School Lunches Need a Food Revolution

Betsy, Eco-Novice:

I first heard about Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution from my friend Lilita, a pop culture expert turned SAHM. I was thrilled to hear that someone was shining the media light on school lunches. I even watched part of an episode on Hulu once, and nodded my head in agreement as they discussed the cooking equipment that laid dormant and the cafeteria staff’s lack of cooking skills. Then just a few days ago I heard on NPR that Jamie Oliver was taking his Food Revolution to Los Angeles Unified School District. You may have heard about the controversy. School officials won’t let Oliver’s cameras into any of the schools. No big surprise there (hello, PR nightmare). However, this assertion by L.A. school’s executive chef David Binkle caught my ear:

"The food that we serve is healthy and nutritious and very good quality."

Come again?

Healthy and nutritious? Very good quality? Ladies and gentlemen, I saw with my own two eyes the food served for breakfast and lunch daily at LA Unified elementary schools for seven years. That’s right, folks, I taught for LA Unified for seven years in low-income elementary schools where nearly every child qualified for the free lunch program. Most of my students ate breakfast and lunch at school everyday. And let me tell you, to hear someone describe that food as "healthy and nutritious and very good quality" on the radio made me laugh out loud.

Breaded mystery patty. Soggy pizza. Crustless PB&J in a plastic bag. Chicken nuggets. French fries. As one of LAUSD’s student taste-testers put it: "Even though they say the food’s healthy here, I know it’s not. This is microwaved food." Reheated packaged processed food. That’s what poor inner-city minority children, already at greater risk for obesity, diabetes and a host of other health problems, are eating twice a day. That’s what our tax dollars are funding.

There was often a token piece of fruit on the tray, which, sadly, often went straight in the trash. I used to sit and eat lunch with my students occasionally, and force everyone to eat some fruit or vegetables before leaving the table to play. But it was a losing battle. If I’d known during my teaching days that I would one day be blogging about food issues and going green, I would have taken photos of the cafeteria food served to my students. Then I’d have proof. (Note that while the school lunches pictured throughout this post are not from LA Unified specifically, they remind me of the food I witnessed being served to kids when I taught there.)

I often used to think to myself, somebody’s cousin is getting rich off this garbage. How else could you explain the contents of those trays? It seemed like the program’s main purpose was to serve as a dumping ground for the processed food industry. While some teachers sometimes ate the cafeteria food, when I forgot my lunch, I chose to go hungry rather than eat anything that came out of the school kitchen. And this was before I ever bought a vegetable at the farmer’s market or cared about the ingredients of my personal products. Even then, I knew that food was disgusting.

While it’s been 5 years since I taught for LAUSD, I’m pretty darn sure a food revolution has not taken place since I was there. I was proud that while I still taught there, the board voted to have vending machines selling soft drinks (a source of revenue for cash-strapped schools) banned from all LAUSD schools. But despite this and some other very recent improvements to the guidelines for school lunches, I believe that the quality of school lunches is still abysmally low and allows far too much processed packaged foods into children’s diets.

So, I’ve decided it’s time to get a little bit more involved.

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How will you take action?

Photo credit: All photos from What’s for School Lunch? (which has interesting photos of non-U.S. school lunches too). All photos in this post are of U.S. school lunches. While not from LA Unified specifically, they remind me of the food I witnessed being served to kids when I taught there. For even more disturbing glimpses of school lunches, just search for "school lunch" in Google Images, or walk into your child’s lunchroom.

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The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of Healthy Child Healthy World.