For the past several months, I have become increasingly disturbed by the school food situation in this country.
It all started when my 7th grader decided that it was inconvenient and uncool to bring a packed lunch from home. Initially, I didn’t think much about it and was actually quite excited about not having to pack her lunch every morning. I did fleetingly wonder about the sudden change in her culinary preferences, because throughout her entire academic career she’s always described the school lunch as “nasty.” Yet, I (foolishly) assumed she was eating the federally subsidized “hot meal.”
It was not until I figured out how to check her lunch account online (very nifty) that I realized she had discovered the “a la carte” line. I was under the impression that the a la carte program was an option to buy things like salads, sandwiches, and fruits. Well, it is. But the students can also buy cookies, Pop-Tarts®, chips, and bottled drinks (not sodas, thank God!). My child had been eating a lunch consisting of chips, an apple, cookies, and a bottle of Propel…
At this point, it was close to the end of the school year, so there wasn’t much to be done. I did however take a look at the lunch menu for the last week of school to find out what the options were and if I could convince my daughter to eat this food instead. I was in shock when I read the list:
- Mon: Chicken Nuggets or Beef Ravioli
- Tue: Pizza or Breaded Chicken on a Bun
- Wed: Hot Dog on a Bun or Cheeseburger on a Bun
- Thu: No lunch. Last Day of School.
Really?? I thought it was some kind of practical joke. Are we seriously feeding our kids food that we know is bad for our health?
So I started digging around on the World Wide Web to figure out if anybody else had noticed this and was trying to do something about it. I had already heard that Michelle Obama was on a crusade to fight childhood obesity, so I started there. I learned she had launched a campaign called “Let’s Move!” to “raise a healthier generation of kids.” She also invited chefs from around the country to the White House to ask them to commit to making school food better in their communities. This made me pretty excited. I had actually been thinking that chefs with experience cooking with local, seasonal, and organic ingredients should partner with schools to help educate the staff.
I was able to find an area on the Let’s Move! website specifically about school food. It is basically a commercial for the HealthierUS Schools Challenge Program. This is an initiative which recognizes schools that “have created healthier school environments through a promotion of nutrition and physical activity.” So far, they have recognized 773 schools. (There are over 100,000 schools in the US…) A good start, but a long, long way to go.
I continued my search on the Internet and found Ann Cooper, The Renegade Lunch Lady. This woman has demonstrated that it is possible to prepare and serve nourishing food in schools and stay within budget. She is also the mastermind behind The Lunch Box, which is an educational site for schools to incorporate healthy recipes in their meal planning. I like Chef Ann.
I found several other organization, bloggers, and the like who want better food in schools. However, my favorite was Two Angry Moms. Amy Kalafa, a award-winning filmmaker got fed up with the terrible school food and decided to make a documentary about it. She teamed up with Susan Rubin, founder of Better School Food, who had actually been banned from her children’s school cafeteria… I recently ordered the film on DVD and watched it the other evening. It is really great (aside from the fact that there is no scene selection) and gives a good view into some of the reasons for why things are the way they are (e.g. USDA commodities) and that there actually is a way to have healthy food in schools.
To top it off, I’m reading a book called Free for All: Fixing School Food in America by Janet Poppendieck. This fairly heavy book describes in detail the history and problems with our current school food system and has helped me understand that fixing it is not straight forward (by any means!).
I am still trying to determine how to get involved in this fledgling movement. When school starts up, my daughter will be bringing a lunch from home whether it’s cool or not. And I may just visit her school during lunch one day to see what it is really like. (I may have to pretend that we’re not related.) I have also found the school district’s wellness policy and will be looking into how I get on the Student Wellness Advisory Committee. Seems like a good start.
More to come on this topic from a very angry mom.