Open thread: School lunch reformers

I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to interact with many different professionals devoting their working lives to changing school lunches. From what I can tell everyone wants change, but there seems to be a lot of fragmentation within the school food reform movement. There are many different viewpoints from chefs wanting to cook from scratch in every school to others merely desiring an increase in funds for school lunches. Who is your favorite reformer? Can we find middle ground to gain more momentum? Where do we start? (I’ll answer later in the comments — we have limited internet connectivity today…)

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15 thoughts on “Open thread: School lunch reformers

  1. Mrs.Q,
    You are spot on. I think this thread will show that there is a disconnect in the vision versus how to get it done. We all have opinions. My biggest gripe is the Food Pyramid and how certain foods = their supposed counterpart on the food pyramid and the role the FDA plays in making school lunch food so stinky. How can a tater tot be considered a vegetable, it's so skewed.

    I believe with enough energy and funds this problem can be tackled. I hope the gov't will do their part in the reform.

  2. The thing is that a middle ground can only be found through communication and I don't see much of the going on publicly. You have the convince the "whole food" and the "slow food" movements to put that mantra on the backburner and join the "more money for lunches" group. Because the schools can't make the switches they need to without more money. Then you have the take this new "more money for lunches" movement and start talks and mutual negotiations with the broader "more money for schools" groups, which are themselves fragmented amongst people wanting to focus on: salaries, textbooks, libraries, buildings, etc. Then the food part needs to siphon off as many people from the money movement as possible. Then you need to get support of the teachers' unions across the country. You have to reach out and try to gain the support of American Association of School Administrators and National Association of Elementary School Principals. You have to reach out to health advocacy groups that currently don't have a focus on school lunches and convince them that this is a cause worth fighting for. At the same same that you do all of this you need to attract paying members, volunteer lobbyists, a t least one professional lobbyist to train the volunteers, reach out to people with deep pockets for funding, go after people on TV to promote your message. It's a huge task. Until someone within the movement will stop what they're doing and start forming an umbrella group WITH power this won't go anywhere. And I mean a huge umbrella group. One that would count as members the School Nutrition Association and the PCRM's Healthy School Lunches. I' thinking along the lines of a TCKTCKTCK, but of the school lunch movement.

  3. I'm surprised the Academy of Pediatrics isn't more involved (or perhaps they are, but I don't know). If there are a group of doctors that make recommendations about the health of kids, it seems they should be a great resource in creating guidelines for healthy meals for kids.

  4. I was fortunate enough to attend a private school where a catering company was hired to provide our breakfasts and lunches. Yes, the food (as well as the tuition) was more expensive than what the public schools were providing, but it was quality food. On days when I didn't bring my lunch from home, my mom could trust that I was getting a healthy and balanced meal at school.

    I used to enjoy reading this blog, but as time goes on and I keep looking at the photos you post of the lunches you're eating, I'm getting more and more grossed out. I can't believe some of the items in those lunches are considered fruit and vegetables. Some of it I wouldn't even call food.

    Jamie Oliver has shown that good, wholesome food made from scratch can be done on a budget. Quality meals do not have to be something reserved solely for the privileged. Hopefully, our government will not only realize healthy bodies mean healthy minds but also act on that message and change how schools feed their students. Not only do our teachers need better pay (a well-deserved one at that, for they are responsible for molding the minds of our country's children), but our students need more funding that goes into their education AND their lunches. Where this money will come from, I don't really have an answer for that. I'll leave it to the economists to figure that one out. But surely, there's money that can be moved around, right? Or maybe that's wishful thinking… But I think it's clear that what manner of reform we partake in now has a huge impact on our nation's future.

    Also, some parents need a wake-up call that will push them to step up to the plate and set an example in the home of what it means to be healthy. Because education, after all, begins in the home. I grew up eating healthy foods and I (for the most part) carried that habit with me when I left the house.

  5. Can one of the international readers share the school nutritional standards for their country? I think it would help if we could contact our school board and congress person and be able to reference an actual standard. I don't think much will happen if we call up our congress person to tell them that we want more nutritious school lunches.

