We are giving away a copy of Lunch Wars: How to Start a Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health by Amy Kalafa! Read this excerpt and leave a comment for your chance to win the book!
Let’s Do Lunch
One should not have to be a superhero, a magician, or a saint to get healthy, tasty food into the school cafeteria. – Janet Poppendieck
Whether your child brings lunch or buys it, you need to know what your school’s food environment is like. The cafeteria, the classrooms, the hallways, the playgrounds, the athletic fields, and the buses are all part of a school’s food environment. The food itself and the messages about food, whether overly taught or insidious dictate the school’s food culture and will have a great influence on your child over the course of 180 days a year for twelve years.
The typical American child eats less than one serving of fruit a day and somewhere from 30 to 156 pounds of sugar per year, depending upon which statistics you read. Is your school system reinforcing this diet by handing out candy in class and selling junk food in the cafeteria? I didn’t think much about the school food environment when my daughters were young. I figured since we at well at home and sent them to school with a packed lunch, they were immune to the school’s food culture. I thought school food was a missed opportunity to educate children about food, but I didn’t realize that the school system was actually undermining our family’s healthy food habits until I went to my daughter’s middle school to investigate the lunch program. Learning that she had been purchasing Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies treats, french fries, and soft drinks on a daily basis became the focal point for a movie and a movement.
Since that time, I’ve been on a quest to learn what parents need to know and do to get better food into their children’s schools. I’ve met hundreds of other parents who describe themselves as Angry Moms, but we’re also less affectionately known as the Food Police or Nutrition Nazis. Really we are all just parents trying to take back the school food environment from the Junk Food Bullies. It’s a tough job, and everyone wants to know what to do first. The Web abounds with articles promising “Five Ways Parents Can Reform School Food,” “Seven Tips for Better School Food,” and “Three Simple Steps to Clean Up the Cafeteria.” These magic lists are filled with good ideas, but the one piece of advice that every list has in common is go have lunch with your child. In fact, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), the agency that oversees school meals programs, in the “Ten Steps for Parents,” counsels as step 1, “Do lunch with the kids. Eat breakfast or lunch at school with your kids. See what meals they like. Notice the atmosphere. If you don’t like what you see, do something.” Indeed, one of the first things parents should do, skeptics and advocates alike, is make a date for lunch. Let the folks in the front office know you’re there. Most schools will require you to wear a visitor’s badge. Some schools may even try to keep you out. I hear stories of parents being banned from the cafeteria but it’s your right to visit there with your child — the USDA says so!
Most kids will be proud to have Mom, Dad, or Grandma join them for lunch. Some might be a little bit embarrassed. If that’s the case, you can plan your lunch date as a group event with several other parents, so that your child won’t feel singled out. If you’re ready to draw some attention to the school food issue in your district, organize a Lunch-In — a day or week when lots of parents join their children for breakfast or lunch. Notify your school’s food service director ahead of time so he or she can plan ahead for some extra meals. Let the food service director know that you are an ally, not an adversary, and that your intention is to bring attention to the importance of the school food environment and gather resources and support for making improvements.
There’s a trade group for everything, and school food is no exception. Largely supported by contributions from the food industry its members purchase from, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) represents school food service workers. The organization promotes a National School Lunch Week each year in late October. Since the release of Two Angry Moms, we have encouraged parents to attend a school Lunch-In during the SNA’s National School Lunch Week. The goal for the SNA is to bring awareness to the school meals program. Our goal is to up the ante by examining the quality of the food and the school food environment.
Most schools publish their weekly or monthly menus online. I’ve got a Connecticut middle school lunch menu in front of me with a Wednesday entrée seductively called Love at First Delight. It’s described as a roasted turkey breast sandwich with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and Russian dressing on a kaiser roll. I might have named it Détente, but the description does make it sound like a yummy lunch. A menu from Birmingham, Alabama, simply describes Wednesday’s meal as “Lasagna, green beans, corn on the cob, tossed salad, orange wedges, sugar cookie, roll, and milk.” Sound like good, filling comfort food. So what’s the reality of these two meals? Are they tasty and healthy? Or are they nasty, greasy, soggy, and full of chemicals? You don’t need a nutrition degree to conduct a good investigation, but you do need to look beyond the menu.
Excerpted from Lunch Wars: How to Start a Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health by Amy Kalafa. Published by Tarcher/Penguin.
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