Lunch Wars: Speaking Up for the School Food Revolution

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"Lunch Wars" arms parents with the specific information and tools they need to get unhealthy—even dangerous—food out of their children's school cafeteria and to hold their schools and local and national governments accountable for ensuring that their growing children are served healthy meals at school.

The following is an excerpt from “Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health” by Amy Kalafa (Tarcher/Penguin 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 2: Get Connected.

A September 2010 study by Russell Research, a national research firm, found that while 45 percent of children buy lunch at school at least some days, 75 percent of parents think that the food offered at school is not very nutritious. Those numbers interest me for several reasons. Seventy- five percent demonstrates that there are a lot of parents who are aware of the need to improve school food. It also suggests that there are many parents who choose to have their children buy lunch even if they believe it’s not healthy. And perhaps many more parents would send in lunch money (or these days put money on account) if they believed the food was nutritious. In marketing parlance, that’s a lot of low- hanging fruit. What would it take to get those parents to become advocates for their kids? Maybe they just need to get connected.

Out of the Closet

Van Jones, author, activist, and former special adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told me, “Everybody has to come to that place in themselves where their own fear or shame about standing out is less important than the damage we’re doing to our children. If you think about a mother lion, you know she’s a pretty peaceful cat most of the time but when somebody is threatening the cubs, that’s a different thing. And what’s happening right now is if somebody ran into a school with a gun we would react very aggressively to try to figure out what we’re going to do. The kind of food that we’re giving our children is going to wind up killing more children than any gunman this year. We’re setting our kids up for diabetes, for lifelong obesity; we’re putting toxins in the food that goes into their bodies. That’s an emergency. And in an emergency you have to respond.”

One of the first and most important things you can do to get a local movement started is to speak out. I spent many years passively observing fast- food culture, without ever considering just getting out there and talking about it. When my kids were little, they’d have friends come over for playdates that often included a meal. Whether we were having stir- fried rice and veggies, or lamb chops with beans, I was often met with “No, thanks, I’m not hungry, do you have any soda?” I soon learned to keep chicken nuggets and bagels in the freezer, as these were the mainstays of my daughters’ friends. Every now and then I would attempt to entice them with a carrot freshly pulled from my garden, but these kids were mostly set in their ways and the thanks I got from one dad was the title of “granolahead.” By the time the kids were in middle school, the overheard carpool conversations often turned to a discussion of which medications each child was taking. “Oh, you’re on Prozac too?!” is not a line of dialog from a cheeky Hollywood movie, it’s an actual sound bite from the back seat of my minivan. So I began speaking up at home, preaching to my kids and their friends (eyes rolling) about the benefits of eating real food. By high school, both of my daughters had several friends who struggled with physical, emotional, and behavioral disorders that required hospitalization. Finally my younger daughter said to me, “So does this mean we’re the normal ones?”

Could I have changed the outcomes of my kids’ friends’ health issues if I’d spoken up sooner? Probably not, but those kids helped me see my own struggles in a different light. Maybe if these kids had been exposed to a greater variety of fresh foods, maybe if they weren’t offered junk food as often, maybe if there had been a bit more emphasis on developing their taste buds, maybe they would have been stronger and more resistant to the challenges of adolescence.

Our food ways had made my children feel different growing up, but my daughter’s epiphany led to one of my own. Why should my family’s healthy eating habits be considered marginal? Shouldn’t our food be the mainstream “normal” cuisine, and junk food the weird stuff? In France, where my husband’s family lives, mainstream culture revolves around real, whole food. As an American visiting there, I had been surprised by a culture in which the regular people, everyday middle- class families, shopped at farmers’ markets, and prepared affordable meals from scratch. I thought it was quaint, and figured they would be thrilled when a giant Carrefour grocery store opened nearby. Although the village farmers’ markets weren’t necessarily cheaper than the new supermarket, the convenience foods and frozen dinners the big market offered were met with bemusement by a culture that lives by the joy of cooking. (With one notable exception– Granny, the ninety- plus- year- old matriarch of the family, adored the frozen pizza I sneaked in for my kids one afternoon.) In French schools and home kitchens, children learn about growing, preparing, and tasting real food. They eat the same food as their brothers, sisters, and parents. They spend time at the dinner table in conversation. This simple daily mealtime ritual covers all the bases of Popular Parenting 101– nurturing, sharing, quality time, focusing attention on the family. My daughter and my French family made me realize that if we could actually change our American culture and get real food back onto family dinner tables and into the mainstream, we could go a long way to reversing the crisis in children’s health. I had to speak up!

Since I started speaking up, I’ve met many successful activists who have shared some great advice with me. Here’s what Alan Khazei, founder of Be the Change, and former CEO of City Year, a program of AmeriCorps, has to say: “As a mom you are powerful. It’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving that found solutions to the drunk driving problem and led a revolution. Recognize you are a powerful person. It’s not rocking the boat when you’re advocating for your children and other people’s children. They can’t advocate for themselves; they are too young. They’re not eighteen, they can’t change who is making the policy, so if you feel a little shy or a little intimidated, think about your kids and what they need, or think about other people’s kids and what they need. Find another mom or two that you’re friends with and say, ‘Ya know, I’ve been concerned about the food in the lunchroom– What do you think?’ They’re concerned, too. You are needed. We can’t afford for anybody to sit on the sidelines. If we don’t rock the boat, then the boat’s going to sink. Get out there and you will make a difference.”

When you speak out, you find other people who share your passion. Maybe they’ve been afraid to speak up as well, or maybe you hadn’t known they were out there talking about this. I found a community in my town that I had never known and they took on school food the way parents in the school district had taken on topics like school expansion, bullying, and ball fields.

Reprinted from LUNCH WARS: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health by Amy Kalafa, with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright Amy Kalafa 2011.

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