    How many high schools out there have an open campus that allows students to leave school grounds for lunch? The high school that I went to had (and still has) an open campus. Many student walk to "the strip" and eat lunch at Mc D's or some other fast food joint. Hell, these days I bet most students have their own cars. Should schools have a closed campus? That would make it easier to control the type of lunch that they eat.

    Last question/point – How do we address people who think that we're being a bunch of "food police" and that it should be the parent's choice if they want to feed their kids junk? Do you honestly think that showing them a bunch of statistics will change their mind? There's a bunch of people out there who don't agree with global warming dispite a mountain of evidenve.

  6. Would it be feasible to convince school boards to not participate in the government's school lunch program? That would give them the flexibility to serve what they want without all of the silly regulations. Of course, it goes without saying that we'd want them to serve healthier food. My school district (Chesterfield County, VA) does this at the high school level. The elementary level participates in the federal school lunch program. Maybe if enough schools "boycotted" the federal program and started their own program that it would serve as an imputus for change???

  7. My favorite reformer is the Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Ann Cooper.

    I believe what is needed is to wrestle the school lunch program out of the hands of the USDA and put into the hands of the CDC. The CDC may not want that responsibility, but they would have to do a better job.

    The other day Dr. Sue Rubin (another of my fav reformers) and I were saying that something big was going to have to happen for there to be a tipping point.

    I'm thinking it may have to be a huge depression where companies can not afford to ship real food(commodity cheese and beef) across the country to be made into frozen fast food that is then shipped back across the country to the schools.

    The worst thing is that what is fed to the children in the schools is actually because of politics.
    Politics have no place in what goes into children's bellies. Big business spends lots of money lobbying. This isn't a Republican or Democrat thing it is a money thing.
    Evidently Jamie O was on Oprah the other day.
    I think maybe Dr. Sue and Chef Ann should be on next. Lots of people watch, and the possibility of lots of people getting involved in tipping the balance would work in favor of this movement.

  8. The school lunch problem is messy. Some people have opted to work inside the system whereas others have taken things in their own hands and work outside of it. I don't know which way I would go. I want the corporations out of the schools because I distrust them. But for schools like mine they might be the only option (small kitchen, large school) as much as I hate to say that. I don't have all the answers: actually I have few answers. All I know is that change must happen.

    My favorite reformers are Chef Ann, Jamie Oliver, Chef Cipriano, Susan Rubin, etc. I'm sure I'm missing some. And I know there are still many unsung heroes of the movement that I don't know about. By the way I highly respect Mendy Heaps and all the teachers who are concerned.

    There needs to be a coalition of "movers and shakers" to do some big things. A meeting of the minds baby! I'll attend too.

  9. Okay here is my favorite: Stephanie Raugust at Pacific Elementary School in Davenport California. She has led a school lunch program that eats mostly organic made from scratch lunches prepared by the students themselves. The benefits are enormous. They learn math, science, nutrition, responsibility and life skills. It is incredible and Stephanie has been doing this program for 25 years! This is the reason that my kid goes to this K-6 Public Elementary.

  10. I think it's just important that we maintain a realist view. Fixing school lunches is the first step in a long marathon we'll have to take. Coming from Houston, currently ranking #2 in the country's list of Fattest Cities, I've seen firsthand that bad habits start early. If there was a way for us to show children through school lunches that healthy choices don't mean yuck or blech, I think we'd start the ball rolling. The way my kids' school does it is really smart. They have colored dots that correspond to the types of food they are allowed to purchase in the lunch room. Green means anything: hot lunch, snacks, desserts, sodas, junk foods, candies, chips, etc. The orange dot means healthy choice options: hot lunch, salad, milk or water only, baked chips, whole wheat cookies…etc. The white dot is hot lunch and milk/water only. I think that's a great way to make change, however my kids (orange dots) have told me that sometimes the orange and white dotters get frustrated watching their fellow classmates eat all the good stuff. My fear is that those kids will run off to college and gain 20 lbs as they eat all the "forbidden foods". All in all, I think education is important here, which is why Michelle Obama has alot of my respect. Teach the children WHY it's important to eat healthy and then show them HOW. Michelle is educating kids on nutrition and knowing what you eat and is showin them how to do it and how to even grow their own foods. She makes it interactive, which we know is key with kids, Anyways…just a few thoughts…

  11. I just watched an interesting speech Alton Brown gave as a father rather than as a chef/celebrity. I found him so compelling that I ended up writing about it. Feel free to take a look, it'll be easier for me than rewriting a synopsis of it here. Also, I posted the link to view him speaking.

