The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

You Call This Food?

April 8th, 2010 · 15 Comments · Posted in kids, Tales

Is anyone home at D.C. Schools Food Services?

Is anyone home at D.C. Schools Food Services?

I was ready to have a perfectly civilized discussion–blog-to-blog–with Sam Fromartz over at ChewsWise on the subject of what we can do to get kids to eat better when I was stopped dead in my tracks by the lunch being served at my daughter’s elementary school here in the nation’s capital. Look at the photo above and tell me what you see. Do you see the same thing I do? French fries, a bag of Sun Chips, and an 8-ounce carton of strawberry-flavored milk.

You almost have to rub your eyes and take a second look. Can this really be true? Hello, Jamie Oliver! Not all the bad school food is in Huntington, W.Va. We’ve got the same stuff right here in Washington, D.C., barely a mile from the White House.

To my knowledge, Michelle Obama has never addressed the glycemic bomb being served daily to public school children right outside her door. But I could be wrong. Yes, just a mile or so from the White House, where we’re told over and over  the Obamas are hard on the case, solving the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic, kids in elementary school are being served chips, fries and strawberry milk for lunch.

Oh, wait. I forgot the ketchup. Two foil packets of it. That should count for something. And as far as chips go, Sun Chips–made from corn, whole wheat, rice flour, whole oat flour–are probably the lesser of many evils. Still….

I actually found it heartrending to watch my daughter’s lunch group–10- and 11-year-olds–waiting patiently for their midday meal, first at their tables, then pressed against a wall in a queue near the door to the food line, only to emerge at the other end with this on their Styrofoam trays. Some also had a mealy-looking chili with beans. Some had a fresh pear. But under federal “offered-versus-served” rules, kids only need to take three of the offered items to qualify for a federally-subsidized meal. That’s how you get fries, chips and strawberry-flavored milk. (Fries count as a vegetable, and the milk protein, the chips grain. Get it?)

Yes, we can have a conversation about how to get kids to eat healthier foods. But first, we need to ask, Where are the adults in this picture? Children have not yet reached the age of consent. Grownups are supposed to take care of them. Yet when you enter a public school cafeteria, you step into a kind of culinary gulag where for years the adults grinding away anonymously inside have done their best to keep the truth of what they are doing hidden from the public at large. And the public at large has been just as happy not knowing the details. This was a matter we conveniently left in the hands of “professionals”–food service workers, nutritionists, government regulators, food industry lobbyists–who have spent the last several decades devising ways to make “food” for children that grownups don’t have to pay for.

Now, with Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” being aired on network television, and school meals showing up in vivid color in the blogosphere, we are finally getting a glimmer of what “school lunch” really means. It’s not a joke any more. What we feed children has consequences. And the pictures are ugly.

Yet it is obvious that children–and especially what they eat–are not a priority. We would much rather spend billions fighting foreign wars, building tanks, dropping bombs. Honestly, what we get from most politicians is lip service and a nickel tossed into the collection plate. We are on the brink of losing our collective memory of what constitutes real food. Yet no one is accountable. We are not to judge the “lunch ladies” too harshly. They are doing the best they can. We are not to judge the food service directors too harshly. They also are doing the best they can. We should not judge our local government leaders too harshly. They depend on federal dollars. We should not judge parents too harshly. They are busy working to make ends meat….

Would anyone like to step forward and take responsibility for feeding our children in school?

The final indignity came when I was abruptly stopped from taking further photographs in the lunch room by the school’s assistant principal. She whisked me off to a conference room where the principal was having lunch with teachers (what would happen if the adults at school had to eat the same food as the kids?) The principal told me she had been admonished for the series of articles I wrote from the school’s kitchen back in January, a glimpse behind the curtain that revealed the “fresh cooked” scheme the school system had recently implemented in collaboration with its contracted food service provider, Chartwells-Thompson, was nothing of the sort. To continue taking photographs of the food, the principal said, I would need clearance from higher up. “I don’t want to get in trouble again,” she said.

Turns out there was an aftermath to my expose of the D.C. school kitchen. The young kitchen manager I profiled, who liked so much to add shredded cheese to boost the flavor of all those industrially-processed dishes she was heating in the steamer, has disappeared, presumably re-assigned.

I’m trying to square this with what Anthony Tata, schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s chief operating officer, told The Washington Post about me and that series of articles on Feb. 12: “I think it’s great a parent is super-involved and we are soliciting his input as we go forward with our program changes,” Tata said.

Blah, blah, blah.

I accuse the adults responsible for school food of gross indifference. I accuse all of us of failing to step up to the plate. I challenge Chancellor Rhee and Anthony Tata to have a real conversation with parents about the food children are eating in school. But let us not fail because we refused to look at the problem square in the eye.

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  • honeysock

    Are you writing a book yet, Mr. Bruske? I’ve been working on a title for you: “Walk Like an Ex-plo-sion: How the Food Pyramid Made Us a Ticking Bomb.”

    As a former English professor (and current restaurant owner) who used to assign as a debate topic the liability of Fast Food for causing nationwide obesity, I often wonder how an entire nation could have been so easily brainwashed–and for so many decades.

    We are paying for it in more ways than we realize.

    Keep up the good work.

  • espringf

    Children have not yet reached the age of consent. Grownups are supposed to take care of them.

    THANK YOU. It continually amazes me the degree to which adults in this country bow to the whims of children. I am all for giving kids appropriate autonomy, but perhaps total control over their food choices – when there are so many bad ones available – isn’t such a great idea.

