Archive for the ‘school food’ Category

Seven Reasons Why the Time is Ripe for School Lunch Reform

April 5, 2010

Could school lunch get the universal overhaul it needs — not unlike, say, health care — and some time soon? You betcha, says Janet Poppendieck, author of the recently published Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. (Read a review at Civil Eats.)

At a midday panel held at the California Endowment Conference Center in downtown Oakland, hosted by California Food Policy Advocates, and attended by anti-hunger activists and school food folk, Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College, City University of New York, outlined why there’s no time like the present for reform in the lunch room.

Not surprisingly, given the hour and agenda, lunch was on the menu. School lunch to be exact, courtesy of chefs from Newark Unified School District Nutrition Services. (School food staff, including the all-important drivers, showed up to feed the crowd on their Spring Break. I’m assuming they were paid for their efforts. Still, giving up a day off  to cater an event is impressive.)

And, in case you were wondering, I noshed on a perfectly edible meal of bow-tie pasta with marinara sauce made from scratch, a panini sandwich on sourdough with commodity cheese and school-made pesto, salad bar offerings, and fresh, cut fruit.

Well fed, we moved on to the matter at hand. The accessible academic walked us through her “7 Cs” — bite-size talking points illustrating why school lunch is ripe for reform:

1. Convergence of agendas: Concerns about hunger, nutrition, obesity, health, and the environment are merging in the public arena.

2. Conditions of urgency: Obesity among children is on the rise, lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes are skyrocketing among the young, yet more kids are going hungry. Concerns about carbon emissions, loss of farm land, and global warming are all going up, up, up.

3. Credibility: The recession gives school lunch renegades street cred. Everyone knows someone who has lost a job. Unemployment increases demand for emergency food services. More people know about so-called food deserts, or lack of healthy food in low-income communities.

4. Consciousness: Awareness of hunger, food insecurity, and the impact of lifestyle choices on what we eat and how it’s produced, is growing.

5. Company: Lots of fellow travelers on the better school food beat are coming together to break bread on this issue. Advocates for school food reform, health and medical associations, even seemingly unlikely allies like the Department of Defense, are joining forces at the cafeteria table.

(Poppenieck notes that a group of retired admirals and generals active in Mission Readiness recently wrote a report on the impact of the obesity epidemic from a national security perspective. The irony here: The current school lunch program owes its existence to a push, in large part, from military leaders seeking to beef up school nutrition because many young men were so undernourished during World War II they were unable to serve in the Armed Forces.)

And, of course, the big gun herself FLOTUS, otherwise known as Michelle Obama, is on board.

6. Citizens: Concerned adults are demanding that food improve in the school cafeteria.  We’re talking millions of angry moms and dads.

7. Critics: People like Jamie Oliver, who bopped across The Pond to shake up the school lunch menu in West Virginia, and the anonymous teacher blogging at Fed Up With Lunch, who documents the sorry state of food at one Midwestern school every day, are raising awareness and presenting alternatives to what’s on offer now.

Poppendieck is a proponent, as her book title suggests, for doing away with the current three-tier payment system (free, reduced, and full fare) for school lunch across America. But she’s no starry-eyed idealist.

She knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch; her best guess is that a wholly subsidized program would cost the U.S. government an additional $12 billion a year. Depending on your perspective, that’s an awful lot of cash, or a drop in the bucket compared to what the country spends to go to war.

To paraphrase Jamie O in a recent Food Revolution episode: “It’s all about the money.” Dominic Machi, director of Child Nutrition Services for Newark Unified, would agree. So would many others.

The discussion sparked lots of chatter about the status of school lunch reform in Congress and the nutritional requirements of school food. Some got down to details in snappy fashion. But with all due respect, policy wonks can waffle on about legislative agendas, government data, and nutritional guidelines until your eyes glaze over.

The youngest panel member Beebe Sanders, a junior at Berkeley High School, kept things real and fresh. This girl has wisdom beyond her years and gives me hope that maybe we’ll see a national shift in what kids eat at school in my lifetime, as long as we adults don’t mess it up.

Beebe Sanders hit the bull’s-eye with the suggestion that nutrition education needs to take place in schools — in the classroom — to change childrens’ attitudes about school food, which can carry a stigma, even with the youngest eaters, as bad food for poor people.

Jamie Oliver long ago figured out you need to get the kids to buy in, as have numerous school food fixers before him.

“We need to change the mind-set about how kids feel about school food and why they think it’s uncool to eat it,” says Sanders, who works with Farm Fresh Choice, a local effort to get food to impoverished, hungry people.

