by Marion Nestle
Aug 15 2009

Let the school-meals revolution begin!

My latest Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle is about school food.  As always, the column is a Q and A

Q: School is starting soon. Is there any hope that school food will ever improve?

A: Yes, there is. The food revolution is upon us. Go into any school that has joined the revolution – many have – and you will see kids eating recognizable foods, helping themselves from salad bars, finishing what they take, all within the typical 30-minute lunch period. And nary a chicken nugget or soda in sight. Teachers in such places swear that the kids behave and learn better, do not bounce off the walls after lunch, and show fewer signs of eating disorders.

From what I’ve seen, this miracle requires a committed principal, a dedicated school food service director, and at least a few teachers and parents who care what kids are eating. If the food service people know the kids’ names, it’s an especially good sign. With such elements in place, the food will be real and taste good enough for the kids to want to eat it.

But the school food revolution can do more. It can turn the cafeteria into a teachable moment. I discovered that on my first teaching job when I saw how easy it was to teach biology through nutrition. Everyone eats.

Schools can use what’s served for lunch to teach the chemical composition of food and its biological effects. They can use recipes to teach mathematics, food choice to teach political science, and the entire eating experience to teach literature, English or foreign languages. Kids can be taught about food plants and animals, how they are produced, and the associated monetary, labor and environmental costs.

Individuals like you can make this happen. The national model, of course, is Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley. If your dream is to have your school connect food production to eating, take a look at Berkeley’s Center for Ecoliteracy’s how-to guide, “Big Ideas: Linking Food, Culture, Health, and the Environment.” (Go to ecoliteracy.org.)

Although many schools are not equipped to grow or cook food, they can still produce healthy meals that kids want to eat. I’ve just met with some of the people who work with the British chef, Jamie Oliver, on his school dinner campaigns. Oliver used his cooking skills and celebrity status to produce revolutionary changes in English school meals which, if anything, were worse than ours. I like his ideas because they sound much like mine, and I especially enjoy the British way he puts them:

  • Ban the junk. Please, let’s. It’s time we got rid of vending machines, a la carte service and everything else that competes with federally funded school meals. If we did that, we wouldn’t have to have all those nutrient-based arguments about what’s allowed in vending machines. Kids need water? How about fixing the drinking fountains or supplying tappable containers of filtered water as I’ve seen done in the Berkeley schools.
  • Big love to dinner ladies. This is Oliver’s way of calling for better support – financial, material and emotional – to the school food service people. I vote yes.
  • Teach kids about food. Teach kids to grow, cook and taste food, and they will never look at fast food or food “just for kids” the same way again.
  • Half a quid a kid! Translation: School meal programs need and deserve more money. In American schools, the federal lunch program is required to be self-supporting while everything else is subsidized. Education officials in San Francisco tell me they know how to produce healthy, tasty meals for kids but they desperately need more money to do it right. Slow Food USA is sponsoring a Time for Lunch campaign aimed at getting legislators to better support school meals. Join it. The program kicks off with an Eat-In on Sept. 7. (Go to slowfoodusa.org for more information.)

These are great ideas, but I don’t think Oliver takes them quite far enough. I want another action that I think is essential for American school meal programs:

  • Make school meals universal. Our present system requires a hugely expensive local and national bureaucracy expressly devoted to preventing kids who are deemed ineligible from getting free or reduced-price meals in schools. This ugly system stigmatizes poor kids and makes the kids of illegal immigrants go hungry.

Why not just say that we think all kids should be fed breakfast and lunch while they are in school? Doing this would allow all that bureaucratic waste to be applied to the meals themselves, making it easier for the “dinner ladies” to obtain better food and be paid decent wages.

The school year begins soon. Here’s your opportunity.

[Marion Nestle is the author of "Food Politics," "Safe Food" and "What to Eat," and is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. E-mail her at food@sfchronicle.com and read her previous columns at sfgate.com/food.  This article appeared on page K - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle. © 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.]

  • David McIntyre

    Marion – Don’t think I ever told you this: When I was in 3rd or 4th grade in Austin, TX our science teacher disected a cow heart for the class – and then sent it to the cafeteria. We had BBQ heart for lunch that day. It was an impactful lesson in both science and cuisine.

