When President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law in 1946, he couldn't have envisioned the grip that Big Agro would eventually come to have over a meal as mild as a school child's lunch. Some 50 years later, Truman's intention—to ensure that every student have enough food in his or her belly to allow his or her brain to absorb the most education—appears to have gone grossly off-target.
The statistics are disturbing. According to data released by the American Academy of Pediatrics earlier this month, almost 5 percent of all American children ages two to 19 are severely obese—not just merely obese—a 300 percent increase from 1976. This generation is also the first not expected to exceed its parents' life expectancy. Diabetes, as has been widely reported, is on a sharp increase, as are other diseases related to inactivity and weight gain.
The numbers align with poverty, the poorest children being the fattest; those of higher income parents, the slimmest. These statistics, of course, have to do with lifestyle and access, wealthier and better educated parents presumably having the time or the help to encourage their children to exercise and eat sensibly. But it also has a lot to do with schools and their lunch programs.
The Child Nutrition Act regulates the food systems in public schools, providing free or low-cost lunches and breakfasts year-round. The problem is what they're feeding our kids everyday, meals based around America's sacred crop, corn, as well as the unholy troika of salt, fat and sugar. The Child Nutrition Act expires on Sept. 30, requiring Congress to approve the next five-year cycle of this $12 billion program that feeds some 31 million kids. President Obama has already pledged another $1 billion in the 2010 budget to it, but a national movement rapidly led by Slow Food USA is asking for even more. Not money, necessarily, but innovation.
According to the new documentary Two Angry Moms, which follows a year in the life of two women trying to change the Westchester County school lunch program, most U.S. schools don't make the meals they serve. Rather, the food is ordered "à la carte"—a fancy term which in this instance means "from catalogues"—from large food companies that offer buy-backs and discounts on volume.
"It's all coming in as processed food; there's not even an option any more," explains Slow Food Russian River convivia member Susan Campbell. "It's like going into a 7-11 at some of these schools. I remember that we had milk or an apple in the vending machine when I was in grade school. You never could have had a Coke."
Problem is, a Coke is much cheaper these days than an apple. The current estimate is that the government spends $2.68 per child on the food program, the majority of which is spent on overhead and administration costs to provide the meals. Another dollar per head would allow for school participation in local CSAs, farm-direct programs or simply just that much more lettuce on the plate.
"They're desperate for [food company kickbacks] because there's no funding," Campbell explains. "And it's on the backs of the kids. No wonder these kids are all fat!"
Peter Lowell's screens Two Angry Moms on Aug. 27 and Slow Food USA sponsors a series of "eat-ins" on Sept. 7 to protest the poor food served to our students.
"So many good foods can be eaten raw," assures Lisa Montemaggiore of Slow Food Northern Sonoma County. "So much of it comes vacuum-sealed and plastic-wrapped and for all I know they're made in Wichita. But the USDA is reviewing the school nutrition guidelines this year, and the idea is that we look at all of those programs while at the same time our healthcare costs are skyrocketing—maybe we can ameliorate it before it gets worse."
Montemaggiore, whose own son attends elementary school in Windsor, particularly bemoans the weird glamour that hot lunches have for the young. "Because it's so inexpensive and the vast majority of the kids get it free, everyone does it," she sighs. "The food that we give our children at a young age should be much more related to the food that we see growing out there. It's creating bad lifelong eating habits."
A cursory look at area school lunch menus, however, offers more than a little good news. The children who attend Ross School in Marin County have their school lunches provided by Kid Chow, a San Francisco&–based company that serves Niman Ranch hot dogs, fresh pastas, organic butternut squash tamales and other artisanal foods for $5&–$6 per meal, about twice the usual cost of a full-price school lunch. At Mary Collins School at Cherry Valley in Petaluma, students have daily access to a salad bar, as they do in most of the Napa Valley school district, Bel Aire elementary even opting for such simplicity as hummus and cucumbers for lunch on Tuesdays.
But the majority of Americans, let alone Californians, don't breathe such rarified air. According to the California 2007 demographics on food insecurity, some 1.3 million Golden State households are food insecure on a daily basis, meaning that the children in those homes don't know where the next meal might be coming from. For these families, the Child Nutrition Act is a humanitarian godsend.
But why is Slow Food involving itself? Susan Campbell cites the organization's new president, Joshua Viertel. "He's young, he's politically active and he really has a strong agenda," she says. "I think that it's also a way for Slow Food to establish itself as more of a political movement than just a dinner party club, which a lot of people have the perception of it being." She laughs. "I don't need another dinner party."
Peter Lowell's screens 'Two Angry Moms' as part of GoLocal's Dinner and a Movie series on Thursday, Aug. 27, at 8pm. 7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. $20; includes dinner. 707.328.5905. Slow Food convivial in the North Bay host eat-ins on Monday, Sept. 7. In Healdsburg, meet at the Plaza from 5pm to share a family-friendly picnic supper. Slow Food Russian River hosts a picnic at Bayer Farm from 4pm with tacos and tamales provided; please bring side dish to share and extra garden tomatoes for a salsa and guacamole feed. 1550 West Ave., Santa Rosa. Donation requested. email@example.com. For other convivial events, go to www.slowfoodusa.org.
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