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Tales from a D.C. School Kitchen: Epilogue

January 25th, 2010 · 6 Comments · Posted in kids, Tales

On being a citizen journalist

On being a citizen journalist

Regular readers who tune to The Slow Cook blog for recipes and updates on my compost pile have probably been a little dismayed to see these postings turned over to stories from an elementary school kitchen. To you, I apologize. We will soon be returning to the humdrum affairs of running a kitchen garden about a mile from the White House and trying to figure out what to eat now that the garden is mostly frozen.

But I’d like to thank everyone who’s been reading this series detailing my observations from a week inside the kitchen at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in Northwest Washington. I appreciate all your letters of support and encouragement. You have reconfirmed for me that there still exists in the country a deep and abiding interest in how we feed our children.

I’d especially like to thank Tom Philpott at the online environmental magazine Grist, and Jill Richardson at the incredibly informative and always scintillating food policy blog La Vida Locavore, for promoting this long series of excruciatingly long blog posts so that they might be seen and read by others who care about these matters.

I am also indebted to the recent publication of Janet Poppendieck’s book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, which arrived here via just in time for me to absorb some valuable details about the school meal program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to lift some pertinent quotes. A sociology professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, Poppendieck has used material she has been collecting for years from all over the country to compile a sweeping analysis of how the nation’s children are fed at school. It should be enthusiastically read by anyone who wants to know how this beast called the National School Lunch Program has evolved into its current, hydra-headed form. (Poppendieck believes that all meals in public schools should be universally free.)

Also special thanks to Jeffrey Wilkes, someone who is ever-present at H.D. Cooke but is not, in fact, an employee, but rather one of those extremely dedicated volunteers who make our schools function. Jeff has a special interest in promoting “green” schools and has been involved for some years in the renovation of H.D. Cooke. He was generous enough to tutor me in the many ways the renovation of our school incorporated “green” features.

I am also grateful to the many readers who wrote in to call attention to my daily typos and other flubs. It reminds me how ungrateful I was, back in the day, for the gauntlet of editors through which each of my stories passed before appearing in print in The Washington Post. I was kind of a brat, as far as being edited was concerned. Now I realize I was simply foolish. A good editor is a necessary and valuable thing, something we solo bloggers sorely miss. My wife never tires of pointing out the errors in my copy. She’s a good reader and editor, but unfortunately she is still snoozing when I write these blog posts, usually well before dawn. For this series, I tried to have everything in the can and ready to publish days ahead. But there are always last-minute changes and additions that don’t come out perfectly when you are still rubbing sleep from your eyes. Sometimes I simply forget to hit the spellcheck button.

Some of the most interesting mail came from a reader with a doctorate degree in chemistry.  Daryl Cobranchi gently informed me that my formula for converting the grams of sugar in things like flavored milk and breakfast cereal into teaspoons of sugar such as you might stir into your morning coffee was off base.

In a series of e-mails, Daryl proceeded to demonstrate–via chemical formulae using grams of sugar in milliliters of water, or, alternately, the number of kilo-calories in a gram of sugar–that what I calculated as nearly two teaspoons of sugar in a serving of Apple Jacks was probably closer to one teaspoon. Daryl suggested that I simply compare everything in grams rather than try to convert dry measures into liquids and grams into teaspoons. Since a U.S. nickel weighs exactly five grams, he said, I could tell readers that a can of Coke would have the same weight in sugar as eight nickels.

Daryl had opened a door to a fascinating subject area–something I am usually a helpless sucker for–but time was short and somehow I didn’t think readers would easily relate to the idea of drinking nickels of sugar out of a carton of strawberry milk. What I did do was write a disclaimer on my sugar calculations, in parentheses, and insert it into the piece at The Slow Cook, as well as at Grist and La Vida Locavore. (Some astute readers will begin to understand that every time an error was found in one of my posts, I had to correct it in three different places. But at least we are dealing with electronic media where corrections can easily be made, and not a print publication where they remain on the page until you compost it.)

What I find even more fascinating is that if what Daryl says is true, then bogus information about how many teaspoons of sugar are in Coke or Mountain Dew or chocolate milk or any other food product has completely infected the Internet at innumerable sites. (I could not find anything on this subject in my copies of Joy of Cooking or Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, normally two very dependable references.) And what do milk industry nutritionists mean when they say there are three teaspoons of sugar in a serving of chocolate milk? How big a serving? Which chemical formula are they using for their calculations?  We should be skeptical of such statements. Blogging is not a license to spread inaccuracies.

