The new food fighters

Will Arne Duncan and Michelle Obama serve your child a better school lunch?

By Carol Lloyd

Since scientists began linking the rise in childhood obesity to high-fat, high-sugar diets, alarm bells have been ringing about the sorry state of school lunches in the United States. In 2005 predictions that, for the first time in the nation's history, children were not expected to live longer than their parents galvanized a movement of activists, parents, and health professionals who lobbied for change.
Since then new guidelines attempt to bar those "ketchup is a vegetable" loopholes. In 2006 legislation began requiring that every school district develop its own "wellness plan."

The results have been mixed. Some schools and school districts have pioneered the idea of healthier lunches — cooking up a host of new partnerships and programs. In 1994 slow-food guru Alice Waters broke ground on her Edible Schoolyard, a program at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., that teaches students to cultivate their own organic garden and cook their own meals. Several large school districts — including Chicago’s and Los Angeles’ — have broken ties with their corporate sugar daddies and banished Coke and other sodas from their vending machines. Pioneering schools — from Compton, Calif., to Kohler, Wis. — now include salad bar alternatives to the usual, greasy suspects like sloppy joes and pizza.

But there's still a long way to go. Recent studies show that 32% of U.S. children are obese or overweight, though evidence suggests that obesity rates are leveling off. And when the slop hits the tray, many school lunches are only marginally better than prison grub. Actually I take that back. Prison food may be better for you (see “Do Inmates Eat Better Than Students?”).

Yet with health foodies storming the White House, the school lunch revolution may have reached its tipping point. Even amid the federal budget crisis, President Barack Obama allocated an extra $1 billion for child nutrition programs including school food in 2010. Last March, First Lady Michelle Obama started the first "organic"garden on the White House grounds (which, as it turns out, can't actually be certified as organic because a sludge-based fertilizer was used during a previous administration) — a symbolic move Waters had been championing for years. At a harvest celebration in June, the first lady delivered a food policy speech that addressed the need to improve school lunches. Before becoming the White House chef, Sam Kass denounced the artificially flavored and colored, high-meat, and low-vegetable meals the National School Lunch Program produces. Finally, the new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, may also lend a sympathetic ear to the food warriors. Recently during his "listening tour" on education reform, he chose to take his lunch break at Barnes Elementary School in Burlington, Vt., where a successful Farm to School program delivers fresh produce directly from small, local farmers.

This Labor Day, lunchroom revolutionaries joined forces to host hundreds of fundraisers called “eat-ins” and raise the issue of school lunch reform.

According to a spokesperson from the U.S. Department of Education, Duncan sees a link between better lunches and better learning. “Feeding students nutritious, quality meals at school, and encouraging families to continue good eating habits at home, will be one of the strategies the Obama administration employs to promote learning and healthy living." In any case, this September, when Congress revises national standards for school lunches, there may finally be the political will to degrease the diets of our students. New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand is introducing legislation that would ban trans fat in school lunches.

What do you think? Should the Department of Education be as focused on salad bars as teacher salaries? Are legumes as essential as literacy? Or do you think the school lunch program should be administrated by the Department of Health and Human Services?

July 2009

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.