Looking over the monthly lunch menu from my son’s public school, I quickly realized that nothing much has changed in the few decades since parents and nutritionists alike have sounded the alarm over the pitiful state of school lunches. The menu was rife with spaghetti, chicken fingers, hot dogs, and fried mozzarella sticks. On a handful of days the complex carbohydrate load read like a diet for a 250 lb running back, not a 60 lb child. Sure there are a few obligatory nods to “healthy choices” with apple slices taking the place of carrot cake, and turkey dogs stepping in for “mystery meat” but the food is still largely poor quality and junky. In short, school lunches are a mix of substandard ingredients, prepared with high amounts of sodium, fat, and carbohydrates, and delivered to appeal to the lowest common denominator – kids weaned on fast food.
A lot of media attention has been directed toward the fight to clean up school lunches in this country, with numerous books, blogs, magazine articles, and newspaper reports exposing just how far we have fallen from providing good nutrition to young children. British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver even made it his reason for being with his widely watched reality show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which tried to foster change in both semi-rural Virginia and urban Los Angeles, with varying success. But short of having Jamie Oliver bust into your local school like a superhero and change the system it is up to parents to promote change, or just dutifully pack their child a lunch everyday (like me) and hope he/she never has to eat the cafeteria food.
The problem seems to be so systemic that it is easy for a parent (not to mention a child) to feel relatively powerless, as well as hopeless, when it comes to making a change. The fact is, in communities all over the country, parents and parent groups have cultivated change when it comes to moderately to greatly improving the quality of food offerings in their local public school system. The stories range from the somewhat small (like getting candy and soda out of the cafeteria) to the exceptional (like completely revamping the menu with locally grown produce). But regardless of the scope of changes, you have to start somewhere and each community is different (some more prone to change than others).
Here are a few vital resources to arm yourself with if you are looking to change the world, or at least lunch:
Free For All: Fixing School Food in America by Janet Poppendieck
This will just get you started, and to be sure, there are probably other individuals or local groups in your area that have already started the good fight. Have you encountered the problem of substandard school food head on? If so, how have you chosen to fight this battle and have you seen any results?