“Kids just don’t like the idea of eating at school —  cafeteria food is just not that pleasing, let’s face it — so they go off campus and buy fast food,” she adds. “Schools need to explain to students why eating healthy school food is a good thing.”

Do you agree? Is it the money, the mind-set, a combo of the two, or something else entirely that needs addressing before all our kids get to sit down at school with a tray of food that’s nice, nourishing, and doesn’t have nuggets in its name?

Jamie Oliver: School Food Revolution or Reality TV Rubbish?

March 29, 2010


It’s time to talk about the Limey lad’s Appalachian invasion.

Unless you’ve had your head in a school lunch garbage bin for the last week surely you know Brit wonder boy Jamie Oliver has landed on American shores to save our children from the food we feed them.

The kind of food mind, the mopped-topped megastar tells us, that is killing our kids — or at least leading them to an early grave.

In case you missed him on Oprah, Letterman, or Hockenberry, Jamie jetted into Huntington, West Virginia, to film Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution for ABC. (You can catch the first two episodes on Hulu.)

The six-part series is a hybrid of two similar programs Oliver fronted in England, Jamie’s School Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food, the former resulted in sweeping school lunch reform, though even the mastermind himself admits it’s not yet a resounding success.

Stylistically the shows couldn’t be more different, if reflective of their respective cultures. Think British public television documentary versus American network TV reality pap. Food Revolution is produced by American Idol‘s Ryan Seacrest.

Why West Virginia? Two years ago Huntington got gonged as the country’s unhealthiest area, courtesy of CDC data. That means fattest. Let’s not sugar coat things, most obese, and sickest on such measures as heart disease and diabetes. But Huntington is just the first stop in Oliver’s national nutrition mission. He wants nothing short of radical reform on Americans’ plates.

The celebrity chef favors fresh food from scratch or stripping food down to its bare essentials, as he likes to say, (hence his Naked Chef nickname), versus reheated edible food products. (Did you see the footage of the packaged “mashed potato pearls” served at school? Scary stuff.)

His premise is, as you might expect, a simple one. If you teach people to cook a handful of dishes, you’ll get them hooked on healthy eating.

Locals chafe at the TED prize award-winner‘s campaign for change. The cultural disconnects are cringe worthy. The thirtysomething refers to the middle-aged school cafeteria staff as “lunch ladies,”  “darlin'” and “sweetheart”. Jamie is gobsmacked that school kids eat pizza for breakfast. For breakfast! And aren’t given knives and forks to eat their food at lunch. Those American barbarians!

Here’s what I know: The show is entertaining, if scripted, garnered good ratings, and generated big buzz. It’s prime fodder on foodie listservs, such as the Association for the Study of Food and Society‘s, where one academic wag likened canned and processed food to masturbation. (“It’s easy, convenient and gets the job done….but I’m guessing most people, given the opportunity, would prefer the messy, complicated, time-consuming, delightful option of the real thing.”)

But I digress. Stripped of its sensationalism, Food Revolution is simply sad. There’s the pastor flicking through photos of townsfolk he’s buried prematurely due to dietary decisions. There’s the super-sized family fueled only on fat-fryer food. There are school kids who eat chicken nuggets for lunch AND dinner and can’t identify ANY fresh vegetables when Jamie quizzes them in class.

Here’s what I’m not sure of: Once Oliver wings his way home to his own family, will his food revolution make any difference to those he set out to help Stateside? Or will things stay the same here while the self-described hyperactive, dyslexic chef jumps to his next pet project under the umbrella of his multimillion dollar international food emporium?

Here’s what I want to find out: What do American school food advocates such as, oh, I don’t know, Michelle Obama, Alice Waters, and Ann Cooper, for starters, think about a foreigner getting his hands dirty in the American school food debate?

Debra Eschmeyer of the National Farm to School Network noted in a recent Civil Eats story that absent from Food Revolution to date is any acknowledgment of the homegrown edible educational experiments happening around the country. Responding to such criticism, the program’s producers have encouraged viewers to share video of local food heroes here.

Few can argue with the fact that Jamie is cooking up trouble at a critical time.  Congress is considering legislation to toughen rules that regulate school lunch and increase funding for better food. The First Lady just launched her Let’s Move initiative. A school teacher in middle America is garnering gobs of interest for her blog documenting the horrors of U.S. school lunch.