Also called into question was my decision to spend some time in the final post of the series discussing the benefits of coconut oil. Look closely at what is happening to school food and you see that much depends on the restrictions on fat content spelled out by government decree, dating back to George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in the 1970s. Personally, I think this is folly. The facts about fat for too many years have been obscured by political propaganda. Fat, per se, is nothing to fear. Humans have been eating lots of fat for eons. The question is: which fats? Our modern diet is full of dubious fats, such as soybean and corn oil. Coconut oil, though it is saturated, happens to be one of the good ones. But it has been tossed aside, collateral damage in the “war on fat” and perhaps too closely associated with the followers of Weston Price. Well, the good food movement needs to be a big tent and include alternative viewpoints. We should be open to healthful ingredients wherever we find them, including coconut oil. Let’s have a real conversation without all the politically correct noise.

One of the reasons I like writing The Slow Cook is because I get to make my own editorial decisions. Too often good stories get analyzed to death in the newsrooms of the mainstream media, snuffed out before they are even fully formed. With so many newspapers biting the dust, we are hearing more about bloggers as “citizen journalists.” I suppose this particular series, looking behind the scenes of an elementary school cafeteria, fits into that category.

In fact, some readers are dying to know how these posts came into being in the first place–how I managed to wrangle my way into the kitchen at my daughter’s school. That is probably a tale better told another time. Suffice to say, it could well be that a reporter flashing press credentials might not have gotten the kind of access I did. I got in because I am a parent. There was no sneaking around or cloak-and-dagger stuff. And in case you missed what I said in the last installment, what I found behind the steam table in the “Kid’s Stop Cafe” was not at all what I was expecting. I had not intended to make an expose out of hanging out in an elementary school kitchen. I merely wanted to take a snapshot of people cooking.

Great journalism often depends on persistent sleuthing by courageous reporters. “Tales from a D.C. School Kitchen” was a story waiting to be told, a story that has shocked many parents, but I merely stumbled into it. Fortunately, I had enough sense to take good notes.

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  • nguppyRD

    I enjoy this series you are writing. I have worked around, an in, institutional kitchens all of my life. Many improvements in food quality in schools, hospitals and nursing homes can be made in both of our countries and that could keep you busy for the rest of your writing days…… I was a cook and food service supervisor and later became a dietitian. I have a software package ESHA (Food Processor) and it has a database of various foods. 12 fl oz of Coke Classic has 150 calories, 41 g carbohydrate and 41 g of sugar. Coke classic has 45 mg more caffeine per can apparently. I find it most useful to just talk about grams of sugar as that is what is on the food labels.

    Also, I think that the tropical fats have been identified as problem fats due to their high saturated fat content and even the heart associations group them with animal sat fat foods and don’t recommend them. It has occurred to me if they are so dangerous and bad for you then there should be high rates of heart disease in the countries that eat a lot of them – there isn’t!

  • Diane

    I read with interest your whole series of posts on school food and discussed them with my family. At a local food conference last year the head of Cranston, RI’s school food service described his work on incorporating local produce into the lunch program. Do you think this is easier in smaller districts? The sheer volume of food required in a large school district might be very difficult to source locally, especially if everyone has to be eating the same thing on the same day. (Do they?)
    As for coconut oil, like olive oil, I don’t think it could be considered local for most of the U.S. which brings up the issue of fats and oils for locavores. It seems to be a neglected subject much like grains.

  • pansypatch

    I found your original post in Grist and am glad I did! Really enjoyed this series and I am still hopeful that things will get better. I’ll add you to my favorites and check in from time to time.
    Happy Gardening!

  • Ed Bruske

    Diane, what’s happening with the farm-to-school movement is a slow dance. Local government’s have to decide whether to fund, then local farmers have to come up with the produce. Rest assured, if there was funded need for local produce in all the local schools, people would start growing it. I don’t think size is really the issue. Up to now, though, this is happening in isolated districts, not on a huge scale. I don’t share your definition of locavorism. Humans have been transporting comestibles long distance for trade for thousands of years. Marco Polo?

  • Diane

    Most of the food transported historically consisted of luxury items like spices which were used only by the elite and not vital, also very light weight. I’m not suggesting that we live without any imports but that something as necessary as fats and/or oils should be available from local sources and all I can come up with are animal fats and butter. I just wondered if there is any reasonable vegetable oil from a temperate plant.

  • Cynthia Fan

    WOW! I have read your DC School Food and Berkeley School Food series and look forward to reading the Boulder series tomorrow. Thank you for writing about your first-hand observations and experiences and keeping them available on your blog! As someone getting interested in school food reform 10 years after you wrote these posts, I’d be fascinated by any updates on how things have changed at these schools since your visits.