Bureaucracy is as bureaucracy does…

EdNews Colorado has a story which encapsulates so much of why entrenched systems in public schools don’t change. It’s about school lunch and the Colorado Department of Education. And it ain’t healthy.

Poor kids get screwed in many ways, and school lunches are among them.  This is a complex issue, and until recently there did not seem to be an adequate solution, particularly since the federal FRL program is difficult to untangle at the state level. But a coalition of groups in Colorado was willing to take it on. Having found a company (Revolution Foods) in California successfully addressing this problem, and after spending well over six months wooing them to consider Denver and gaining support from numerous foundations, legislators, and even district food programs, they run smack into CDE:

According to CDE spokesman Mark Stevens, the department is engaged in discussions on this issue and has been for a couple of months […] “It’s possible a state statute fix will be needed, not just a state rule change,” Stevens said.

Well gee, lots of things are possible (such as my not gagging on the above), and I’m sure Mr. Stevens can wax at some length about the difference between a “state statute fix” and a “state rule change.” I’m sure he even believes the importance of the distinction and the merits of taking months (yes, months) to really weigh all of the paper-pushing possibilities. But having seen the school lunches poor kids endure first-hand, I think it’s well past time for CDE to decide they are committed to helping to solve this problem, and not being an impediment.

And missing is the State Board of Education.  Having recently written at some length on the merits of a municipal BOE taking quick action, I admit I am befuddled that the State Board seems willing to watch at a distance as if they were the audience and not a fellow actor.  I even had a short conversation last week with a State BOE member who says that this issue is her passion (and she has the bona fides to support it) — who apparently found the statue/rule debate a mood-killer, retired with a headache and allowed the January meeting deadline to pass.

I could even understand this delay (well, sort of) if there was opposition, but there appears to be none.  On one side: the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Colorado Health Foundation, numerous other interest groups, schools and families.  On the other side: a few bureaucrats hand-wringing linguistics.

The problem here is that Revolution Foods does not have the luxury of a few more months to discuss and debate the finer distinctions of statute fix vs. rule change.  They have to hire and train staff; find, lease, and furnish food preparation space; determine and provide logistics and a transportation system, and work with schools.  Their deadline has long since stretched. Even if this statute/rule change had correctly made it to the State BOE in January, it would have been a full year from when Rev Foods were initially interested to the delivery of the first meal.  And if you can’t manage the process within a year, you might well decide its time to move on. As a local foundation leader puts it:

“All this backs up to right now and, if not, it could certainly delay this to next January, if not a year—and if Revolution Foods is still interested in coming to Denver.”

For small companies like Rev Foods, the snails pace of state government is not conducive, particularly if they have other options where they are treated as part of the solution, and not as a regulatory burden.  My belief is that continued delay is much more fragile than CDE recognizes, and puts Rev Foods in a increasingly untenable position.

If and when this coalition falls apart, CDE will undoubtedly have reasons why they were being prudent, which is of no interest or use to any child who can’t afford the same food choices their more affluent peers take for granted. If there was ever an easy school issue where action trumped indecision, this is it.

If one has an interest, I recommend both The Lunchroom Rebellion (The New Yorker) and The School Lunch Test (NYT Magazine). Why does school food matter?  Here an an excerpt from the latter article:

By any health measure, today’s children are in crisis. Seventeen percent of American children are overweight, and increasing numbers of children are developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes, which, until a few years ago, was a condition seen almost only in adults. The obesity rate of adolescents has tripled since 1980 and shows no sign of slowing down. Today’s children have the dubious honor of belonging to the first cohort in history that may have a lower life expectancy than their parents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that 30 to 40 percent of today’s children will have diabetes in their lifetimes if current trends continue.

Oddly enough, there is no mention in either article of the improved nutrition if one pursues a state statue fix versus a state rule change.

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