Jamie Oliver reminds me a bit of another successful British TV export. Bob the Builder anyone? Parents may recall the plucky truck driver’s catchphrase: Can we do it? Yes we can!

So, what say you readers: Can the cheeky British chef take on American agribusiness behemoths whose food products fill school freezers across this great land and tackle Byzantine government bureaucracy that threatens to stymie school lunch reform — not to mention address most Americans’ undying love affair with fast food?

Will Jamie Oliver win the Battle of the Bulge?

And can the school food revolution be televised?

Stay tuned.

Fed Up with School Lunch: The Feds Join The Fray

February 9, 2010

Many kids in the U.S. eat half their daily calories at school.

And what a sad, super-size me state of affairs that is in most parts of the country.

Highly processed and packaged food laden with sugar, fat, and salt fill in for whole grains, fruit & veg, and protein — you know, the kind of nutrients that might actually help a child learn and stay lean.

Loads of folks have been working their buns off to try and make schools a healthier place for children to eat. Check out Ann Cooper, the self-styled Renegade Lunch Lady, who revamped school lunch programs in Harlem, NY, Berkeley, CA, and now Boulder, CO. Or visit Slow Food U.S.A.’s Time For Lunch Campaign, or Susan Rubin’s Better School Food.

And yes, for the record, we know we’re spoiled here in Berkeley with our made from scratch, fresh ingredients lunch menu. We also know what’s going on here is the exception, not the rule.

Maybe that can change. Today, as part of the federal government’s “Let’s Move” launch, the First Lady’s much buzzed about campaign against childhood obesity, Michelle Obama announced plans for a renewed effort to raise the quality of school food, feed more kids, and feed them better.

White House watchers know that the administration recently called for an additional $10 billion over 10 years to improve school food and increase participation in school nutrition programs. Congress must green-light this request, of course, before it’s a reality.

More money is needed, and lots of it, but new thinking about what nourishment looks like at lunch is necessary, too. Think less processed, packaged edible food-like substances and more fresh, real food.

These government efforts may seem like too little too late to critics. But they can’t come soon enough for people like Mrs. Q, the anonymous school teacher from an unnamed Illinois public school who has vowed to eat the same school lunch offered to her students throughout 2010.

Granted, Fed Up: The School Lunch Project sounds like another food blog gimmick. Not so. This teacher has hit on a simple but surefire way to draw attention to the deplorable state of school lunch in her workplace, one bad lunch at a time. And she’s perfectly positioned to serve up the inside scoop.

She believes a lousy school lunch has many downsides for kids who:

  • can’t learn as poor quality food doesn’t fuel their bodies and brains
  • feel bad in their bodies after eating this junk food
  • may surmise that no one cares enough to stop feeding them garbage

Mrs. Q wants to keep a low profile; she fears losing her job if she’s outed. But I’ll check in with her towards the end of the school year to find out what conclusions she draws from her school food experiment. For now, you can read her insightful interview with Robin Shreeves at Mother Nature News.

While it’s unlikely that this presumably underpaid teacher will make a small fortune on a book deal or movie rights for her efforts on behalf of school kids, she may get an invite to the White House.

So might Ed Bruske, who could likely walk over, since he hails from D.C. The Slow Cook blogger recently spent a week in an elementary-school kitchen in the nation’s capitol–and it’s not a pretty picture there either.

Bruske documents a daily menu of industrialized school food that’s cheap, fast, and easy to dole out to the masses. Tellingly, kitchen staff spend more time cleaning up and serving than they do prepping or cooking food, writes the former Washington Post reporter in the first of his six-part series.

He also recounts witnessing such edible atrocities as so-called scrambled eggs, “a manufactured product with 11 different ingredients cooked in a factory in Minnesota and delivered 1,100 miles frozen in plastic bags to the District of Columbia.”

Clearly, the Feds have their work cut out for them. Clearly, good folks are keeping tabs on them. Clearly, school lunch made in the U.S.A. needs a massive makeover.

In France, Italy, and Japan, and elsewhere around the globe, children do eat well at midday, notes Deborah Lehmann at School Lunch Talk. Even some students here do, as this child tucking into salad in a New York City school illustrates.

Here’s the big ask: Can Michelle Obama and crew address childhood obesity, school lunch, and food security in all of the communities across the U.S.?

Can she do it?

The survival, literally, of the next generation of American kids may well depend on it.

What say you?

