The school lunch dilemma

The Madison school district's food and nutrition production facility is a large, gray, industrial-looking building on Pflaum Road, with a loading bay in the back. Inside, baskets of hairnets line the hallways, and cases of preprocessed food are stacked high. It is in this building, in a windowless conference room, where Dustin Lundt and six of his colleagues gather weekly to determine the lunch menus for Madison's students.

"We meet to talk about different menu combinations, things that are popular in schools, new products we'd like to get onto the menu," says Lundt. "That drives what we need to purchase."

Before joining the Madison Metropolitan School District six years ago, Lundt worked for food-service giant Sysco. He is responsible for managing the school district's contracts with the companies that supply Madison's schoolchildren with their meals.

Dane County has a national-caliber farmers' market, and Madison has impressive foodie credentials, but the Madison Metropolitan School District serves 19,000 meals a day (PDF) based on products supplied by such corporations as Tyson, Cargill and AdvancePierre.

Despite the efforts of REAP Food Group and the now-defunct Madison School Food Initiative, these conventional food manufacturers have a secure grasp on the school district's business. This is largely because the United States Department of Agriculture, in addition to enforcing minimum nutritional standards, requires that the school district hold open bids for its highly competitive contracts. The large scale gives a huge advantage to national distributors and effectively shuts out smaller, more local farms and producers.

The district's most substantial contract is about to become available, and it's all but certain to be awarded once again to a national distributor. Substantial local alternatives will not even be at the table.