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Kai Ryssdal: In between arguing over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts and pass the president's jobs bill, Congress will be doing some actual legislating in the next couple of weeks. They're expected to pass -- and the president is expected to sign -- the School Nutrition Act. It's a $4.5 billion plan to get healthier food into school cafeterias. It is also the first real increase that is beating the rate of inflation that lunchroom budgets have had in decades.
The new money should mean more fruits and vegetables to compete with all the pizza and chicken nuggets you find school lunchrooms. But what about competing with the pizza parlor right across the street?
From the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY in Philadelphia, Gregory Warner went back to high school.
Gregory Warner: In the hot food line at Central High School, just try to order a salt pretzel without getting a few words from Jean Bryant behind the counter.
Jean Bryant: You know that salt ain't good for you. Salt, too? You heard what I told him?
Bryant's anti-sodium crusade fits right into Central High School's campaign to get kids to eat healthier. Bread is now whole-grain; french fries are oven baked.
And so every lunchtime, lots of kids sneak off campus to the pizza shop across the street. Here it's a different scene. Kids order off menus, lounge against the counter. It's just a pizza joint, I know, but compared to the lunchroom, it feels...
Asia Mosee: Classy.
That's 16-year-old Asia Mosee. I meet her at the end of lunch, lingering at a table with three friends. She's eating pizza and fries.
Warner: How much is pizza and fries here?
Mosee: Well, actually, pizza here is $1.50 and these fries I got from over there. These were only $1.25.
This is the kind of economic decision-making that makes school lunchrooms nervous. Asia is spending $2.75 on her lunch, that's 75 cents more than the cafeteria charges for a whole tray of food.
Margo Wootan: School meal programs are a business. They have to break even.
Margo Wootan is with the Center For Science in the Public Interest in Washington. She says that if lunchrooms serve food that kids don't want to buy, the lunchrooms lose money -- money that could be spent on healthier food.
Wootan: Most school districts and states don't provide additional resources to the meals. All the money comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and what the kids pay.
Under the School Nutrition Act making its way through Congress, the USDA would increase its contribution to the pot by some $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. That's about six cents per lunch, enough to pay for an extra banana or half an apple.
But the food isn't the only issue. The House version includes an extra $20 million to advise schools on improving menus and redesigning the cafeteria. Kids, it turns out, want a choice of vegetables, and apparently, they like round tables more than long ones.
In other words, the debate comes down to how much to treat kids like customers. Back at the pizza shop, Asia Mosee tells me she would eat healthier food...
Mosee: But it has to be good healthy. You know, like Caesar salads, and things you can get from a deli, like a little fruit cup.
This from a girl who is consuming a basket of french fries. But the cashier here at the pizza shop does tell me that kids are ordering more salads and more low-fat sandwiches.
I head back across the street to Central High School, wondering if a school lunchroom can ever compete with restaurant fare. I put that question to food service manager Cathy Naussner.
Cathy Naussner: You're never gonna beat out McDonald's or a corner pizza shop.
But that doesn't stop her from trying. Every time she goes to a restaurant she's dreaming about how she could do things better.
Naussner leads me into the school kitchen. It's a graveyard of forbidden appliances, like the deep fat fryer, and appliances that just don't do the job, like an old vegetable steamer.
Naussner: I was down the shore and I had seen this steamer where they did the fresh vegetables inside and it was only in there for like seconds! You know, here we have to keep things in here for a few minutes to get it somewhat going.
Warner: And it gets kinda soggy.
Naussner: Exactly. It just like beats the taste out of everything.
Warner: Do you think a better steamer would actually get kids to eat more lunch food?
Naussner: That's my personal opinion. If it looks good, they're gonna eat it.
Until they do, opening that pizza shop near a high school is still a good investment.
In Philadelphia, I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.