BLOG – Schools could cultivate a lunchtime education
- Published: May 17, 2010
When I was a student at Mills Lawn, back in the day as they say, my mom was kind enough to pack my lunches every morning. I think she must have started in kindergarten, including in my Strawberry Shortcake metal lunchbox a cucumber and cream cheese sandwich, a bag of potato chips, an apple and a thermos of chocolate milk. I never wanted to buy lunch, partly because I was too scared to tell the lunch ladies what I wanted, but also because I was never sure what exactly was on those trays. And the kids who were eating them didn’t seem to know either. They were so unexcited by the lunches, in fact, that some of the bolder, more creative kids, learned they could spend their entire fist of change on a stack of chocolate chip cookies so high that it needed to be supported on the bottom, top and sides to keep from tipping over.
What has happened to our school lunch is no different from the fate of the food industry across the nation. And much as Yellow Springs prides itself on being the community of thoughtful exception, our village school system is tethered to the public funding structure that peddles highly processed, preservative-riddled, over-sweetened foodstuffs so that everyone can afford to fill their stomachs at the noon hour. Last year’s transition from Child Nutrition Services to Sodexo as the village school’s food service provider may have provided a slightly fresher and more palatable option for students, but moving to a $20 billion corporation that services corporate lunchrooms, health care facilities and prisons in 80 countries around the world (according to Cleanup Sodexo, an online project of the Service Employees International Union) was more of a side-step than a shift in the way we as a community participate in the holistic education of our children.
Is there a way to summon the old Yellow Springs spirit to slip even a milk carton of non-convention into this formula?
Surely now is the time. With Jamie Oliver scorching his way through West Virginia schools on network television to revise the lunch program in Huntington in the East, and Alice Waters waging her 40-years war on big agribusiness out West, change in the “heartland” could be ripening right on the vine. One morning this week an animated ad from Michelle Obama’s “Move It” campaign had me humming the “breakfast time, breakfast time, don’t forget about breakfast time” tune with the full-on soul of a Mississippi black man. The message is catching on, and the experience of those who have already helped to transform the school lunch program in Berkeley and in Great Britain is an invaluable resource for communities like ours.
Last year when the food service contract was up for renewal, a group of village parents started talking about a healthier and more localized approach to school lunch. The bureaucracy that regulates both the nutritional standards and the funding level of the lunch program is overwhelming. According to the Chez Panisse Foundation, the federal government calculates to the fraction of a cent the district’s lunch funds based on the number of students who participated in the program the previous year and the income level of those participating families. Most advice from those who have attempted reform is that few programs could survive without the public subsidies.
But what about small changes? What if, say, a local orchard agreed to provide all the fresh fruit for Mills Lawn and the high school from September through January. Perhaps the schools could drop the fruit portion of the contract with the main provider and also save a little by having a volunteer group run the local deliveries. Or what if a local grower offered to provide a salad bar for students during the growing season – in place of the overcooked or soggy veggie on the trays? And even if it wasn’t for daily consumption, with all the talk about community gardens in the village, couldn’t the school community cultivate a small one for educational purposes? The young people I know are always complaining about how little time they get to spend outside during the school day anyway. Why not spend it producing something?
The issue has the potential to be so much bigger than just lunch. Providing one truly healthy meal every day for each student who attends the public schools is a noble goal. But the real opportunity in my mind is that the public school system could use the food it serves every day to educate its youth about the web of issues that result from the eating choices they will make for the rest of their lives. Giving them tools to make informed decisions to eat balanced meals using whole foods grown and raised as locally as possible could make the difference between elevating sick adults who contribute to excess energy consumption and global warming and raising strong, healthy adults who commit to systems of sustainable agriculture and contribute to the fabric of their local communities.
We’re not finished with this issue. We’ve only just begun.