Photo: Chicago school lunch: Corn chips with cheese sauce, French fries, ketchup, pears in syrup, & chocolate milk (Source: American Lunchroom: What Our Kids Are Eating at School: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly)

Bottom Photo: New York school lunch salad eater by Kate Adamick

Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education

January 18, 2010

I was so royally peeved by Caitlin Flanagan’s hatchet job on Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard in her Atlantic piece “Cultivating Failure” that it’s taken me a week to simmer down enough to write about the matter with some decorum.

The snarky article takes a swing at public school gardens everywhere and it made me choke on my chard for professional and personal reasons.

Thankfully, lots of thoughtful –and less riled up — writers rushed to Alice’s defense — and called Caitlin on her strident screed, which begins with a weird fantasy sequence to set up her story. That’s fantasy folks.

If you missed the whole Flanagan flap last week (what one tweeter dubbed Garden Gate) here’s her thesis in bite-size chunks:

  • Public school gardens enslave kids in back-breaking labor and deprive them of valuable instruction time at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley and elsewhere in the nation.
  • Students would be better served spending an additional 90 minutes in algebra or English class rather than tending tomatoes or cooking carrots.
  • The achievement gap that plagues so many public schools would vanish if only Alice Waters would stay in her kitchen and out of our schools.
  • School kids, especially migrant ones, who dig in the dirt will likely wind up illiterate sharecroppers.
  • Folks in the ‘hood can find healthy food if they really want to (in Compton anyway).

Crazy stuff, huh?

I was appalled by the inaccuracies and false assumptions running through Flanagan’s polemic like water through a colander full of freshly-harvested lettuce.

For well-reasoned rebuttals read what slow food chefs, food policy wonks, garden teachers, and sustainable ag advocates had to say over at Civil Eats, Serious Eats, Grist, ChewsWise, Salon, and La Vida Locavore.

Or check out the self-styled Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann Cooper on her blog. The Atlantic even gave their own Corby Kummer a chance to refute much of Flanagan’s inflammatory rantings. And Ruth Reichl spoke.

Meanwhile, my friend and fellow PTA parent Andrew Leonard, also at Salon, penned the wittiest retort with the most humorous header “Rage against the vegetable garden: Caitlan Flanagan declares war against public school foodie propaganda, exposes evil Alice Waters plot.”

Here’s a taste of what Andrew had to say: “When I dismiss Flanagan’s thesis that the time spent tending vegetable gardens is preventing disadvantaged Berkeley kids from getting the rigorous education that would enable them to successfully reach for the American dream as laughably absurd, I could be accused of having an axe to grind, or at least an organic garden row to hoe.”

While many writers weighed in, I have a unique P.O.V. to add to the mix.

For the past five years I’ve been a volunteer in the kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard. No surprise, then, that on a personal note I was completely offended by Flanagan’s mean-spirited characterizations of those of us who donate our time to the program.

When I moved to Berkeley I didn’t know much about the place, other than it was a gown town with a gourmet ghetto and a population that favored sensible footwear. I chose to get to know my new community by helping out on the school food front and Edible was an obvious place to show up.

Clearly Caitlin hasn’t spent much, if any, time in the Edible kitchen, run by head chef teacher Esther Cook since its beginnings 14 years ago.

But I have.  And I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things take place in that cooking classroom, not least of which is the making of fabulous, school-grown, organic feasts.

Here’s what I’ve witnessed:

  • Kids from diverse backgrounds working together to cook food.
  • Middle schoolers who might not excel in conventional classes discovering other talents such as knife skills or cooking chops.
  • Teenagers discussing everyday events, controversial topics, or answering a thought-provoking question over a shared meal.
  • Students absorbing a healthy dose of curriculum along with healthy food.
  • A whole lot of love. As a cynical reporter, I don’t type those words lightly.

While many kids leave the Edible kitchen classroom with recipes, culinary skills, or a new appreciation for a previously unfamiliar dish or piece of produce, they also receive a warm welcome, respect, attention, hugs, and encouragement from Esther and, until recently, former assistant chef teacher Nicole Thomas. (The very capable chef Joyce Lin-Conrad recently stepped into that slot.)

I’ve stayed as long as I have as a volunteer at Edible in large part because of how Esther and Nicole work that kitchen.

Caitlin got this right: There’s seduction going on in that room but it ain’t Alice Waters who’s doing it. Flanagan argues Alice has an “almost erotic power she wields over a certain kind of educated, professional-class, middle-aged woman (the same kind of woman who tends to light, midway through life’s journey, on school volunteerism as a locus of her fathomless energies.)” Please. Enough. Alice is an icon, so such attacks, however misguided, come with the territory.

