Posts Tagged ‘food revolution’

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?

What’s On Your Plate? Food for Thought for All Ages

March 31, 2010

While we’re on the subject of kids, school, and food this week, here’s a shout out for a film I’m going to have to find room for on my top ten food documentaries list.

What’s On Your Plate? features two New York City middle school students, Sadie Rain Hope-Gund and Safiyah Kai Russell Riddle, taking viewers on a food tour that’s as entertaining as it is educational as they set out on a mission to figure out where their meals come from.

The 76-minute film is part of the current Whole Foods Let’s Retake Our Plates film series and has run on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green. Click here for screenings and watch a trailer here.

This doco is directed by veteran social justice film-maker Catherine Gund, mom to one of the budding food activists. The dynamic diet-conscious duo spend a year in front of the camera as they explore their place in the food chain, and ask questions about where the food they eat comes from, how it’s grown, and how far it travels from the farm to their fork.

Pitching this flick to a Hollywood agent you’d sum it up as two urban Nancy Drews meets Food, Inc., as The Atlantic did.

The girl guides talk to friends, family, food activists, farmers, food sellers — and each other — as they investigate issues around health, environment, nutrition, food security, and access. The interviews with politicians and public school food officials are classic. The break beat poet is fresh and funky.

It’s packed with so many teachable moments in bite-sized bits that I suspect it will engage many kids in a conversation about eating. And the tone is matter-of-fact and non-judgmental. We learn Sadie has genetically-linked high cholesterol controlled by diet, and that Safiyah’s family is vegetarian.

On a recent tour of a middle school in my neck of the woods, I saw a sign for a class called “What’s On Your Plate?” and I wonder if it’s based on the film’s 64-page companion curriculum guide on school food, health and access, and local food. (It’s spring break in Berkeley this week, so I can’t confirm).

I hope so. What’s On Your Plate? is a terrific teaching tool, told in the cadence of 11-year-old kids. Pretty savvy and sophisticated multi-racial city kids with deep connections on the food front. But kids nonetheless. Concepts like high fructose corn syrup get equal billing with a popular edible food-like product known as Funyuns.

The film works best when we meet people the tweens find organically. Like the folks who front the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in their area, the Latino Angel family farmers, who struggle to make a living on the land in upstate New York, and the school dad who had a heart attack that proved a wake-up call for his family’s eating habits.

I was less jazzed to see the typical talking heads of the good food movement. But I’m a somewhat jaded adult and many kids won’t know Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, both of whom, to be fair, bring important ideas to the table.

The film ends, fittingly, with a wrap party where food plays a central role. There’s even cute animation and cool music too.

Less scary than Food, Inc., less sensational than Food Revolution, and less sad than both these edible exposes, What’s On Your Plate? does what children have always done best. It offers hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Who knew you could grow raspberries in a window box in Manhattan?  You can! The kids even help the Angel family organize a CSA to fund the farm. Clearly, the youngest generation of edible entrepreneurs can bring about change in their communities.

A good choice for family movie night, I’m looking forward to watching it with my own 11 year old. I know he’s going to love that school science experiment involving marshmallows, walnuts, and those Funyuns.

Playful, positive, personal, and political without being preachy, What’s On Your Plate? is worth watching. So kudos to the kids and the movie-making mom, who made a wise decision to let the children tell the story.

Photos: Courtesy Aubin Pictures