Lunch Wars

I just finished reading Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health by Amy Kalafa. It’s one of this month’s BlogHer Book Club books.

I am an armchair food revolutionary, so I was immediately interested when the book came up on the listserv and I jumped to participate. I have to admit, the book itself disappointed me, though I still find the topic–and lots of the information in the book–fascinating. My main problem with the book is its haphazard organization. It jumps way too much from sound-bite to sound-bite, with loads of “sidebar” stories interrupting the flow. In a way, it reads like a book written by a filmmaker, which is exactly what it is.

(Before writing the book, Amy Kalafa made a film called “Two Angry Moms” about her own battle for better food in her kid’s school, as well as similar battles throughout the United States. I still haven’t had a chance to see it, but Kalafa suggests screening it and/or other films as one way to launch your own lunch war in your own school.)

To be fair to the book, it is all about the byzantine National School Lunch Program. It is hard to imagine how any writing on that topic could flow neatly and clearly from beginning to end, because the system itself is such a big wad of conflicting interests, history, multitiered regulation and red-herring authorities. Most of Kalafa’s side-bar tales of local activists and professionals trying to improve school food are chock-full of road blocks due to arcane, out-dated regulations, deep-frozen stored commodity food from the government that no one can afford not to use, chasing the wrong person or the wrong committee for months before discovering the real power lies elsewhere and other Kafkaesque frustrations.

As I read it, what it all boiled down to, for me, was money. As with so much else about public education, we just aren’t willing to pony up the money it takes to do right by our children. Kalafa explains that the average school lunch budget is limited to one dollar per meal for lunch and less for breakfast in schools that also offer it. She also mentions that school cooks–or nugget defrosters, as the case may be–are usually the lowest paid people at a school–lower paid, even, than the maintenance/cleaning staff. Asking such ill-paid workers to do much more than heat up a “cheese substitute” pizza for a thousand kids a day isn’t really reasonable without skill training, more staff, and the pay a truly skilled worker deserves.

Much of the book focuses on that kind of training–and how to cover the costs of training. Many schools also need equipment and more hands on deck in order to achieve better results on the lunch tray. In addition, schools often can’t afford to turn down the surplus commodities the government gives or sells them very cheaply. Those commodities might have been a lovely boon in the 1950s, when the apples were apples, but nowadays, government commodity “apples” will more likely come in the form of apple sauce full of added sugar and preservatives, sealed in an individual-sized plastic container.

With so many problems, where the heck do you start your own food revolution? Kalafa suggests you begin by having lunch with your child. Head to the school and join the kids for lunch. Invite other parents to come along. Kalafa says that it will only be through the desire of enough parents that change will come–hence her film’s title. And some change has come in some places. Even given the herculean difficulties, many school systems have improved their food, even if they haven’t made it all the way yet. Kalafa’s book has useful information on where the real power lies in most school food systems, how to approach (and perhaps more usefully, how not to approach) the people you will need on your side and all kinds of suggestions for small, immediate changes you can push for right away, (like getting your kid’s teacher to stop giving food as a reward for academic achievement in the classroom).

We’ll be talking about the book and about school food in general, for the next few weeks over at BlogHer. Come join the discussion and share your own perspective. Kalafa’s book was certainly an eye-opener for me. We are lucky that our kids go to a small school where everyone brings lunch and the food culture is healthy and even reasonably refined, for a bunch of 6-year olds. But I plan to look for and start supporting the Lunch Wars for better public school lunches in my own area, now that I know what’s out there. Whether or not you have kids in the system (or kids at all), you might find you want to do the same.

BlogHer.com paid me a pittance to write this review. Don’t worry, it wasn’t nearly enough to influence my true opinion.

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4 responses to “Lunch Wars

  1. School lunch is a new topic in our house, since my daughter is now in kindergarten. One of the high schools runs an organic farm which provides veggies for the school cafeterias, so they have great veggies–and lots of frozen pizza.

  2. This is another area where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Our district switched to a healthy-foods provider a few years ago, thanks to the serious efforts of dedicated parents, but how many districts can afford to do that? We gave up a lot of subsidized crap along the way.

    Of course, my kids stopped liking school lunches (the chicken nuggets are baked, the pizzas use whole-wheat crust, it’s not tasty junk anymore!) so there is that to deal with. :-)

  3. So true, Jody. Our kids are in a private school with a fabulous “food culture” as Kalafa puts it. My kids aren’t that keen on junk food yet, because I’ve been rather excessively careful about what they eat at home, knowing they’ll eat all kinds of crazy stuff once they are more independent. Their tastes are fairly healthy at the moment, but that is bound to shift as they get more opportunities to try all the salt and sugar enhanced processed food out there. I know I still crave it!

  4. I read a fascinating blog at http://familyfeedingdynamics.com/ , about eating competence and feeding your children, written by a doctor who specialises in nutrition. She often writes about school lunches and the messages schools send children about “junk” and the value of different kinds of food. I think you would be interested in reading there.

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