For the record, I’ve run into the Chez Panisse founder just a few times at ESY, including when Prince Charles came to call. (I served Alice a bowl of bean soup…the woman was hungry…but that’s another story.)

This is what really put me off my food: Flanagan disses what Esther and the rest of the Edible Schoolyard staff does every day, and she’s never even met these folks.

It’s the day-to-day work of teachers like Esther, along with the garden crew Geoff, Ben, and Jonah, that engages students — and volunteers — in the world of where real food comes from.

By the way, the  folks who donate their time to ESY aren’t mostly like me (middle-class, middle-aged, white-as-whipped-cream women).  Currently I volunteer alongside a keen as mustard male chef, my previous partner was a young, Asian, female student. So much for Flanagan’s stereotypes. And, um, we do paid work too.

Oh, and if Ms. Flanagan had done her research, she would know that though Alice is the most famous figure in today’s school-garden movement she was by no means the first, not even in Berkeley, not by a long shot, to introduce kids to amaranth, sour sorrel, and kale.

Just wrong, wrong, wrong on so many counts Caitlin.

Here’s where I do see eye-to-eye with the contrarian with a capital C: California’s public schools face many challenges. I know this first hand as a parent of a 5th grader in a Berkeley public elementary.

Wanna really find ways to fix this problem? How ’bout addressing more funding, smaller classes, or doing away with the anachronistic three-month summer for starters? But blaming the state’s school woes on Alice Waters and her passion for sustainable produce is just silly.

I do need to thank you, though, Caitlin, for giving me the opportunity to write a long overdue mash letter to my friend and mentor Esther Cook.

And it’s not even Valentine’s Day yet, her favorite holiday, natch.

School Produce Stand Feeds Families in Oakland

January 12, 2010

Care to sample a strawberry or scoop up salad greens for supper when you pick up your child from school?

Since school went back last September you can do just that every Tuesday at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland, California.

Led by garden coordinator and parent Delana Toler, a small core of volunteers — some without kids at the school — work a PTA-initiated produce stand for two hours after classes are dismissed in the front yard of this public school, which serves a diverse group of families in the foothills east of Lake Merritt.

Unlike Windrush School farm stand profiled here previously, Glenview’s goal isn’t to raise school funds by selling produce. Instead, this stand serves simply to educate parents, students, and staff about seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables, and offer such produce at competitive prices, thanks to the generosity of Farmer Joe’s, a natural grocery store in the community, which supplies the stand at close to cost. (The grocer has also donated a greenhouse for the school garden.)

Parent volunteer Mark Halmi mans a tasting table to encourage folks to try unfamiliar produce. Last week Mark sauteed Swiss chard with garlic and raisins; a recent tasting made purple potato converts out of many pupils and their parents.

There’s a free piece of fruit to any child who comes equipped with a reusable tote to take produce home. (The PTA received a grant to distribute a Glenview produce bag, complete with an eye-catching mosaic design, above, to every child in the school.) Last-minute gleaners snap up whatever produce is left after most folks have long gone home.

On a visit last Tuesday I picked up a punnet of raspberries for $3.89 (they currently retail for $6.99 at my local grocer), along with rainbow chard, kiwi fruit, Arkansas black apples, and French fingerlings. Delighted that my son has recently discovered potatoes, these creamy tubers were delicious thinly sliced, sauteed & seasoned.

Depending on the season and the variety of local, organic produce available, Delana spends between $300 and $500 to stock the stand each week. And the better part of her Tuesday is consumed with stand duties.

Delana grew up on a farm in Oregon; pretty much everything the family ate came off their land. She sees the school’s vegetable garden and produce stand as a way for kids in more urban settings, including her daughter Dylan, to connect with food and where it comes from.

On a recent visit one teacher opened a window and called out: “I’m ready for you to take my order.” If principal Deitra Atkins can’t stop by the tasting table a sample is delivered to her office. Parents and kids cruise pass as school gets out with bags in tow.

Glenview is one of 10 farmers’ markets opened this fall in Oakland public schools. The other stands, the result of a partnership between the school district and East Bay Asian Youth Center, are mainly located in low-income areas in so-called “food deserts,” parts of the city in which fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find, writes reporter Katy Murphy in a recent story for the Oakland Tribune.

What do you think of such programs operating on school grounds? In a week when school gardens in California have come under attack from some pretty snarky quarters, I’m curious to hear what others have to say about schools getting into the business of growing and selling food on campus.

