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From Wyoming, A Healthier School Lunch

Planet Money intern Ethan Arrow just wrapped up his part-time stint with us and is back to grad school. While he was here, he got curious about the economics of school lunches and the problem of childhood obesity. Here's his blog post on how one school district is dealing with the issue.

With all the attention on obesity in America, the focus is turning to school cafeterias as a potential breeding ground for fast-food diets. Many schools say they're doing the best they can with limited resources. So I decided to reach out to some cafeterias around the country to see what our lunch ladies and gentlemen had to say.

I called some of the larger school districts and typically received a variation on this response: Refer to our website, or get in touch with our communications manager. Finally, I found a district with a direct number to where the action is: Big Horn County School District #1 in Cowley, Wyoming. I spoke with Carole Blakemen, the person in charge of setting the menu for 630 elementary to high school students.

As the district's food-service manager, Blakeman sees her mission as substituting fresh choices for processed foods like tater tots whenever possible. But the challenge is that from-scratch food can be more labor-intensive, and therefore more expensive. Plus, cafeteria staff face the added challenge of appeasing the taste buds of students already accustomed to fast food.

Over the years, Blakemen has won a few key battles against even the mightiest ready-to reheat cafeteria favorites. Take, for example, pizza. The district purchased a "dough sheeter" for its six schools that allows cafeteria staffers to create a pizza from scratch in a fraction of the time it would take if they had to roll out the dough themselves. According to Blakemen, the freshly-rolled pizza has less sodium, less fat and tastes better.

But is it cheaper?

The school district's business manager, Richard Parker, told me that Big Horn spends an average of $1.36 per meal on food and $2.22 per meal on labor, which includes cafeteria personnel's wages and benefits. In Big Horn County, making a lunch is more expensive than the food that goes into it. But according to Blakemen, the district has the advantage of being small, with specialized equipment and well-trained staff already in place. So at least when it comes to one perennial kid favorite, Big Horn is able to efficiently provide a freshly baked alternative to the TV-dinner convenience of processed foods. For larger school districts, that may simply not be an option.