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by Debbie Lehmann

Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.

President Obama has been talking about school lunch a lot lately, but last week he touched on a new side of the issue. In response to a question about healthy eating at a forum on health care, Obama brought up what I see as one of the biggest obstacles to improving cafeteria fare: the unfortunate reality that what kids like is not always what’s best for them.

Here’s what Obama said at the forum:

Because sometimes you go into schools and — you know what the menu is, you know? It’s French fries, Tater Tots, hot dogs, pizza and — now, that’s what kids — let’s face it, that’s what kids want to eat, anyway. (Laughter.) So it’s not just the schools’ fault.

That’s absolutely right — it’s not just the school’s fault. School meal programs are stand-alone businesses within school districts, and they need students to come in and buy the food they offer so that they can break even at the end of the year. In fact, you can think of school cafeterias as restaurants on school grounds (restaurants that, admittedly, have to meet federal requirements and submit huge piles of paperwork to the USDA). Without student sales, cafeterias go out of business. School lunches would be great if all kids loved carrots and spinach. But the reality is that kids like pizza and hotdogs, and school lunchrooms are responsible for pleasing their customers.

If we want to overhaul school food in America, we’re going to have to change that. It’s a change that makes obvious sense when you look at the cafeteria as a part of the school environment. Look around the rest of campus and you’ll see that the lunchroom is the only place where we give kids what they want. English teachers assign the books on the curriculum, not the books kids ask to read. Math teachers cover fractions and multiplication, even though students would probably rather be playing video games than completing worksheets.

Classrooms can function like that because they’re not businesses. Teachers are not responsible for catering to their customers because they don’t have customers. They have students. If we’re serious about dietary reform and health reform, it’s time to translate that to the cafeteria as well.