(For a well-reasoned rebuttal to The Atlantic‘s “Cultivating Failure,” penned by the frequently contrarian Caitlin Flanagan, check out this Civil Eats story by slow food chef Kurt Michael Friese.)

Given my background, perhaps I’m biased, but I see tremendous benefits in an edible education and few downsides to feeding kids fresh food.

What say you?

Photos: Joseph Bansuelo

2010 Harvest Calendar

January 5, 2010

Happy New Year! I wanted to share with my peeps one of my favorite holiday gifts (thanks again Marge), this lovely harvest calendar by artist and organic plant nursery co-owner Helen Krayenhoff.  It’s filled with photos of tempting produce and each month includes a recipe — Picante Cabbage Slaw for January, Bok Choy Sauteed with Garlic & Ginger in March, Chard Frittata for October.

There’s also a list of produce in season each month and helpful tips for storing and handling, such as “never store tomatoes in the fridge, they will lose their flavor.” Sound advice! (Recipes are translated into Spanish and Chinese as well.)

Twenty percent of proceeds from the Celebrating Our Local Harvest Calendar pictured goes to Oakland school gardening programs; some schools, including one I’ll profile here soon, sell the calendars as a school fundraiser. They’d make a mouth-watering gift for folks in the Bay Area and beyond.

For the past few years, those of us with kids in Berkeley public schools have received a cheery food calendar sent home in September. The BUSD calendar includes school lunch menus, recipes from cooking teachers, and luscious produce pics by Terri Hill.

The calendars are intended to encourage family cooking, jaunts to the farmers’ market, and community building — along with a healthy appreciation for eating well.

Above my desk The Organic Kitchen Garden 2010 Calendar, by sustainable gardening author Ann Lovejoy with bold produce shots by Robin Bachtler Cushman, reminds me how fortunate we are to have so much fresh food available. The BUSD and local harvest calendars grace the walls of my kitchen. Our little home is bursting with ideas & images for eating lots of local goodies from our friendly farmers’ markets.

Wishing you, dear readers, a bountiful 2010 as well.

P.S.: Just received a copy of The Edible Schoolyard‘s Calendar of Values (thank you Marsha), filled with inspiring photos by Bob Carrau and words to live by. Makes for a lovely journal. Fittingly, the first entry: abundance.

Recipe Guide Giveaway: My Lunch Box

September 21, 2009

my.lunch.boxIf you’re like many parents, a few weeks into the new school year you’re probably desperate to come up with some different lunch ideas that your kid will eat, don’t take too long to make, and cover the nutritional bases.

Help is on its way. Check out my recent blog post which includes suggestions and links for spicing things up on the school lunch front. Since I penned that post, I’ve discovered a couple of other resources you may want to look at. Eating Well put together a big back-to-school recipe guide, including creative ways to add brain-fueling foods such as oatmeal, yogurt, and beans. And in partnership with Whole Foods, school lunch reform advocate Ann Cooper launched thelunchbox.org, an online toolbox for improving lunches served up by school districts across the country.

If you’re after more lunch box recipes then this contest is for you. Share your most successful school lunch idea in the comment space below and you’ll be in the running to win a free My Lunch Box: 50 Recipes for Kids to Take to School by Hilary Shevlin Karmilowicz, a former chef, and current cooking teacher and mom, with illustrations by Rebecca Bradley.

Like a lot of products marketed by Chronicle Books, My Lunch Box comes in a clever (or gimmicky, depending on your perspective) package.  (Full disclosure here: I’m the author of City Walks: Sydney, one of Chronicle’s guides in the popular travel deck series.) In this instance, the material is presented in the form of a recipe card box, not a traditional cookbook. It’s the sort of thing that could easily fit on a kitchen counter for when you or your child need a little lunchtime inspiration.

Inside you’ll find new spins on old standbys like Swirlin’ Twirlin’ Pinwheels (think PB&Js in easy-to-eat shapes) and Fruity Cheese Kabobs, along with some unexpected offerings such as Fill-‘Er-Up Frittata, which calls for asparagus,  and Zucchini Cupcakes (with avocado, which apparently keeps these wholesome treats ultra-moist).

One quibble: There’s an emphasis on short-cuts — canned beans, store-bought salad dressings, hummus, and salsa — but there’s nothing to stop you or your kid from making these items from scratch, if you have the time and desire.  The kit also comes with 15 blank recipe cards for family favorites and a bunch of stickers that say things like “Delish” and “I made this on ______,” which may help keep kids engaged in the lunch-packing process. Read a review on Epicurious.