  • Janet Camp

    David: Wonderful story!

    Marion: Excellent column on all points. Only one thing I would question; why illegal kids should go hungry? (I’m NOT opposed to including them in lunch programs); I grew up very poor and my Mom always packed my lunch which was very good and nutritious (if a bit too meat oriented). I had “hot” lunch occasionally as a “treat”. I guess this is just a dated concept.

  • Marion

    @Dave–And I’m sure I never mentioned that when I taught biology at Brandeis University, one assignment was to dissect squid. The prospective calimari arrived frozen from California and perfectly edible (if not Kosher) once the “spine” was out and the rest quickly sauteed. It was one of my favorite experiments.

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  • Sheila

    Unfortunately, there is still a wide disparity in commitment to change, and in staff education/training.
    Our local little school district has just promoted one of our school bus drivers to the position of director of food services. She has no formal training in nutrition or food services, and she is personally an obese, noncompliant diabetic. When I asked how she was going to learn the needed information to make appropriate diet selections, I was told she was being sent to a one week training program. I do not have high expectations for improvement in our school lunches locally.

  • Lauri

    Unfortunately, the free breakfest at my local schools consists of a Super Donut — what they call an enormous glazed donut or a box of Sugar Frosted Flakes. The milk is skim, the juice is not 100%. I’d rather see them get whole milk-based yogurt than these sugary meals, but fat is stigmatized and the teachers also eat the donuts.

    During the summer, some of the schools are open for lunch. Free to any kid no matter where you were from, even illegal immigrants, only the kids could get a tray of typical school lunch fare. Parents could sit and watch. My kids would take a tray, pick at the food and I wasn’t allowed to eat their leftovers, nor offer them to another nor take them home.

    I’m still not sure if I approve of the program.

  • Cathy Richards

    here here for Jamie Oliver’s suggestions. And I love Marion’s inclusion of a national universal lunch program, but am nervous about making breakfast programs universal. I worry that parents won’t be spending enough time with kids at the breakfast table. Family meals are an important time for communication, and leaving just supper for the parents to be responsible for might decrease the regularity of family meals. Plus, if kids are walking or biking to school it would be nice for them to eat first, not later. Definitely have breakfast food available for students, but not a universal sit down breakfast.

    I have worked on school food issues for years. It is definitely something requiring lots of time, dedication, persuasion. Parents and schools are stretched for time and money and mental energy.

  • DairyStateMom

    I LOVE the idea of universal meals, as long as they are GOOD meals. I can understand the previous commenter’s concern about parents spending less time at the breakfast table with kids, and the ideal of kids walking or biking to school needing to eat first — but I think the reality is that an awful lot of kids are riding a bus to school starting at an astoundingly early hour and they aren’t eating a thing before they get out the door.

  • Dennise O’Grady

    Talk about a teachable moment! I used the book Hungry Planet (a recommendation from Andy Bellatti) to teach Spanish to grades 6-8 this year; not only did we look at what people were eating in Spanish-speakinh countries and the effect the US diet is having on Mexico, we then looked at countries around the world; the kids naturally, on their own, would make observations that compared and contrasted a week’s worth of food in rural China vrs. a week’s worth of food from a family in North Carolina against what their own family’s week might look like.

    It was inquiry-based learning at its finest!

  • http://www.changebecomeschange.typepad.com Gina

    Wonderful post, full of brilliant ideas that I believe we’ll see in our school systems some day. I’ve been writing a lot about healthy school lunch options lately and a quick google search for “healthy vending machines” turned up a number of companies providing healthier options for kids. These appear to be better options over the offerings currently in school, especially considering that many schools still need the revenue that come from the current ones.

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  • Lisa

    I am a lunch lady, I do believe in this revolution but we get cut time every year. We don’t have enough time to prep as it is. Our department is in debt . I am being realistic that if the kids don’t get fries and chicken nuggets for lunch you know they will have it for dinner(Sad but true) Healthy eating habits start at home not school. They could pick the healthy salad we have available everyday but they only know what has started at home , This one meal a day is not making our kids fat it is mostly what they eat out of school in front of the t.v. (I hate when they blame it on school lunches!!!!!!!!!