Sunday, September 03, 2006

School Lunch: Not just mystery meat anymore?

I actually liked school lunch. My favorite was beef stew, it tasted just like my grandma's did (maybe that says too much about Grandma...luckily, she's not online) and was always served with hot rolls. If I was lucky, I could trade my milk for somebody else's roll. I drove a hard bargain in those days. I'm relatively certain those lunches weren't terribly healthy, but they filled us up, and I am darn sure they were cheap. Despite my fond memories, school lunch has been a-changing. These days, kids in many districts can choose from a-la carte options (an all french fry lunch anyone?), and schools are offering star-shaped chicken nuggets. Lunches have become higher in fat and/or sugar, and lower in fiber and nutriants (or maybe we've just starting noticing). And kids, well, they have become fatter. School lunch is under justifiable fire for its role in increasing rates of childhood obesity.

This week's New Yorker offers the latest journalistic exploration of the evils of school lunches. In The Lunchroom Rebellion: Ann Cooper’s bid to improve school food (this link will take you to the table of contents, the article doesn't appear to be available on-line), staff writer Burkhard Bilger focuses on Ann Cooper, and her efforts to reform school lunches in the Berkeley (Calif.) area. Cooper has teamed up with the Chez Panisse Foundation (Alice Waters' place) to bring healthier food to the masses. Predictably, as Bilger reports, kids have revolted against some of the healthier food (pizza loaded with fresh veggies was a remarkable failure, but come on, any parent could have predicted that one). Cooper is also running into budget problems -- though who wouldn't, she's expected to feed kids two meals per day on less than lots of us spend per day on coffees. Nonetheless, Cooper seems to be having some success at both mastering the Byzantine rules of commodity ordering and the National School Lunch Program, and the equally challenging task of just getting the kids to eat it.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a similar story. (Anybody else noticed a striking similarity in article topics this summer in these and similar highfaluting mags?) The Times article, "The School-Lunch Test," featured a district in Florida, in which Dr. Arthur Agatston (of South Beach Diet fame) and staff from his foundation are working to reform what kids put down the hatch. Agatston and his crew focus less on local and more on measurable health benefits, but both groups see processed as a dirty-word and both are pushing fresh fruits and vegetables.

These are just two examples of what appears to be a burgeoning national trend. Lisa Belkin (who did the aforementioned NYT's magazine piece) reports that places as far flung as rural Arkansas; Harlem; Santa Monica, Calif.; Atlanta, Ga.; Irvington, N.Y., and Half Moon Bay, Calif., all have some sort of school-lunch reform going on, many of which feature local food, and kids growing their own veggies.

So, a couple of questions: How big will this movement get? How big can it get? And how can we continue to pay for it? (Both articles note that the programs are having a hard time staying on budget, and both are subsidized in part by foundations.) Will this movement be good news for the local farm movement? What does it mean for the commodity distribution program(s)?


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