School’s in Session, Time for Lunch Lessons

Yesterday while loads of folks fronted for backyard barbecues, Slow Food USA sponsored more than 300 Eat-Ins around the country as part of their Labor Day potlucks with a purpose.

The cause: Getting real food into schools. The organization’s Time for Lunch Campaign seeks to bring attention to the Child Nutrition Act, the bill that governs the National School Lunch Program, which is up for reauthorization this fall. The goal: More local, nutritious food, particularly fresh fruit & veg, in a program that feeds more than 30 million children every day.

With a trio of 5th grade boys in tow, I swung by the Berkeley event at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. The boys were curious about the goat milk ice cream (still hard as hockey pucks when we stopped by) and pleased to see a substitute teacher performing on stage. The food, according to Ameer, looked better than what’s served at Malcolm X Elementary, where the boys are students. The gathered group, Griffin noted, seemed to include many homeless folks in search of a decent feed. Gabe just wanted to get to the pool pronto.

griffin.gabe.ameer

So we missed the speeches and the spirit of the event, which felt a little like preaching to the converted in our town anyway. Alice WatersEdible Schoolyard anyone? Renegade Lunch Lady Ann Cooper has only recently left town, after a major makeover of school food. And every public elementary in Berkeley has a much-loved cooking and gardening program. En route to the pool, the three kid critics complained that school food is unappetizing; they’re all still lunchbox lovers, despite parental efforts to convert them to the good food fight.

In fairness, many families in our school district are absolutely delighted with the fare on offer at lunchtime (snack, supplied by parents, is another matter). As I drove the boys to Strawberry Canyon to swim, I started mulling over something I read in the literature from the Center for Ecoliteracy booth at the Eat-In that made sense to me.

The brochure notes that food quality and taste aren’t the only criteria for kids’ decisions to eat — or not — at school. An inviting atmosphere or ambience is also key. I know many urban public school administrators will likely roll their eyes at this, but when I see school kids eating at benches outdoors I feel a pang of envy. My sensory sensitive son has a tough time eating in a cafeteria which, despite folks best efforts, is full of sights, smells, and sounds that aren’t always conducive to a positive eating environment.

Even the much-anticipated Dining Commons over at MLK Middle School in this city has awful acoustics. I’m surprised much eating gets done in that din at all, despite the building’s physical appeal.

That said, I want to know, as we all navigate the back-to-school transition, does your child eat lunch at school and, if not, why not?

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2 Responses to “School’s in Session, Time for Lunch Lessons”

  1. Romney Steele Says:

    Another post well done, Sarah. I didn’t attend the Eat-In, though I thought about it. I think you’re right about preaching to the choir and it’s certainly a much bigger issue that will take a lot more than an Eat-In.

    My daughter is in high school and even with Ann Cooper’s lauded efforts at Berkeley High, she says the food is awful and won’t eat it, preferring to pop up somewhere nearby for a smoothie or a salad, or a bagel if she has money, or otherwise bring something ‘meager’ from home. Even Ann herself, said once, as much as they tried to bring in good food they were still stuck with incorporating frozen potato stuff, etc.into the meal.

    And yet, I have often wondered how much truth there is to my daughter snubbing Berkeley High’s lunches (a one serving salad bar that they serve to you-huh?; is it just her teenage self?). But then again, look at the masses that run out the gates in search of something else. Similarly, she says-it’s near impossible to get your food without waiting in line for ages, let alone getting yourself from the classroom to the line, leaving very little of the precious 40 minute lunch to spare.

    On the list serve I belong to one veteran teacher wrote in suggesting a return to home-economic classes–a brass tacks teach kids to cook kind of effort. Berkeley has its own model and no doubt ahead of the game. Still, there are government mandates that include having to buy food stuffs from contracted purveyors–hence a lot of frozen foods, some flown in from across the globe and purportedly picked and packed by children. That also needs addressing, and something I haven’t heard Obama speak about.

    And by the way, I do hope they served those homeless scroungers. They too deserve a decent meal.

  2. Sarah Henry Says:

    Hi Nani,

    Thanks for your thoughts on the subject, especially the high school perspective.

    You will be please to hear that the homeless did indeed get served — both in Berkeley and SF — check out Leah Garchik’s column from today:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2009/09/10/DDUQ19I5HC.DTL

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