With Michelle Obama making youth wellness the centerpiece of her first major initiative as First Lady, celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver bringing the cause to prime time TV, Congress preparing to tackle a new Child Nutrition Act, and more and more regular families embracing the idea of conscious eating – it’s clear that the sorry state of school lunch is becoming a major public issue – and one you can do something about.
Indeed behind the cafeteria gripes are stark statistics: Almost a third of all kids in the United States are overweight, and rates of childhood obesity have nearly tripled over the last thirty years. More than 55 million children receive lunch (and sometimes breakfast, too) via public school programs every day, but the vast majority of meals offered include things like French fries, chicken nuggets, pizza, bagged chips, chocolate milk – foods that are high in fat, sodium and high fructose corn syrup, heavily processed, frozen, and wastefully pre-packaged.
Over the past few years, there has been an increase in awareness. But the challenges schools face are still considerable: the U.S. Department of Agriculture allots only $2.68 in funding per day for each student meal, and reform seems painfully slow in coming. This year’s re-budgeting of the Childhood Nutrition Act – the bill which covers all school food as well as other nutrition benefits for low-income kids – is a powerful opportunity to introduce change from the highest levels of government. That means there has never been a more important time for all of us to find out what kids are eating, to speak up, and to get involved.
Here’s how you can help:
Seeing is believing: The most basic thing you can do to learn about the state of your child’s lunch is to actually eat a meal in the lunchroom. But before you barge into the kitchen with guns blazing, remember these rules of thumb:
- Start with assumption that the food service manager is your ally. It may not turn out to be the case, but, because you can’t get anything done without them, the last thing you want to do is to alienate them right away.
- Instead of criticizing, have a conversation with your cafeteria manager and food service director, express your concerns, inquire about their challenges, and ask them if there is anything you can do to help. For instance, many schools that have added salad bars, but have only been able to do so thanks to a corps of parent volunteers who monitor the lunchroom and help students get acquainted with the new setup.
- Some schools don’t allow parents to come to lunch. If you find that’s the case, your next step should be to contact the principal and express interest; perhaps a lunch option may be able to be incorporated into a parent’s night or grandparent’s day.
Get involved: Recently, a host of new organizations have sprung up across the country aimed at bringing fresh, healthy food, teaching gardens, and cooking skills into nutritionally challenged schools. Here are a few:
- In New York City, Wellness in Schools pairs parents and chefs with public school wellness committees to improve lunchroom menus, organize market trips, and teach cooking classes on balanced meals.
- In Chicago, the Healthy Schools Campaign focuses on environmental health in schools by connecting community groups, schools and local farms, and sponsoring programs like student cooking contests and public rallies.
- In Berkeley, California the School Lunch Initiative combines the forces of the Berkeley Unified School district with high profile locals like chef Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard program to encourage interdisciplinary learning through gardening and kitchen classrooms.
Get political: As the Child Nutrition Act makes its way through the Senate, without a doubt the single most powerful way you can affect school lunch reform is to take your concerns to Congress now. Currently, the Senate Agriculture Committee has passed a version of the bill, titled “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” which promises $4.5 billion of funding over ten years. While an improvement over the status quo, that’s still only half of what President Obama requested and much less than the $40 billion over ten years that many advocates, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, believe necessary. Before it goes to final vote later this spring, however, the Senate Finance Committee can add new funds to the bill – so now is the time to let them know you expect more, especially if one of your senators is on that committee. Don’t struggle over the language – the action is actually more important that what you say. For a sample letter you can cut, paste, personalize, and email click here.
Bring it home: To make sure your child isn’t getting mixed messages about food, continue the healthy eating cause in your own kitchen.
- Cut out as many processed food from your pantry as possible. Snack time, for example, is a minefield of additives. Go to The Family Kitchen/healthy snacks for a variety of healthy alternatives.
- Make mealtime meaningful. Eating together and teaching your family to enjoy the whole culture of food – from farm to stovetop to table – is one way make sure they learn to make healthy food choices as well as enjoy those choices. Visit The Family Kitchen/dinner for all kinds of inspiring menus.
Educate yourself: You don’t have to be a nutritionist to recognize that there’s something wrong with feeding kids a steady diet of tater tots and chicken tenders. But if you’re wondering how we got here – and what some other smart folks think about the situation – there’s a wealth of informative books, blogs, and websites within easy reach.
- Fed Up With Lunch: For a first-person glimpse of the grim contents of cafeteria trays, visit this blog, written by a teacher in the Midwest who has vowed to eat school lunch every day this year – and document it.
- Free for All: Fixing School Food in America: Written by Hunter College sociologist Jan Poppendieck, this fascinating and accessible read walks readers through the cultural wheelings and dealings that completely altered the school food landscape.
- Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children: an upbeat and impressive manifesto (with recipes!) by “renegade lunch lady” Ann Cooper.