Fighting Mad About School Food
October 12th, 2009 · No Comments · Posted in food news
Here’s a gem of a film that’s flown largely under the radar but should be seen by anyone who’s the least concerned about the food being served in schools.
Independent filmmaker Amy Kalafa and dentist-turned-nutritionist Susan Rubin were both fed up with the junk food their children were being exposed to in school and spent a year going around the country examining different school meal programs and investigating government’s role in child health.
What they found was, of course, appalling: too many schools dishing up processed and packaged foods loaded with salt, sugar and chemicals; too many French fries and tater tots and fried mozzarella sticks; too many vending machines filled with candies and chips and sugary sodas. And then there’s our federal government, which is the the biggest funder of school lunches but is mostly concerned with furthering the interests of Agribusiness and billion-dollar food and beverage manufacturers.
Representing the other side are inspired, passionate segments with Alice Waters, who convincingly argues that food and how it is grown and prepared should be incorporated into the school curriculum. And activist chef Ann Cooper, who demonstrates that with the right attitude and hard work, schools can serve good food made from scratch. And nutrition activist Marion Nestle, who argues that the USDA and children’s health are caught up in “the ugliest kind of politics.” And Rodney Taylor, a food service director in Riverside, California, who decided the best way to get kids to eat the food at school was to buy fresh produce from local farmers. And the parents of one New York school district, who prove that food policies can be changed by doggedly pursuing the local school board.
You may be wondering, Why is it I’ve never seen this film? Because it was never shown in theaters. It came out two years ago and made a splash in the media–Good Morning America, USA Today, NPR, Rachel Ray TV–but the only way to see it is to order a DVD from the makers.
Finally, I got my hands on one. This is a film to show your friends, your fellow food activists, your local PTA. Even if you already know all the issues by heart, you should see it just to be inspired.
A little background: Amy Kalafa, an independent filmmaker by trade, had already been introduced to school food issues when Martha Stewart sent her to Easthampton Long Island to shoot a segment on school food with Ann Cooper, who would later move to California and become a national figure working with Alice Waters in the Berkley public schools. Kalafa was inspired enough to begin studying child nutrition, learning along the way that children were caught up in a spiraling obesity epidemic and that the current generation is likely to be the first with a life expectancy shorter than their parents’.
Kalafa, who had been sending her own daughter to school with a healthy, homemade lunch, was shocked when she went to school and examined the computer records in the cafeteria, which showed that her daughter on the side had been helping herself liberally to the a la carte offerings: chips, fries, Rice Krispie treats, cake, Pop Tarts.
“And that’s how I became an angry mom,” Kalafa says as the film’s narrator. “I was angry that my daughter was in this environment. Angry that junk food was offered every day on the lunch line.”
Looking for an equally angry mom as a subject for her film (a $500,000 venture funded by herself and her filmmaker husband, along with donations from other concerned parents), Kalafa found Susan Rubin, a mother of three school-aged children who’d been agitating for better school food for years. A dentist by profession, she became so concerned that she went back to school to get a degree in nutrition.
Rubin had been so vocal on the subject of school food, in fact, that she was no longer welcome in the her local school’s cafeteria. But for the film she sneaks in to see what’s being sold, and emerges with a strange, blue-colored sugary beverage to go with the standard-issue hamburger and French fries.
Government farm commodities turn up in school meals as dubious processed items such as a “no-cook breakfast” consisting of a plastic tub of artificially flavored soft cheese to accompany a bowl of Doritos. Appetizing, huh?
There’s a bit of Michael Moore’s cheeky, subversive influence in this film. When Kalafa and Rubin aren’t snooping around school lunch lines, they are on the phone calling the USDA for an interview–and calling, and calling, and calling. Unable to get a response, they drive to Washington and crash the headquarters of the federal school lunch program. Initially, a security guard is dispatched in an apparent attempt to scare them off. But finally they do score a brief interview with a USDA spokeswoman, who says very little of substance, indicating that it’s really the parents’ responsibility to make sure their kids are well fed.
Rubin attends a “public hearing” on school food at the Institute of Medicine in Washington, only to discover she is the only parent there. She holds up a huge can of processed potato snacks and lollipops as examples of the “rewards” her kids receive in school for good work. Otherwise the hall is packed with food and beverage industry types listening to a panel composed of mouthpieces from General Mills, Kraft, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, ConAgra. One panelist argues that kids risk being stigmatized if they stray from the prevailing junk food offerings.
But Kalafa does not dwell on the negative, except to suggest that lousy school food may be playing a role in all sorts of children’s health problems. There are many reasons for hope. When Alice Waters’ daughter goes off to Yale for college, for instance, Waters helps establish the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which embraces the notion of using locally grown produce in the cafeterias. The prevailing idea of an unlimited variety of fast foods to placate kids in school cafeterias gives way to delicious meals made from scratch, and we get a gripping inside look at the kids gobbling it up. The program is so successful, students begin making phony IDs to gain access to the dining hall where the Waters-inspired food is being served.
Rodney Taylor, the food service director in Riverside, California, explains how fast food companies at one point were invited into schools to help boost revenues. But when a parent observes that kids are not eating at the salad bar because the vegetables are old and stale, Taylor learns that by sourcing fresh produce from local farms he can attract more kids to the cafeteria. Preparing fresh food, he says, “is labor intensive, but pays for itself through increased participation.”
Schools can actually save money by ditching those institutional, half-pint containers of milk and switching to a more expensive, healthier milk in large containers that kids pour themselves. In some schools, teachers sit down with kids for family-style meals to teach them better eating habits.
Ann Cooper, a salty dynamo who enjoys bending the rules, agrees that making fresh food in schools is more work. But it can be done. “It’s not so hard,” she says. And in a burst of emphasis she delivers what may be the film’s best line: “You just gotta do it. You just gotta care.”
Kalafa notes that “when our kids’ health is at stake, we want to protect them. But many (parents) have tried to make changes in their school and given up.” She and Rubin recommend five steps to better school food.
First, start a committee of parents, students and teachers in the community.
Step two: Survey your community. Grow your numbers.
Step three: Visit the cafeteria. Audit the ingredients.
Step four: Read the food service contract for your local school district. Write a wellness policy that specifies your district’s needs.
Step five: Market your new program. Kids have been exposed to so much junk food that they miss it when it is removed from school. They need to be exposed a dozen times or more to healthier foods before they will accept it. But eventually, they will.
I would argue that Step One might be getting your hands on a copy of the 86-minute film,”Two Angry Moms.” You’ll need to go here and order one for $29.99. (And no, they didn’t pay me to say all this. They just sent me a review copy after I told them I wanted to write about it for this blog.)
Now you can schedule a screening and start a revolution in your own school district.
Note: Amy Kalafa wrote a background article on the film for Huffington Post. The making of the film was described in some length in this piece in USA Today. Rubin has started an organization called Better School Food. Their aim: to start a movement. It seems to be catching on.