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BLOG – Schools could cultivate a lunchtime education

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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.


7 Responses to “BLOG – Schools could cultivate a lunchtime education”

  1. Brandon Zappin says:

    On the other hand, this is probably not a solution in my eyes. Often, ever so often, the subject comes up. I can remember a couple of times, as I sit here. No one, though, jumps on the “lunch wagon,” to take matters in hand. And that’s what it takes. Stepping beyond the ideas and into active idea management. Organize a commitment from the community, schools, and providers, and you’re off.

  2. Brandon Zappin says:

    Mills Lawn had a successful and educational lunchtime offering created and expedited by many inspired 5th and 6th grade students. In 2002 and 2003 through two small grants the students developed a lunchtime program completing the research, menu items, and cost analysis, to shopping, preparation, and service. We offered the entire staff lunch each Friday though the program could be altered in any way, as needed. What was also cool was that it aligned with all of the current standards and curriculum. Plus, we had great fun!

  3. Sharon Mohler says:

    I have been a gardener all of my life .I think that it would be good to teach gardening to everyone , but , not many are interested in doing the amount of dedicated hard work that it is .There is a lot more to it than meets the beginners eye . Without understanding this beginners just get discouraged.
    I would suggest teaching children and everyone else how to prepare food . For instance -everyone likes spagetti, Show kids how to make it from scratch. They could get an appreication of tomatoes and herbs.
    I will bet that everyone reading this could think of things that are not really difficult to make that kids could learn .
    If the kids understand what quality is , then they just might expect to have it .

  4. Yvonne Wingard says:

    There may not be a room available for this anymore since there are no longer cooking classes; I believe all that equipment was sold at auction awhile back. But while you think that a bunch of students have interest in it, even if you do find an advisor, finding a time to get those students together is next to impossible. There are too many activities for the amount of students we have, which creates MEGA conflicts and then the students have to choose and certain activities “win out” because they have attendance policies, like sports and theater. That’s probably why no one volunteered…they knew it wouldn’t fly for long…

  5. Moira Laughlin says:

    On a former lunch improvement committee, we had an idea for guest chefs, local cooks/chefs who could work with small groups of kids in the kitchen to prepare food (on occasion), and at the same time, instill instruction/appreciation for real food. An experiment one time with something as simple as plain, fresh watermelon slices proved extremely successful.
    There was also a request by some students a couple of years ago to start a cooking club, but no faculty member was willing to be the advisor, so that idea was lost. With the need for educating our kids about how to buy and prepare nutritious food (and the current lack of a home-ec curriculum), a cooking club seems like an awfully good idea. Thinking of our kids’ futures, how can we afford to let something like this go?

  6. Amy Scott says:

    I heard there are no more french fries at all! I wonder if that’s true.

    Lauren, thanks for this fantastic piece. I could not agree more about the need for improvement.

    I would be thrilled if our schools offered locally-grown fruit or other local foods. As I understand it (and I’d like to be corrected if anyone knows otherwise), the obstacles are:
    1- our extremely small school size means that some companies don’t want to bother with us at all. It’s barely worth it to them to deliver such relatively small quantities of food. I’m not sure whether ordering even less would eliminate us from their consideration.
    2 – I’ve heard that in order to provide free and reduced lunches, we have to comply with certain government health rules that create obstacles to using local foods. I’m not completely clear on this, and again, would appreciate clarification if anyone knows.

    Thanks again!

  7. Yvonne Wingard says:

    The garden idea is a good one, but won’t work AT school; it would be vandalized by other students. I DO like the idea about community produce…surely the school’s contract with Sodexo has SOME flexibility. Many of the students won’t buy fruit and healty food–honest, I saw it myself in line, even when it looked GREAT–but at least HALF of them would. And having that option might start a trend. A salad bar with TRULY fresh options would be great too and REAL vegetables…I hope they are sticking to their guns with the french fries only ONCE a week; they used to offer them EVERY DAY!!!

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