What are they eating? (UPDATE)

August 20, 2006

Continuing the back-to-school means back-to-school-lunches theme, The New Yorker this week publishes a profile (not available on-line) of Ann Cooper, the new executive chef of Berkeley Public Schools, whose $95,000-a-year salary is being paid by Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Foundation.

Cooper, writes the New Yorker’s Burkhard Bilger, a former chef to celebrities and the wealthy, having owned restaurants in towns like Telluride, was hired to revamp the “dismal school-lunch” program.

The piece follows her travails as she tries to bring healthy, good food to students who often prefer the old bad stuff while facing off against persnickety bureaucrats and staff who are reluctant to change. She must figure out how to deal with the agriculture commodities that her predecessor had ordered before she started, how to hide fresh veggies in pizza, and her dreams, along with Waters’, of making American school lunches a little more like France’s, where students dine on meals that include such items as braised salmon and leeks and raw beets in a vinaigrette.

Baker is a firebrand and she’s not afraid of talking tough:

The U.S.D.A. is the marketing arm for agribusiness. It’s responsible for the national organic standards, and it’s responsible for school lunch. How many ways can you say conflict of interest?

And if you thought she was soft-pedaling there, the article ends with this quote:

I want to sue the U.S.D.A.!…I want Oprah to pick this up! I want school lunch to be an election issue in 2008!

Definitely worth a read.* * *With many kids heading back to school this week, it was an opportune time for the New York Times Magazine to run a piece today on school lunches, authored by Lisa Belkin, the writer who brought us last week’s profile on newscaster Meredith Vieira’s combining work with motherhood.

In the face of growing rates of childhood obesity, interest is growing in funding programs to provide health lunches for kids. A number of foundations getting in the act, including, most famously, the Chez Panisse Foundation, which finances programs in Berkeley where kids eat organic and grow their own food. This coming school year is the first that schools getting federal lunch subsidies will be required to develop a “wellness plan” for teaching and providing nutrition.

Belkin astutely points out that today’s unhealthy school lunches are the legacy of a time when the main concern was that many Americans didn’t get enough to eat, which led to the passage, in 1946, of the School Lunch Act, which guaranteed a hot lunch to everyone who couldn’t afford one.

The legacy of the law, however, is that:

Twenty percent of the foods served in school cafeterias today are Agriculture Department commodities, which include everything the federal government buys a lot of and needs to pass along, from flour and sugar to fruits and vegetables. While the quality has improved somewhat in recent years, terms like farm-fresh and organic rarely apply. At the same time, the act put schools in the restaurant business, requiring that their lunchrooms manage to at least break even, reimbursing them between 23 cents and $2.40 a meal. It is a system in which pennies are necessarily looked at as closely as sodium content, perhaps even more.

Belkin doesn’t mention that both the commodities and the cheap processed foods that fit schools’ bottom lines are produced by the country’s vast agribusiness sector. Agribusiness seeds federal campaigns enormous amounts of campaign cash–nearly $26 million in the 2006 election cycle alone, 69 percent of that to Republicans, which influences lawmakers when in comes to setting federal food policies. This will be the subject of future Muckraking Mom posts.

But Belkin’s piece is well worth reading. She explores the experience of four elementary schools in Osceola, Florida, where Dr. Arthur Agatson, of South Beach Diet fame, invested cash through his foundation to start healthy eating programs. She follows the schools through the year as they replace french fries with sweet potato fries, white bread with whole grain bread, and a host of other changes.

It’s not easy. There’s resistance along the way from school staff, parents, and of course the kids themselves. There are some points open to criticism, too–even the new healthy food diet relies heavily on packaged, processed foods, which Agaston does not necessarily oppose. But at the end of the school year there is a pay off. Twenty-three of the 486 chldren who had been characterized as overweight at the beginning of the school year were considered “at risk” or “normal” at the end of the school year. There was no similar decline at the control schools studied.

While the sample size of this study is too small to draw grand conclusions, it certainly is promising. Providing healthy school lunches seems like a no-brainer.

[crossposted at www.muckrakingmom.com]