Wednesday, October 20, 2010

School food revolution

Poor-quality (not to mention downright repulsive) cafeteria food has long been the bane of schoolchildren, nutritionists, and educators around the country. In recent years, the issue has been getting attention from community activists, celebrity chefs, Slow Food, and the First Lady. And it turns out that last week was not only DC Farm to School Week, but also School Lunch Week. As such there have been all kinds of fun, food-related educational activities going on around the country. (See? It was more than just my group's apple tasting station at the DC Farm to School kickoff event. Those local WV apples do look tasty though, no? Go on and try one.)

School food is finally getting the attention it deserves -- I mean, cripes, how are kids supposed to learn when they're eating junk, or nothing at all?? Local policies like DC's Healthy Schools Act are allowing schools to put more money where their mouths are, allotting funds to get healthier food to more schoolchildren. While the additional money for food, training, and infrastructure going toward improving food quality and access in our public schools pales in comparison to, say, what we spend on our country's military or penal systems, it is something. We're talking a rise of 10 cents per child per meal in DC schools, with an additional 5 cents for locally-sourced ingredients. It may not sound like much, but considering the 2009 $2.68 per meal rate, those pennies can add up.

There also appears to be an unprecedented empowerment of schools and students to demand better food...and some of them are getting it. One of the success stories I recently learned about is the work being done right here in New Orleans. It involves some unlikely partners including a city-wide, student-driven activist group (known as "Rethinkers" in the most recent issue of Edible New Orleans) that has been issuing school food report cards and corporate catering giants like Sodexo (a group which I have long held in low esteem for their poor quality and unfair labor practices, but who seem to be turning over a new leaf -- which is good, even if the leaf turning is entirely profit-driven) changing their offerings accordingly. School food has long been contracted out to corporate catering giants like Sodexo, Chartwells, and Aramark. While I am inherently suspicious of the ability of such groups to produce anything resembling fresh or high-quality food, it turns out that technically these Food Service Providers (FSPs) are supposed to answer to their customers -- the school district, school boards, and even students. It is possible for a school district to demand something better, and groups like New Orleans' FirstLine Schools (which include Samuel Green Charter School, home to NOLA's Edible Schoolyard, which I visited last May) are demanding exactly that from their provider, Sodexo: three servings of fresh fruits and veggies each day, a salad bar, healthier versions of native cuisine. (And let me just say that to describe the native cuisine here in NOLA as "delicious" is a vast understatement.)

Want to know what's going on with school food in your area? For national programs, I'd recommend checking out the National Farm to School website ( and the First Lady's website (

For my fellow DCers, there are resources like the DC Farm to School site ( and councilwoman Mary Cheh's website ( Incidentally, I spotted both Ms. Cheh and USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan -- both champions for improved school food -- at last Tuesday's DC Farm To School Week kickoff event. Neither stopped by my apple tasting station, though, so I didn't have a chance to gush about their work in person. Maybe I should drop them a postcard saying as much when I get to Italy tomorrow.

Apologies in advance for a week unplugged from the crackberry, but international data plans are, shall we say, astronomically expensive. Also, I'll be busy gorging myself on local wine and gelato.

More on the Community Food Security Coalition and Terra Madre conferences to come when I return from Italy.... Oops, sounds like they're boarding my flight. Ciao regazzi!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. Blogging from the airport...nice.


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