Author Essay: Lunch Wars
Before you send your child to school, ask yourself: Do you know what your kids’ school food environment is like?
I made the documentary film called Two Angry Moms for parents like me who want to know what to do to get better food into schools. Many people who saw the movie asked me for more information. So many, in fact, that I couldn’t keep up with all the emails, so instead of trying to answer all those letters, I wrote Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Heath.
School food is as important an issue as bullying, school violence, class size or playground safety. Junk food contributes to childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes, and it also interferes with learning, attention, athletic performance and emotional stability. It’s parents’ job to feed their kids right, and it’s the school’s job to educate our kids and give them consistent messages about health and wellness that aren’t contradicted in the cafeteria or the classroom. The school food reality for this generation of children is scary:
- Our government’s own studies have shown that American schools are flunking lunch. A 2007 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment concluded that the vast majority of schools in America exceed USDA guidelines for the quantities of saturated fat, total fat and sodium in school meals.
- The average dollar amount allotted for food cost per school lunch nationwide is barely $1, and 25 cents of that is spent on milk. It’s easy to see why many cafeterias wind up offering energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods just to make the required calorie count.
- The commodity beef and poultry provided free to schools from the USDA is held to lower standards than the standards used in fast-food chains like McDonald’s. In the past decade, the USDA paid $145 million for pet-food grade “spent-hen meat” that went into the school meals program. In 2008, 37 million pounds of contaminated beef was consumed by school children before a recall reached the school districts.
- Access to drinking water is not a given in many school lunchrooms across the country. Many schools don’t have functioning water fountains; some have water that is too contaminated to drink. Bottled water brings in revenue for schools, and adds to the a la carte sales of the food service management companies that supply many school cafeterias.
- The kids who DON’T buy lunch at school are healthier—and they perform better academically. A 2008 study found that children who bought lunch at school were at an increased risk for being overweight. The study also found that students with a higher consumption of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables performed better on a standardized literacy assessment, independent of socioeconomic factors. (Science Daily, March 22, 2008).
Lunch Wars provides an arsenal of tools so you can get to work advocating on behalf of this generation of kids—a generation that the CDC is predicting will have a shorter life span than that of their parents. This is truly an important issue that can’t just be solved by federal guidelines alone. Instead, it’s a grassroots effort, and there are many things that people can do in their own communities to effect change. Here are a few suggestions:
- Before you approach the school administration, learn how the system works--locally and federally. Request a copy of your school’s wellness policy. The federal Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act requires that all US schools must have a Wellness Policy. This policy must include nutrition guidelines for all foods available on the school grounds. The law also mandates that a district Wellness Policy must review and revise the policy annually. This committee must include representation from the entire school community, including parents.
- Organize and rally your team. Host a screening of Two Angry Moms to gather interested people in your community. Get involved with your school’s Wellness Committee if there is one—if there isn’t one, form your own.
- Reach out to the folks in food service. Make an appointment to have lunch with your child at school and to meet the food service staff. Ask them about their challenges and how you can help. Offer to start a farm to school program, raise funds for a salad bar, staff training or kitchen tools and equipment. Help find better alternatives before banning the junk.
- Sow and grow in an edible school garden. Start or volunteer to help in a school garden, outdoor classroom or indoor container garden. Kids will eat what they’ve grown and will be eager to share what they’ve learned with their friends.
Start small or start big, but start with changes that have a good chance for success and grow from there. The school food revolution will be won by fighting this battle school district by school district, so keep at it and don’t give up! --Amy Kalafa
"Whether the overall goal is simply to bump some greasy fries off the school menu or to have a totally new kitchen installed for from-scratch cooking, no lunchroom revolutionary should be without this battlefield manual...[a] detailed blueprint for building a better school lunchroom today."
"This meaty, practical off-shoot of Kalafa's film will help parents turn anger into positive action."
"Amy's thoughtful, well researched work continues to sound the bell for all of us working so hard towards this effort."--Chef Bill Telepan, Telepan Restaurant (NYC) and Executive Chef, Wellness in the Schools
"An excellent book which shows why and how a school food revolution must begin if we hope to reclaim the health of our children."
With fascinating stories and surprising facts, Amy Kalafa has created a terrific guide for all of us worried about our kids' health. May her bright style and clear action steps empower those yearning to make a difference." -Frances Moore Lappé, author of the international bestseller <I>Diet for a Small Planet</I> and Anna Lappé, author of <I>Grub and Diet for a Hot Planet</I>
"It should be a birthright in our country that no child is hungry in school and that every day - every child has access to delicious/nutritious food. Lunch Wars is a great tool for parents, advocates and school food professionals as they make this goal a reality,"--Ann Cooper, co-author of <I>Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children</I>