School-lunch crusaders take on the USDA and the slushie.
It doesn’t take a nutritionist to point out that kids can’t concentrate when hyped up on junk food – but it just might take an investigative documentary to pry the high fructose corn syrup from the lunch lady’s hands. Tired of their kids’ schools serving chicken nuggets and candy bars for lunch, filmmaker Amy Kalafa and health counselor Dr. Susan Rubin talked to school food vendors, teachers, parents and reps from the FDA and USDA. Their documentary Two Angry Moms, now screening in select cities (see the schedule here; it hits Brooklyn next week), shows the detrimental effects of school-sponsored junk food and the positive changes that nutrition-obsessed parents can inspire. Kalafa and Rubin, on a media tear lately, spoke to Babble about their food fight. – Jessica Wakeman
What’s the worst school lunch you saw while making this film?
Rubin: My personal favorite is the Windex-blue slushie. I got that at my daughter’s high school.
Kalafa: Most schools have equally bad horror stories. That’s the thing about this: it cuts across socio-economic classes, across age groups. There’s the same level of school food everywhere in the country. The bigger problem is the American food system. School food is just one piece of that.
What raised your awareness in the first place?
Rubin: Ever since my kids came home from school with candy in their backpacks – from the cafeteria! I was a dentist at the time and I was really very upset that I was paying taxes to this wonderful school system and my kids were eating candy.
What’s wrong with the food?
Kalafa: It’s pre-processed and packaged.
Rubin: It’s not real. We have a government commodity system: chicken nuggets and tater tots. That’s considered a balanced meal. The USDA is not doing a great job. For many schools, the bottom line is money and profit. For every parent I know, the bottom line is their children’s health and well-being.
So what will happen if kids eat a healthier school lunch?
Kalafa: If you ask any teacher in any school system, they will tell you kids’ behavior is so affected by how they eat. Really, when you feed kids whole food, they’re grounded and focused and able to make it through the school day.
What can parents do?
Rubin: What I’ve been recommending to every parent now is to go in and have lunch at your kid’s school. Only then will you know if the food’s edible! I want you to eat the food, smell the food, look at what your kids’ friends are eating, and then you know. It’s not enough to look at a menu once a month.
Lyrically, you’ve always put forth a higher level of intellectual discourse. How do you shift your headspace to write for kids?
I love the challenge of writing. To be honest, I’m better with a directive. Show me a script, where you need music here and it has to generate this mood there, and the lyric needs this topic and I’m stoked. My creative mind responds to this kind of direction. It’s harder to write for myself. I think too hard about what’s worth writing about. There’s so much ego involved. When it comes to something like the Care Bears, I have zero ego. I have confidence in my ability to do the task. And if it needs to be fixed, I have no problem doing that either.
Many kid’s songs tend to be pedantic . . . any favorite kid’s musicians that break the mold?
Michael and I have never been into kid’s music, per se. We have the attitude that we were here first, and you kids are going to have to adapt to our tastes. To me, it all begins and ends with Dan Zanes. He makes great music that we all really enjoy listening to together. And, of course, there’s the Beatles. My kids, especially my daughter, loves the Beatles. Through listening to a wide variety of stuff, she’s developed her own awesome taste in music.
Okay, so what’s Miley Cyrus really like? She actually seems like a positive role model for kids these days.
She really is! First of all, Miley puts out pop music that’s good. Second of all, this girl walks into a room and she’s so self-assured. She acts her age, and she’s not slutty. If it were ten years ago, in the time of Britney Spears and exposed midriffs, I’d be ripping my hair out. I like that she’s not a pushover and she’s modest, but she’s no Pollyanna either. She’s a great person. And, as a mother, I’m thrilled that my daughter has this choice. If it were ten years ago, in the time of Britney Spears and exposed midriffs, I’d be ripping my hair out. That made me mad. The sexualizing of children in general makes me really, really mad.
Do your kids want to be cool musicians like mom and dad, or are they showing signs of leaning toward some polar opposite, like accounting?
If that’s what they wanted to do, they could make music. Sure, it’s an evil business, but what business isn’t evil? Of course if my kids wanted to become famous cardiovascular surgeons or active physicists, I’d prefer that! All I want for my kids is for them to be happy, healthy and exceedingly well adjusted. I want to be like my mother, who was accepting of my choices, for better of worse. She allowed me to fuck up and make weird choices and supported me no matter what. I’m a very lucky person.
Photo by Justine Ungaro