Fed Up with School Lunch: The Feds Join The Fray

by Sarah Henry on February 9, 2010 · 26 comments

in civil eats,food politics,kids & food,school food

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

This post also appears on Civil Eats.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Margulis February 9, 2010 at 10:31 pm

She’s got to be able to do it. We all know not to put the wrong kind of gas in our cars because they will not go. But that’s what we are doing to our children. Feeding them unhealthy food that makes them unable to think, concentrate, or grow properly. It’s insane. It has got to stop.

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marthaandme February 10, 2010 at 4:56 am

I am SO glad to Mrs. Obama paying attention to this. This year they installed slushie machines at my son’s cafeteria! How absurd is that?

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Sarah Henry February 10, 2010 at 8:32 am

Oh my, seriously? Is that even legal?

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Susan Rubin February 10, 2010 at 5:32 am

I’m thrilled that Michelle Obama has taken a stand with her “Let’s Move” initiative. The good news is that the First Lady gets it: Food is central to all of our issues. Energy, environment, economy and even our national security. It’s not about calories and fat grams.

So far it doesn’t seem to be a Shrek re-run. Let’s hope it stays that way. We’ve got to keep our eyes on big Ag, they are the foxes in the henhouse!

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Alisa Bowman February 10, 2010 at 5:38 am

Finally ketchup will no longer be considered a vegetable! I really hope Michele gets some stuff done. And kudos to that teacher for bringing awareness to this issue!

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Eleanor Hoh (WokStar) February 10, 2010 at 7:25 am

I grew up in Hong Kong and my mother used to bring us Tiffin lunches of fresh home cooked foods and on days she couldn’t, we ate out at local restaurants, usually noodle soups or one-dish meals. So, I count myself very lucky vs hearing horror stories about school lunches in the west.

I have been teaching healthy wok cooking for nearly 15 years and constantly hear from parents how their kids won’t eat their veggies. After watching how easy and simple stir frying veggies can be, parents are amazed how their kids are now really enjoying crispy, crunchy, colorful stir fried veggies!

Here’s a wonderful and successful solution which can be tackled at a local level, involve parents who are good cooks to cook at their kid’s school! Written by Miami food blogger, Paula Nino:
http://mangoandlime.net/2009/09/02/a-healthy-school-lunch/

Here are my tips: when kids prep and cook with you, they’re more likely to eat what they cook!

Instead of frozen, prepackaged foods getting trucked, get parents involved locally. The benefits are huge with small changes. It doesn’t have to go from one extreme (bad food) to organic expensive, labor intensive prep and logistics (good food).

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Sarah Henry February 10, 2010 at 8:36 am

Hi Eleanor,

Love those Tiffin tins; your school lunches sound pretty good. And you make valid points about change and getting kids interested in eating their greens.

I’ll check out the mango and lime post, sounds intriguing. Thanks for the tip.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart February 10, 2010 at 7:31 am

My Grandma was a school lunch lady when I was a kid, and the stories she told then were pretty bad. I cannot imagine how much worse it is now.

A) I hope the teacher succeeds.
B) I hope she *does* get a big book and movie deal.

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Sarah Henry February 10, 2010 at 8:37 am

Roxanne, wouldn’t it be great if your A and B come true? Time will tell.

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Christine February 10, 2010 at 9:49 am

Oh, I am so glad to hear about this. I hope it’s successful. Our children were in Japan for the last four years and yes, the school lunches there were pretty amazing compared to what you get here.

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Sarah Henry February 10, 2010 at 11:59 am

I’d love to hear some specifics, Christine, if you’d be willing to share.

I keep imagining steaming bowls filled with udon noodles and loads of veggies or miso soup dotted with tofu, shiitake mushrooms, and nori.

I’m making myself hungry! It must be lunch time.

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MyKidsEatSquid February 10, 2010 at 11:29 am

What’s surprised me this year is that there was a lot of talk at the elementary school level about healthy foods–and the cafeteria did offer good choices, including a salad bar but when it comes to the middle school all those food lessons seem wasted. There’s pizza and fries available for lunch EVERY day.

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Sarah Henry February 10, 2010 at 11:56 am

Oh, that’s a bummer. Is it worth saying something to the food service folks?

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Cheryl@5secondrule February 10, 2010 at 11:49 am

I just got off a group conference call about school lunch with Sec’y of Ag Tom Vilsack, and I’ve got to say, as someone who has been very willing to slam the government over their school lunch policies in the past, he gave me hope. Not just for what’s hopefully coming down the pike, but because he sincerely sounds like he understands that this BS system we have has to change (my words, please, not his). Your post is timely, and I hope to continue your thread soon in my space, too.

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Sarah Henry February 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

Good to know, Cheryl. And I look forward to seeing your post on same too.

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Cindy February 10, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Thanks Sarah for the comprehensive update. Just signed up at Let’s Move. As a mom, it’s tough for me to figure out how to approach this. I don’t want to upset the staff at my school, as they are excellent in every other way and have so little to work with. But I certainly would love to see some massive changes in the cafeteria.

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Meredith February 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Such an important issue. My kids, who came from Russia, didn’t like most of the food in the school cafeteria. They often preferred to wait to eat until they came home, not liking the looks (or smell) of what was being sold.

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Alexandra February 11, 2010 at 9:02 am

My kids grew up in France. There was a popular song that went, “Je prefere manger a la cantine, avec les copains et les copines.” The idea was I prefer to eat at the school cafeteria because all my friends eat lunch there. The food was not ideal, but at least it was okay. I cringe to think what my granddaughter will be fed at the local school cafeteria in LA! Thanks for writing about this issue. I think we must all support Ms. Obama in trying to make a difference so American kids get real nourishment at lunch.

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Katherine February 11, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Oh, I am SO with you on this one. I recently witnessed my 5-year old daughter’s eyes light up with delight when she saw a corn dog. I didn’t even know she knew what one was – I certainly never served it to her at home. So she must have had it at school. Yuck!

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