Feeling lucky? Submit your lunch tip below by 10 p.m. PST on Monday September 28 and I’ll choose an innovative offering as the prize winner. Just think, only nine more months of making school lunches to go!

Update: Thanks everyone for chiming in with lunch box tips — including notes, cutting food into appealing shapes, and finding ways to keep lunch food cool dominated the suggestions, see below for details. The My Lunch Box guide goes to Karen, who weighed in with the idea of packing couscous in her kid’s lunch. I’m curious if Karen’s daughter eats it unadorned or if she has a recipe for this wholesome grain she’d like to share with us.

Karen, send your contact details to me at: sarahhenry0509 [at] gmail.com so I can ship out the lunch guide to you.

Thanks again to everyone for entering this contest and check back during October for another cookbook giveaway.

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

September 18, 2009

riverdog.farm.farmerPhoto of farmer Ramon Mojica taken by Brian Lee, courtesy of Riverdog Farm

Finally, a government policy I can dig. And based on such a simple premise: Know where your food comes from and who produces it.

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, a new federal initiative which culminated in Michelle Obama shopping for greens at a farmers’ market right outside the White House yesterday. (Critics sniff that there are already three farmers’ markets within walking distance of the Obamas.)

It’s easy to be skeptical. The U.S.D.A. supporting small farmers, sustainable practices, and local food? The same agency that has traditionally backed Big Ag? But the folks behind the government’s campaign say it is intended to inspire a national conversation on where food comes from and how it ends up on the plate. Bring it on.

An integral part of the initiative is a farm-school program that would make it easier for schools to use federal funding to buy fresh fruit and veg from local farms.  The agency even has its own farm-to-school tactical teams, set up to scope out school cafeterias and find ways to get more local food into students’ mouths, according to an announcement this week by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

alhambra.valley.farm.pearsI’ve decided to take the campaign to heart and make a concerted effort to get to know the folks who bring us our food.  Yesterday, at a farmers’ market in Concord, an outer East Bay suburb, I quizzed vendors who grow divinely delicious dry-farmed Bartlett pears about their farming techniques.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area: This Saturday Pie Ranch in Pescadero, on the relatively undeveloped coast south of San Francisco, hosts its work day and barn dance. (If you can’t make it tomorrow, these events are scheduled every third Saturday of the month and folks are welcome at other times as well.) Tomorrow volunteers will help harvest potatoes, dry beans, tomatoes, and berries.

On October 3, Full Belly Farm holds its annual celebration of rural life at its Hoes Down Harvest Festival in the abundant Capay Valley. And on October 18, about a mile away from Full Belly, Riverdog Farm hosts a pumpkin patch picking and meal sharing under walnut trees. Or check out the Family Farm Days at Slide Ranch, which boasts an organic garden with dramatic ocean views and farm animals too, near Muir Beach.

These events are hands-on, kid-friendly, and encourage eating.  Feel free to chime in with your own favorite get-to-know-a-farmer event. To learn more about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, check out Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s YouTube video or submit your own food-related videos or comments about the campaign via email: KnowYourFarmer@usda.gov.

Photo: Darryl and Judy Pereira, Alhambra Valley Farms, courtesy of Contra Costa Certified Farmers’ Markets

Beating the Brown Bag Blues a.k.a. Taking the Stress Out of School Lunch

September 10, 2009

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The new school year brings earlier mornings for some, the transition to different teachers, curriculum, or kids for most, and — the bane of many parents’ existence — packing a lunch every day.

For those of you whose child’s school cranks out edible fare — and your kid willingly eats it — good luck to you. For the rest of us, September rolls around and a collective groan can be heard across the country. One wag, 5 second rule food blogger Cheryl Sternman Rule, tweeted recently that she’d rather stick a hot poker in her eye than think about making school lunch.

Sing it sister. Do you need help figuring out what to pack for your precious offspring so he has the fuel he needs to fire on all cylinders during the school day? Looking for some fresh options to add to the old standbys? Does your child routinely trash, trade, or trek home the school lunch you spent time and money putting together?

Have no fear, help is on the way. What follows, ten tips to take the tedium out of school lunch.  If you have your own tricks, do share, we can all use novel ideas to spice things up on the school food front. Here’s to a lunch beyond soggy PB&J sammies.

