by Eileen Weber
The alarm rings. Another school day. Get up. Feed the dogs. Make the breakfast. Set out the lunchboxes. A few minutes later, my three daughters bound down the stairs in their fuzzy pajamas. Still shaking the sleep from their eyes, I hear, “Mom, can I have hot lunch at school today?”
Hot lunch. I say those two words through gritted teeth. They signify a whole plateful of unsaturated fats and triglycerides with a side of high fructose corn syrup. I silently wonder if my daughters will see a vegetable today.
The nutritional content of school lunches is a topic that has been on many parents’ minds across the country. Last week, Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley and author of such titles as In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and Omnivore’s Dilemma, was interviewed by PBS’s Bill Moyer. Pollan spoke about the school lunch issue in relation to last month’s election of Barack Obama.
“I think we need a food policy czar in the White House,” he said during the November 28th broadcast. He went on to say that agriculture in this country directly affects public health, energy, climate change and education. He made the point that, if the Surgeon General talks about the dangers of type 2 diabetes, it is not acceptable to then subsidize farmers who produce high fructose corn syrup, a main contributor to obesity in this country.
Many people, like Pollan, would like to think so. “Lunch should be educational. Right now, the school lunch program is a dispose-all for the agricultural business,” said Pollan. If there is an excess of meat that month, that’s what is being served in the schools. He also said that providing kids with healthier alternatives in their cafeterias will “teach this generation habits that will last a lifetime.”
In Fairfield County, there are a number of parents who have taken that sentiment to heart. They have spearheaded the school lunch movement in their area. They want to see a permanent change in what our kids eat when they are not at home.
In late October, the Westport Public Library had a screening of the documentary, Two Angry Moms. The film documents a school year in Westchester County, New York, in which the school lunch system is taken to task on the foods they serve to the students. It also presents strategies for overcoming the hurdles parents can come across in their own school cafeterias.
The film’s producer, Weston resident Amy Kalafa, has started her own school lunch network. Fair Food in Fairfield County Schools, a web site for advocates of sustainable school food, was recently formed for parents who want to change the quality of the school lunches.
On their web site, Kalafa says, “I was frustrated that our family’s healthy eating habits were being undermined by a school system that prides itself as being among the best in the nation. I was tired of being marginalized by the dominant fast food culture…And I was ANGRY that my kids were tossing or trading their homemade lunches (food that they really do like) in favor of pop tarts, rice crispy treats and other non-nutritive, sugar and chemical laden crap offered without any supervision or guidance in the school cafeteria.”
Roger Sherman Elementary School in Fairfield started an organic garden last spring. The children participate in taking care of the garden during the school year as well as taking shifts to water and weed it over the summer. Often, McCay said she will make a meal from any excess food and take it to Operation Hope.
When the garden was first introduced, the feeling was that children would be more likely to eat vegetables they have grown themselves. “This is a grassroots movement that’s really taken hold,” said Annelise McCay, founder of the organic garden and a Sherman parent. “We’d like to see [the garden] used in the classroom and ideally in the cafeteria.”
The Sherman project has been a forerunner of organic gardening in Fairfield. But other schools are interested too. McCay has been contacted by other Fairfield schools as well as schools from neighboring towns about how to start their own school gardens. Recently, McCay met with Amie Guyette Hall, Holistic Health Counselor and Cooking Coach working with the Fairfield district middle schools. “There is a great interest in whole foods and bringing it into the classroom,” said Hall.
McCay and Hall discussed the possibility of creating a network of organic gardens across the school district. They also expressed the hope of hosting a farmer’s market selling the produce grown at each school. Both women would like to see the organic produce in the school system. But bureaucratic red tape makes it more difficult to see that dream become a reality.
It is certainly easier to live a healthier lifestyle when local, organic produce is readily available. Pollan noted in the PBS interview that the distance consumers have from fresh produce has a direct impact on health. This particularly applies to those who live in inner cities. He said, “There is a demand for fresh food that is not being met.”