Obama’s school-lunch chief not much of a reformer
Note: This essay was written with Kate Adamick of Food Systems Solutions LLC and Beth Collins of Lunch Lessons LLC.
Photo: bookgrlToday, 30 percent of American children are over-weight or obese. For children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African American and Hispanics will contract diabetes in their lifetime, the CDC warns. Recent research has shown that the average age of children with kidney stones is ten, and that food additives and colorings contribute to ADD and ADHD.
In short, we’re failing to feed our children well. For us, this has become the social justice issue of our time. We believe that we all have a moral imperative to assure that, as a birthright in our country, no child is hungry at school and that the food served is both delicious and healthy.
Most of what our children are served in schools has almost no relationship to real food. Chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk with high fructose corn syrup and canned fruit cocktail or popsicles are served weekly to children all across America. Highly processed foods, often high in salt, fat and sugar are the usual fare in schools, where canned fruit and vegetables outnumber fresh by an exponential margin. These products bear little resemblance to a diet rich in fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and whole grains, which we know is the healthiest way to eat.
Enter Dr. Janey Thornton, whose job it will be to help form policy for the Food and Nutrition Service Department of the USDA, the department that sets policy for the National School Lunch Program. (Tom Philpott discussed Thornton’s appointment here.) We don’t know Dr. Thornton. Although we were glad to see that a Nutrition Services Director was picked for the post, our research about her school district makes us question whether she has the experience to confront the children’s health crisis.
Thornton’s small school district (15,000 students) in Kentucky has menus that are similar to ones that school advocates like us are trying to replace. The ubiquitous chicken nuggets, chicken patties, and popcorn chicken (all products of the USDA commodity food program) are weekly menu offerings. Pictures of children drinking chocolate milk adorn the district’s website, and cookies are on the menus on a daily basis. And to put the proverbial icing on the cake, fresh baked cinnamon rolls are served at breakfast.
When we think of the sugar, fat and salt children are consuming, we cringe. When we think about the multi-national agribusiness companies this type of school food service system supports, we cringe. And when we think about the negative overall effect that this system has on People, Planet and Sustainable Profit, all sense of optimism just drains away.
As we mentioned earlier, we’ve never met Dr Thornton, nor do we know her plans to help move FNS forward, but if we had the chance to speak to her and explain what we believe would bring back our optimism and assure the health of our children, here’s what we’d propose:
• Make meals, both breakfast and lunch universal, a system where every child is fed every day.
• Replace the current system of tracking menus by nutrients, to one where the guidelines are based on healthy, delicious balanced meals. These meals should consist in large part of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and whole grains, and should include plant based protein.
• Replace the definition of nutritious food, on which the current system is based, to one that defines and is based on real FOOD. (See full definition below.)
• Raise the federal reimbursement rate to $4.00 – $5.00, based on the cost of living of the geographical area, and dedicate a minimum of $1.75 to be spent on food. Additionally, dedicate at least $1.00 be spent on fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and whole grains with a priority placed on procuring regionally produced food.
• Dedicate resources to building or rebuilding kitchens in school districts to accommodate scratch cooking.
• Dedicate resources to set-up a training program to teach school food service workers to cook from scratch.
• Set-up a National Culinary Cooks Corp which allows culinary students to work off student loans by working in K-12 schools.
• Institute hands-on experiential learning in the form of cooking and gardening classes that become a mandatory part of the educational system.
• Dedicate resources to a National marketing campaign to help change children’s relationship to food, so that healthy/delicious school food becomes cool food.
• Underscore the importance of eating healthy food by instituting questions on the SAT tests that highlight sustainable food and agriculture.
Here are some principles we urge Dr. Thornton to consider as she moves into her new job.
Healthful Food is wholesome.
• Includes whole and minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, dairy, meats, fish, and poultry.
• Contains naturally occurring nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, phyto-nutrients).
• Is produced without added hormones or antibiotics.
• Is processed without artificial colors or flavors or unnecessary preservatives.
Healthful Food is produced, processed, and transported in a way that prevents the exploitation of farmers, workers, and natural resources, and the cruel treatment of animals. The process of healthful food production:
• Upholds the safety and quality of life of all who work to feed us.
• Treats all animals humanely.
• Protects the finite resources of soil, water, air, and biological diversity.
• Supports local and regional farm and food economies.
• Replaces fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.
Healthful Food should be available, accessible, and affordable to everyone.
• Is distributed equitably among all communities.
• Is available and emphasized in children’s environments such as childcare, school and after-school settings.
• Is promoted within institutions and workplaces, in cafeterias, vending machines and at meetings and events
• Is reflective of the natural diversity found in traditions and cultures.
We hope that Dr. Thornton can become an advocate of these changes for all of our children. If she doesn’t, our children may die at an ever younger age because of the food we’re feeding them is truly unthinkable.