That's how I have always felt about school lunches.
OK, fine, there are some times and places where children will get the message that pizza, chicken strips, and french fries constitute a normal lunch. And, OK fine, our tax dollars go to feeding children lunch. But to put the two together? To foot the bill to teach children to love food that contributes to disease? Wow.
The good news is that people across the nation are doing things about it.
Lisa Belkin has long been one of my favorite journalists. She wrote a big story about school nutrition which is on the cover of The New York Times magazine that came out yesterday. She profiles several such efforts, with a heavy focus on a district in Florida that has entered into an agreement with the Foundation run by man who made his money from the South Beach Diet. (The irony here is that the South Beach Diet is hardly a role model: Dr. Fuhrman calls it one of the most dangerous of several bad diets.)
The article points out that the holy grail that could lead to further, more profound school nutrition changes nationwide, is measurable evidence that changing the menu can make kids healthier. The experiment in Florida has made changes that any Fuhrman fan would find exceedingly moderate (along the lines of making the pizza crust whole wheat) yet still has some preliminary good news: 23 of the 486 children who had been classified overweight before the plan began are no longer in that category. At a control school in the same district, the number of overweight children increased.
Belkin describes aggressive dietary changes at a school district in California. These are also being studied. If it gets good results, perhaps that will be an important step in creating an environment in American schools where large quantities of fruits and vegetables are a regular part of life. Belkin explains:
Across the country, in Berkeley, the chef Ann Cooper questions the idea of making healthier versions of flawed foods. In her book “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children,” she asks whether healthy food should simply mirror existing unhealthy patterns and concludes: “We just don’t need an organic Twinkie. We don’t!”
How can we feed our children more healthfully in school?
Cooper, who spent years impressively overhauling the menu at the select Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y., began trying to do the same thing at the 16 schools in the Berkeley public school district starting last October. Her six-figure salary is being paid by the Chez Panisse Foundation, which also finances, in Berkeley, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School’s Edible Schoolyard kitchen garden, a creation of Alice Waters, who all but started the organic food movement in the United States 30 years ago.
It is a common assumption that the existence of programs like the Edible Schoolyard means that Berkeley students already eat well, but when Cooper arrived last fall, the district’s menu looked like menus everywhere with their fried and fatty foods. One item that Cooper makes particularly merciless fun of is the Uncrustables sandwich — the same one that caught Almon’s eye. She thawed one and kept it on display on a desk where, because of its preservatives, “it looked exactly the same months later,” she said while giving a tour of a high-school lunchroom.
In the time since she came aboard, a salad bar has been added to every school, with ingredients that include strawberries, organic chicken or turkey, sunflower seeds, fresh avocado and other eclectic in-season items in addition to the usual lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Ninety-five percent of the food was processed when she arrived, she says, and now 90 percent is fresh and cooked from scratch. And those foods are not what one would expect on a school menu, including choices like chicken cacciatore, organic sushi and organic chicken raised on a nearby farm. The foods she does not make on the premises, foods like fresh tamales and muffins and vegetable calzones, are brought in from small local businesses.
Even here, however, the “acceptance question” arises. When Cooper first removed nachos from the middle-school menu, the percentage of students buying lunch in the cafeteria dropped significantly. Cooper quickly restored the nachos, using transfat-free chips and Cheddar cheese — from an area cheesemaker, not an industrial processor — the equivalent, she concedes, of an organic Twinkie. And she did not even try to change the pizza her first year. “I just can’t take everything away,” she says. “Or they will walk out.
“Change is never easy. And if it’s hard for us, imagine how hard it would be in Oklahoma or Omaha.”