1.  Keep it simple No need to whip yourself into a foodie frenzy first thing in the morning — or late at night. Wholegrain bread or crackers, chunks of cheddar, grapes, and celery strips make a perfectly respectable lunch. Ditto hummus, pita wedges, and carrot and cuc sticks. Sliced apples (tossed in lime juice to retain their color) and a scoop of peanut or other nut butter is another easy option, as are lettuce wraps (baby gem or romaine lettuce leaves filled with a favorite filling such as cottage cheese or guacamole). Nothing wrong with wholegrain bagels, cream cheese, and tomato wedges either. Nori (dried seaweed) squares, tofu cubes, and rice balls can also do the job.

2. Think it through Some foods, no matter how much your kid loves ’em, don’t survive until lunchtime. Few kids fancy limp salad (but keeping the dressing in a separate container can eliminate this problem). Boiled eggs may work well for some, others may be overpowered by their odor, but a slice of frittata could suffice. Cheese that starts to melt when it isn’t meant to isn’t too appetizing either. If a food is supposed to be cold, include an ice pack. If you’re sending a dish that needs to be heated, such as bean soup or a veggie stew, invest in a thermos that holds the heat.

3. Make it visually appealing Appearances do matter when it comes to food, and some kids (and adults) simply won’t eat stuff that isn’t presented in an attractive manner. The bento box is a big hit with the junior set. My child loves his Laptop Lunchbox, in part, because the food comes in neat little packages in portions that whet, rather than overwhelm, the appetite. I’m no fan of fashioning food into fun shapes or cutesy animal characters, but it can help if lunch looks easy on the eye. A fruit kebab may be more enticing than a plain, whole apple.

4. Look to leftovers Your child chowed down last night’s pesto pasta, dug into the Asian noodle salad, or slurped up lots of tomato soup. Chances are that delicious dish can do double duty for lunch the next day. Bonus points if the meal includes protein, whole grains, and veg. That’s not much of an ask: It’s simple to slip, say, some grated carrot or frozen peas into that mac & cheese.

5. Mix it up The same sandwiches every day can get old, even for the most rigid eaters. Likewise, a week’s worth of leftovers. Try something new — or a different spin on an old standard — to keep everyone interested in eating. Make breakfast for lunch every once in a while for fun. Pack separate containers with granola, yogurt, and berries and let your kid stir the trio together at lunchtime. If your child usually has cold cuts for lunch, send a thermos of soup or noodles on a chilly day for a change. Or just skip the sandwich bread and substitute a wholewheat wrap or tortilla for a twist.

6. Get your kid involved Newsflash, folks, I made my own lunch starting in kindergarten and still bear the scars — from kids laughing at my inexpertly cut sandwiches —  to prove it (cue violin). Honestly, though, those of us with picky eaters in particular really need to bring ’em on board at every step of the lunch-making process, we’re talking planning, prepping, and packing.  My boy and I do this and it’s a bonding experience (don’t gag), gives me insights into what he’s into eating at any given time, and helps take some of the angst out of the whole exercise. Ups your chances of the chow actually getting eaten as well. I’d have never known that quinoa salad would be such a hit at lunch if my son hadn’t suggested it one morning.

7. Choose familiar foods School lunch is not the time to introduce new foods, bring back previously rejected produce, or make the case for your kid to expand his palate. You just want him to get the nutrients he needs to succeed at school. That means some protein to keep the brain sharp, complex carbs for energy, and fruit & veg for all the health benefits vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-loaded produce offers.  Maybe you’ll learn, say, that salad is more likely to get consumed if you mix some walnuts, cranberries, and mandarin segments with those greens.

8. Cut yourself some slack Let’s face it, we’ve all packed a loser lunch at one time or another. Don’t beat yourself up about it if your child brings it back or complains. Or — perhaps worse — loves that a treat filled in for some real food. No matter. As in other areas of life, there’s always tomorrow to make amends. Onward. (And, yes, yes, the occasional treat is cool but cookies every day is certainly not.)

9. Find ideas among friends Plagiarism is allowed on the playground. Ask parents what they pack for their kid. Check out what you child’s friends have in their lunchbox. Scope out snack options in popular rotation. You’re bound to uncover a few new items to add to your repertoire. I picked up popcorn from one peer, trail mix from another.

10. Search for school lunch resources There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, clip and save ideas and leave them in a handy place, when you — or your finicky foodie — need some inspiration.

Here’s a few to get you started:

my.lunch.boxCheck back later this month for a contest giveaway for My Lunch Box: 50 Recipes For Kids to Take to School

School’s in Session, Time for Lunch Lessons

September 8, 2009

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.

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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?