You Can Change Your School’s Food

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The Slow Cook

You Can Change Your School’s Food

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

So, how much time do you have to change the food your school serves?

I wasn’t even paying attention to the food at my daughter’s elementary school here in the District of Columbia until I had an opportunity to spend a week as an observer in the kitchen. Being a former newspaper reporter, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I’d stumbled into one of the most compelling stories of our times.

At the same time an epidemic of childhood obesity threatens to rob a generation of its health and bankrupt the nation with a $147 billion annual tab for weight-related illnesses, agribusiness and corporate food processors are making out like bandits. How could the federal government allow this to happen? Perhaps we’re all to blame for not paying closer attention. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is actually complicit in the trend toward processed junk served as food in school. How can that be?

Yet, for all its faults, the school meal program is one of the most successful federal social endeavors of all time, right up there with Medicaid and Social Security. It started in the Great Depression as a means to help farmers sell their surplus, then morphed in the 1960s into an anti-hunger crusade. Now some see school food as a teachable moment in which the first lady grows a vegetable garden at the White House and kids learn life lessons in how to eat better and stay healthy.

The problem, of course, is that school food operations nationwide have been allowed to slip into a state of perpetual poverty, making them easy prey for corporate vendors and food processors. Meanwhile, our first inclination is to heap more government standards onto the program in the mistaken belief that we can somehow legislate our way out of this mess without providing the money schools need to serve healthy food.

What I’ve learned over a period of months photographing school meals, blogging about them and traveling around the country investigating the school meals program is that while the movement for healthier school food has clearly identified where cafeteria meals go wrong, it has failed to articulate a clear message about what a healthy school meal should look like and how it’s to be paid for. Too many Americans see this movement as “elitist” and unnecessary. They need to be convinced otherwise. In our current economic and political climate, moms need talking points they can take to their PTA meetings and win with.

For starters, the trend toward sugary, processed foods in school has been in place some 30 years now and the results are clear for anyone to see: it’s killing our kids. Sugar, sodas and junk foods made of refined grains are directly responsible for an epidemic of obesity and related diseases: diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis and a surge in cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children. If this continues, the nation will go bankrupt trying to pay its ever-growing health care bills and we won’t have enough healthy young people to defend the country. This can’t go on.

The first order of business should be to remove unhealthy foods from schools, which makes it vitally important that Congress pass the Child Nutrition Act re-authorization currently before it. This legislation would require the USDA to adopt standards based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine that would lower calorie requirements for school meals, meaning schools would no longer be so pressed to use sugar as a cheap calorie boost. The IOM has also recommended bigger helpings of vegetables and whole grains that will help push sugar off the menu. In addition, this legislation would give the USDA for the first time authority to remove all non-nutritious foods from schools, meaning not just in the subsidized meal line but in vending machines, snack bars, school stores and a la carte lines. Parents need to contact their Congressmen and demand passage of this legislation immediately.

On the home front, every school district is required to have a wellness committee and wellness committees can control which foods are served in school. Parents should insist on a seat on their local wellness committee and participate in the deliberations.

In addition, federal law requires that any school district that hires a professional food service management company must establish a committee of parents, students and others to advise on the menu. Parents should insist that these committees be established and that they be given a seat on them.

Where flavored milk is concerned, parents need to stand up against it and the dairy industry that is trying to scare schools into serving it. So far, the dairy industry is winning the propaganda war on chocolate and other sugary milk drinks by suggesting kids will collapse in a heap of osteoporosis and rickets if they are denied access to these products. In fact, research shows that physical exercise–not milk–is the best way to build strong bones and that exposure to sunlight is the best way to get Vitamin D. The dangers of sugar–and teaching kids to expect sugar with their food–far outweigh the benefits of drinking chocolate milk. Schools need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and should be trying harder–along with parents–to teach kids to drink milk responsibly.

The best and easiest way to teach kids how to appreciate fresh produce may be to install salad bars in every cafeteria. As any parent can tell you, kids generally aren’t crazy about vegetables and are especially turned off by vegetabless cooked to death–the kind they most often see in the cafeteria. Many prefer their produce closer to a raw state, and they can get downright enthusiastic about creating their own meals. But salad bars are an additional expense. Parents need to work with their local schools to see how salad bars can be adapted to individual situations. There’s nothing to prevent local PTAs from raising the funds schools need to install salad bars.

Finally, local and state governments can contribute more financially to making school meal finances healthier. Here in the District of Columbia, a recently passed “Healthy Schools Act” makes our city one of the most generous in the country. The school system already supports the meal program with nearly $7 million in deficit food services spending every year, 25 percent of the budget. D.C. schools banned soft drinks in 2006, and serve free breakfast to any student who wants one. “Healthy Schools” upped the ante by picking up the tab for all students eligible for reduced-price meals. To the federal subsidies already in place, it added 10 cents for every breakfast, 10 cents for every lunch and a five-cent bonus for every lunch meal that contains a locally-grown component.

D.C. parents were involved in the drafting of the “Healthy Schools” legislation. We also were instrumental–along with a newly hired food services director who shares our views–in removing flavored milk, sugary cereals and breakfast treats like Pop-Tarts and Giant Goldfish Grahams from the menu. That’s the power of our daily blog–Better D.C. School Food–and proof of what Margaret Mead said: Never underestimate what a few determined individuals can accomplish.

Still, our schools do not have an overarching plan to teach nutrition as part of the regular curriculum. We’ve recently formed a Healthy D.C. School Food Committee to address that and to lobby for other changes that advance the aims of the “Healthy Schools Act.”

So don’t just complain about the food at school. Get busy and be part of the solution. And by all means keep blogging.

For more great advice about what parents can do to change the school food landscape, visit The Lunch Tray blog.

Ed Bruske

Ed Bruske, a former Washington Post reporter, now tends his “urban farm” about a mile from the White House in the District of Columbia. He was a co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners and lectures on composting, kitchen gardening, food preservation, and other related topics. He sits on the advisory board of the D.C. Farm to School Network and contributes to food policy blogs such as Grist and La Vida Locavore, as well as the gardening blog Garden Rant. He is a contributing editor for the food access blog, DC Food for All.

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