You all know by now that children and REAL food and children eating REAL food are topics that are dear to my heart. Heck, I have spent the better part of 5 years teaching moms and dads and teachers and just about anyone who will listen about the importance of REAL food for their children…what it is, where to find it, and how to cook it. I have been interested in school lunches for a while, and recently I became involved with the Chefs Move! to Schools initiative out of the White House. Ruth Gresser, friend and Chef/Owner of Pizzeria Paradiso and I have adopted Takoma Park Middle School and spend a day a month getting 6th, 7th and 8th graders jazzed about REAL food…talking about how to identify it, cooking it and eating it. (The Gazette did an article about our involvement last December.)
Last night I had the opportunity to see Lunch Line, a documentary about the history of the school lunch program. It was sponsored by a group that calls themselves “Better DC School Food” and took place at Busboys and Poets in DC. They will be screening the movie again on Sunday night, January 23 at 8pm at the 14th and V location. If you have any interest in what is being fed to our children in public schools, GO! See the film, have some fair trade coffee or organic grass-fed something to eat and connect with others who care about this issue.
Let’s face it, folks, feeding millions of kids in schools is a complex task. Last night’s “Lunch Line” helped me see some of where the complexities lie. First of all, the movie explained the origins of the national school lunch program. Excess agricultural commodities could be used to feed the hungry children in our country during the depression and after. The USDA and Department of Education battled in the ’30s to decide which government agency would oversee the program. Ag was more powerful at the time and continues to be now. Ag won. Which is part of the problem now. Agricultural commodities mean lots of grain and soy in on our children’s lunch trays. Usually refined. Always processed. Some “food fragments” like soy protein isolate and TVP. (This is not REAL food, folks.) Some GMO (genetically modified). And NONE of the grains are prepared in a way that they are actually easily digested by the children. (Another reason why our children have so many allergies and digestive disorders…and diabetes and and and…)
Second fact from the movie: the “nutrient-based/calorie-based” model doesn’t work. What is the “nutrient-based/calorie-based” model, you ask? Foods on the school lunch menu must meet specific nutrient and caloric requirements. The problem is that “nutrients” can be added to gummy bears (e.g., Vitamin C) and that makes gummy bears allowable on a menu. It also allows for sugar-laden breakfast cereal that are “fortified”, i.e., have ” nutrients added” to be served. Start feeding children REAL food, and the children will get all the nutrients they need, I always say! And have buckets less sugar!
Originally, the calorie based model worked. (It worked in the 1930s and 40s, when school lunch programs were serving REAL food to children: eggs, butter, cheese, meat and vegetables. ) The problem came when they reduced the amount of fat allowed in the menus BUT KEPT THE NUMBER OF CALORIES THE SAME. This was the loophole that opened the way for cookies, cakes, and sugary sweets to end up on school lunch trays. It was also the beginning of the obesity epidemic in children. (A very important note from the movie: a group of children was followed from K through high school. The research showed participation in the school lunch program was linked to an increased likelihood of obesity. Oy! Can you imagine? Let your child eat lunch from the school cafeteria, and that child is likely to be obese. I wouldn’t do it. But some people really don’t have a choice in our country. The lunch program may be the only meal some children get all day. Let’s make it REAL food, folks. Not refined, processed, food fraction filled food products!)
While the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 still falls short of providing the amount of money that would allow schools to feed our children REAL food…(Currently school lunch programs have about $1 to spend per lunch after overhead and admin costs. ONE DOLLAR. One dollar won’t even buy you a regular cup of coffee at Starbucks, folks. Much less a latte’. HOW ARE WE GOING TO FEED OUR CHILDREN A NUTRITIOUS, DELICIOUS LUNCH FOR ONE DOLLAR?!!) … it did bring the percentage of fats required back to their previous levels which is good news for our kids. It also reduced the number of calories required. This is good too! (Read on for why.)
CHILDREN NEED HEALTHY FATS in order to grow smart brains, bodies, cells, and hormones. (So do adults, btw, but I’ll stay focused on the children here.) The effort to limit saturate fats in the act and in our culture is JUST PLAIN WRONG. There is a connection between the reduction of healthy fats in children’s diets and the increase in dyspraxia, learning disorders, inability to concentrate, and ADD and ADHD in our children. As for sugar, while it wasn’t specifically addressed, reducing the number of calories required should “SQUEEZE OUT THE SUGAR”, as Ed Bruske (Tales from a DC School Kitchen) pointed out in the meeting afterwards. And the sugar MUST be squeezed out, folks. It’s killing our kids. Not only does it make them a jittery mess, fogs their brains and spikes their blood sugar levels, it wrecks their adrenal glands and sets them up for diabetes. Soda pop, sugary cereals, cinnabons, cookies, cake, and low-fat chocolate milk. All of it has GOT TO GO. If you care at all, get involved. Our future depends on it.