  12. I think the most important things we are doing is blogging, writing, and making a fuss. My favorite reformers are these people! They get people to really THINK about what is happening in school cafeterias. They've opened a lot of eyes.
    That's where it starts…thinking about it. Things have been bad for a long time. School lunches in most places have never been very healthy so we joked about them and kept right on feeding them to kids. But now we know better. For many folks, the blogs, the articles, etc. have made them realize it's not funny anymore.
    Starting point? I guess it's different for every school. At mine right now – I just want the junk food window to go away! I know this isn't a lofty goal, but it's a start.
    Middle ground? I don't know – that's incredibly tough to answer. Seems to me if we just hand out more money and don't make some strict guidelines for schools to follow…need I say more?

  13. I don't think the problem is solved by organic (though I wouldn't eat anything but in the US having read the food standards for meat) or slow food but by recreating what is already made with better produce and from scratch, and by making things simpler. Why is there not a reimbursable cold lunch option? Why can't kids pick up a sandwich from a salad/sandwich bar, some sliced fruit and veg, some cheese and crackers? The split between home lunch bringers and school lunch buyers is maybe 50/50 here, but cold lunches are normally available to buy too.

    In the UK, we also do not make children drink milk. It is available but not mandatory. Most children are encouraged to drink as much water as they want to stay hydrated. Water is provided with jugs and cups, or they can refill their own bottles. Being hydrated is equated with better learning and most schools encourage children to drink water (not soda or anything sugary or artificially sweetened) in class as well. Most schools (over 90%) serve on plastic trays or ceramic plates with real silverware including knives. There has never been a reported incident of silverware being used maliciously against another student. A student who is going to be violent, will more often than not have their own weapon that is more scary than a butter knife. Do not fear giving your children butter knives in school to learn to properly eat their food.

    So, as I have written far more than I expected, I think we should return to simple food and recipes, that are made as much from scratch as possible (e.g. soup, salad, sandwiches, jacket potatoes, stews etc) then tackle the quality of the ingredients when money becomes more available. Silverware and plates as standards, recess as a priority (and physical education programmes), access to unlimited water (and less of a push on milk, let alone sugary milk), a daily vegetarian option (as we should all eat much less meat). Free fruit for younger children, and the education that goes with it. Home economics for older children. A teacher or lunch lady (or volunteer parent) who walks around the lunch room to encourage eating, and less wastage (this happened throughout my school life, as per Jamie's example. It is normal for most British children to have to ask if they have eaten enough before they can leave the table. If a child brings in lunch, they too must have their lunch progress looked at to make sure they don't just eat a tiny amount or their candy. This really encourages you to eat enough, to eat the right things, and to try something new, as well as interacting with adults, and having anything new on your plate identified).

    I will stop now as I believe you may be bored of my rambling. Sorry 🙂

  14. It's not an either/or situation, in my view. We need healthy food in the schools, and we need more funding for the school lunch program.

    Every one I read and know of in the movement to get healthy, whole foods, organically-grown foods, and local foods into the school lunch program is deeply committed to increasing funding for the program as well.

    They are the ones who alert me when an important measure, amendment or bill is in front of Congress or the Senate, or even a committee. They keep me informed, so I can write intelligent letters to my congressional representatives and senators and ask them to vote for increased funding for school lunches, which really hasn't gone up in thirty years.

    My favorite reformer, because she's proven that healthier food can save school districts money while improving children's well-being, is Chef Ann Cooper of the Lunchbox program. If I were you, I'd start looking at how she did it in Colorado and go from there.

  15. I'd like to add Abbie Nelson and the whole team at VT-FEED to this list of great reformers. The work they've been doing in Vermont for over 10 years is outstanding, and your blog (from a school not unlike the one in my old neighborhood in Chicago, maybe even the same one) only deepens my gratitude to them.

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