  • Mamie

    Ed, PLEASE don’t let up – pursue, pressure, pound… whatever it takes to keep this issue at the forefront! YOU, as a parent and a journalist, can bring the kind of attention to this issue that we (teachers) can’t always manage. Like “Mrs. Q” of the “Fed Up” blog, we fear for our jobs when we dare to make waves about the poison our kids eat for breakfast and lunch every day in the school cafeteria. We – the teachers and kids – need you!

  • ms.heaps

    Well said, Ed! Who IS going to take responsibility? Where are the adults (who are essentially making the choices for these kids) going to be down the road when many of our kids are suffering from food-related diseases? We need to think ahead…future health.
    Adults have the job of guiding and helping kids, but in some cases we need to do more. Choices aren’t always what they seem…

  • Euclidmom

    Wow!! Funny that you used the term “vivid color” to describe that. There is no color there. Ok, I guess the strawberry milk is probably a “vivid color”.

    How sad that the principal and the cafeteria worker got in trouble for what is being served to the kids — its not like either of them have any power over the situation. From your original series it sounded like the young lady in the kitchen was doing her best to prepare food that has some flavor. Adding cheese to everything might not be the best solution in an ideal world, but given what she had a available to her, I’d be hard pressed to criticize.

  • MzT

    Ai caramba! As though reassigning the cheddar-cheese loving kitchen staff or admonishing the principal addresses the problem in any way! What an icky feeling, to have your work of revealing what’s happening with school food result in such completely unproductive consequences. Leaves me grossed out, even more than by the lunch. (If I ate that for lunch, I’d be lethargic and dull for the rest of the afternoon.) Thanks for plugging along, clearly it isn’t a glamourous journey for you.

  • Barbara

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, this picture reminds me of 2 words: ” crime scene”. Thank you, good luck, and my prayers.

  • Peta

    wow…I thought I had seen the worst of it here in Hoboken! ….fries and chips for lunch? Shocking and so very sad.
    The one thing that stands out for me is : “Would anyone like to step forward and take responsibility for feeding our children in school?” It seems to me its up to us, fighting and advocating at grassroot level!

  • B4GoodFood

    Somebody’s asleep at the switch! No, make that: they’re in a COMA at the switch! This is NOT lunch, it’s not even a decent snack! Yep, let them kiddies fill themselves up with carbs and sugar – they’ll get wound up and crash & burn in class.

    ENOUGH! Between the media, (Mickey D’s comes to mind) and the onslaught of processed garbage offered in the stores, parents who are shell-shocked trying to deal with kids, higher prices for everything and the yucky economy, the schools are throwing in the towel on food, too! WHAT GIVES?

    It’s time to TAKE BACK OUR FOOD and part of that should be getting good food into EVERY school.

    Mandated reading SHOULD BE:
    “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser
    “The Supersizing of America-Don’t Eat This Book” by Morton Spurlock along with
    MOVIES like FRESH and FOOD, Inc.
    Parents would be required to attend the movies -and- read the books WITH their kids.

    The more everyone knows about our food system (hopefully) The more they’ll stand up to it and DEMAND GOOD FOOD!

    Nuff said!

  • shelly

    I am so sad to say that this does not surprise me!
    I recently spent time with my three pre-teen niece and nephews and counted 32 boxes of sugared cereal in the pantry, frozen eggo waffles, red vines and on and on. I am not convinced that household income has anything to do with this behavior as this is a high 6 figure one, but the claim of” I am so busy” is certainly a default answer when it comes to this subject!
    I think until parents, who cannot be fired or bullied into silence, step up en masse the health of our nation will not improve. Here is a call out to you all!

  • rascott

    SERIOUSLY. many of the adults “in charge” complain that they offer the kids “healthy” options, but in the end it is up to the student to decide what to take on their trays and what to eat. Since when do LITTLE KIDS get to decide what is best for them? grownups are supposed to teach them. keep up the good work!

  • BHassan

    My daughter was lucky to have attended a small elementary school in Italy who had a novel approach to school lunches – – a nutrition committee composed of the responsible administrator, volunteer parents, and student representatives determined the weekly menu according to budget, nutrition, and WHAT THE CHILDREN WANTED TO EAT – – (the all caps are purely for emphasis; please don’t assume that I am yelling) – – I think that is the most important part – – that child-preferred nutritious food was served, and so, consumed. 🙂

  • Virginia

    I like you take on things, but ultimately the responsibility for our children and their choices is the parent’s. Most of those kids have no idea how to eat healthy because their parents don’t eat healthy and don’t bother to learn or teach how it is done. If the parents object to what is offered they should provide a lunch for their children, one that is nutritious, delicious, and what the kids will eat. (The waste that goes on in school cafeterias is a whole other topic of conversation… don’t get me started!)

    Just found your blog, thanks for standing up and saying it!

  • Ed Bruske

    It does absolutely no good to blame the parents. Kids can’t be held responsible for their parenting. They require attention, and are totally dependent on adults to do the right thing. For good or ill, schools are in a position where they must do something. Apparently, it takes a village to feed kids properly.

  • Anonymous

    I’m one of the parents that is making it a priority to feed my children well. I want them to know how to feed themselves when they are old enough to choose but I’m not sure how I’m going to prevent them from being brainwashed by what they see at lunch. How will I keep them healthy when kids naturally compare themselves to others? The others are eating crap and my children are resentful 🙁 It will always be a battle for us