In mainstream America, the "cafeteria ladies" we all grew up with haven't changed much over the last 30 years. While the "hairnet set" is still doling out jiggling squares of lime Jell-O and steaming plates of "mystery meat," our children are scarfing down the same pseudo-entrees we were forced to eat, unless Mom packed a brown-bag lunch for us.
Even worse today, however, is the fast-food invasion that has overtaken the nation's schools. Many schools have "special" days when they bring in McDonald's hamburgers or Arby's roast beef sandwiches, accompanied by fat-laden French fries. Vending machines dispense Coke and Pepsi, rotting teeth and contributing to soaring childhood obesity rates.
It would seem like the easiest thing in the world to simply remove a campus Coke machine, but the politics are staggering: Schools - often hard-pressed for money and facing budget cuts - receive kickbacks from the corporate beverage giants to keep machines on campus. Those quarters really add up, paying for textbooks and football jerseys, while expanding our children's waistlines.
There's hope, however - but only if you're willing to actively join the fight. The Organic Consumers Association has launched the Appetite for a Change campaign, which is gathering support to:
- Eliminate junk food from school campuses
- Replace nutritionally bankrupt food choices with more healthful whole foods, vegetarian fare and organic food (no pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, irradiation or genetically engineered ingredients)
- Offer solid nutrition education in classrooms
- Ban pesticides from school grounds
You may download a copy of the OCA's petition, which you can use to gather signatures to demand changes from your local school board, by clicking here. For a copy of the Appetite for a Change information brochure, click here. If school principals complain that making the transition is impossible, point them in the direction of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Appleton, Wisconsin, where school districts have committed to serving organic milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade versus packaged meals, and organic foods, whenever possible. For detailed information, click here.
"Our tax dollars feed 26 million children a day school lunch - the cost, approximately $7 billion," says Ann Cooper, former executive chef and director of wellness and nutrition at The Ross School in East Hampton, New York. She's also the author of the recently released In Mother's Kitchen: Celebrated Women Chefs Share Beloved Family Recipes, as well as Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Danger in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It. "To put that figure in perspective, we spend $50 billion a year on diet aids, $110 billion on fast food and over $115 billion on diet-related illnesses," she tells OrganicAuthority.com. "These weighty figures, combined with the fact that as many as 40% of school meals don't even abide by USDA guidelines, should make nutrition and nutrition education in schools a priority. In my mind, it is just as important to feed children delicious, nutritious food as to teach them math, English or science. All the geometry and botany in the world won't do them any good if they're debilitated by diet-related illness by age 35."
The bottom line "is that we need to make school meals a priority within the community," according to Dan Desmond, a Food & Society Policy Fellow and advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension program at UC Davis. He advises parents, teachers, school staff and community members to join forces and "begin with small efforts within schools."
In Los Angeles, for example, schools have partnered with groups like the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program of California, the Gardening Angels School Garden Program, Master Gardeners, the California Farm Bureau and the Occidental College Center for Food & Justice to develop organic school gardens. This has inspired "community members, parents and teachers to move beyond the garden and into the classroom and cafeteria to establish new priorities for learning and the creation of a healthy campus environment," Desmond tells OrganicAuthority.com. (Read his recent article, "Education and Agriculture," in Cream of the Crop, published by the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.
And while an organic food menu in schools may cost about 30% more than conventionally produced food, says Cooper, the price is well worth it when it comes to our children's health.
"We truly can change the paradigm by making nutritious, delicious food and nutrition education a priority in our schools," she says. "In fact, we can't afford not to."
Chef Ann Cooper's Prescription for Healthful School Lunches
- Reduce added fats and sugars.
- Eliminate trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup.
- Eliminate all non-nutrient foods (soda, candy).
- Minimize all processed food.
- Minimize animal protein - especially those high in saturated fats.
- Increase alternative protein sources, such as beans and rice, tofu and legumes.
- Increase whole foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and complex carbohydrates.
- Increase alternative calcium sources, such as leafy greens (as opposed to dairy).