and develop as they should, will mean a population of robust and productive adults, and a more competitive America. Malnourished kids aren't capable of vision and ideas, and without that we are relegating this great nation to a future of mediocrity and poor health. I think we can do better, and I urge you today to get behind Chairman Miller's bill and make it happen.

*A small quibble about language: In the blog post and Food and Wine article, Colicchio called it the "Farm Bill" instead of something more descriptive like "Food and Farm Bill." In 2007 I wrote about what framing guru George Lakoff thought about the term "Farm Bill" and potential alternatives for the Ethicurean.

**Although there are some good things in Miller's proposal — like reducing barriers to enrollment in free lunch programs, institute new ways of preventing recalled foods from being served in schools — it is short on funding. Because of Congress' PAYGO rule (which requires all new spending to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases), the sacredness of commodity subsidies, a mortal fear of tax increases, and deficit hysteria, both the House and Senate proposals for the Child Nutrition Act are miserly, providing an increase of just pennies per meal. An item at the Committee on Education and Labor has more details about the House plan. Tom Philpott has some harsh words for the Senate's proposal at Grist.

4 Responsesto “‘Top Chef’ fails school-food test, but Colicchio passes with flying colors”

  1. Delora says:

    One other glaring failing of the Top Chef episode - they didn't require contestants keep their dishes within the federally mandated calorie, sodium and fat ranges.  While their healthy dishes probably did inherently meet all of these requirements, it's one more thing that real school cafeterias have to take into consideration.

  2. "Institute new ways of preventing recalled foods from being served in schools"

    Why? There is a tremendous amount of recalled food that is very good, nutritious food. It gets recalled due to a labeling snaffu such as it contains peanuts or milk. Recall it, label it and use it. Don't waste it. To throw out this food is bad.

    By the way, it is very possible to cook excellent meals for less than a dollar a day of ingredients. I know because I do it year in and year out. If I can then surely the experts can and on top of that they have far superior buying power in bulk. I'm appalled that they waste so much money and yet they serve such poor fare.

    The solution is to simply stop the public school system, for people to take responsibility for themselves, their kids and their food and not put this off on others. School spending is over the top but results are in the pits.

  3. Delora --  You raise an excellent point. If the judging panel used anything beyond pure intuition to evaluate adherence to nutritional rules, it wasn't clear in the program.  Ideally, the teams would have submitted their recipes to someone who could processed them in nutritional analysis software to see if they met the targets. That could have been an interesting twist to the competition: "Your food was great, and we'd pick you as the winner, but you totally overshot the fat limit. So you are penalized on the next competition." (or something like that)  Although schedules are tight, I think they could have managed that with some slight adjustments to the clock, like allowing 30 minutes to write down their ingredients.

    Walter -- One of the stimuli for the recall provisions was a report from the Government Accountability Office. Among the findings were that schools were not being informed about recalled products in a timely manner, it sometimes took a week or more to determination of which products in schools' inventories were subject to recall, and sometimes each participant in the system thought that another participant was ensuring food quality. An example of this last situation comes from the report's abstract: "Although both USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and the FDA procedures direct them to conduct recall quality checks, neither included thousands of schools that had received recalled USDA-commodities products for the beef and peanut recalls because they thought FNS conducted these checks. As a result, they were unable to ensure that the recalls were being carried out effectively by schools. FNS officials said that they did not conduct any kind of systematic quality checks of schools receiving recalled commodities, because they relied on FSIS and FDA to conduct such checks."

    While it's possible that many of the recalled products are perfectly safe to eat because the recall's net was cast far too wide (e.g., the tens of millions of pounds of meat recalled because a handful of downer cows entered meat supply), the agency would need some method of determining which are actually safe and which aren't (e.g., the salmonella-laced peanut products).  Or they need better criteria for recalls.  If it was a matter of selling those products with new labels (and lengthy liability release forms) at a store, that's one thing, but serving the food to children without getting consent from them or their parents is another matter. 

  4. Or they need to stop being rediculous. Recalling peanut butter because it doesn't declare that "This product contains peanuts" is totally absurd. Recalling ice cream because it doesn't say "This product contains milk" is totally absurd. The list goes on and on. If you can't figure out that peanut butter contains peanuts and you are allergic to peanuts then you have bigger issues. They are wasting resources and driving up the cost of food. Then they complain that the world is warming and people can't afford to eat. Connection time people!