School Lunches Need a Food Revolution

I first heard about Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution from my friend Lilita, a pop culture expert turned SAHM.  I was thrilled to hear that someone was shining the media light on school lunches. I even watched part of an episode on Hulu once, and nodded my head in agreement as they discussed the cooking equipment that laid dormant and the cafeteria staff's lack of cooking skills.  Then just a few days ago I heard on NPR that Jamie Oliver was taking his Food Revolution to Los Angeles Unified School District.  You may have heard about the controversy.  School officials won't let Oliver's cameras into any of the schools.  No big surprise there (hello, PR nightmare).  However, this assertion by L.A. school's executive chef David Binkle caught my ear:
"The food that we serve is healthy and nutritious and very good quality."

Come again?

Healthy and nutritious? Very good quality? Ladies and gentlemen, I saw with my own two eyes the food served for breakfast and lunch daily at LA Unified elementary schools for seven years. That's right, folks, I taught for LA Unified for seven years in low-income elementary schools where nearly every child qualified for the free lunch program.  Most of my students ate breakfast and lunch at school everyday.  And let me tell you, to hear someone describe that food as "healthy and nutritious and very good quality" on the radio made me laugh out loud.

Breaded mystery patty. Soggy pizza. Crustless PB&J in a plastic bag. Chicken nuggets. French fries. As one of LAUSD's student taste-testers put it: "Even though they say the food's healthy here, I know it's not. This is microwaved food."  Reheated packaged processed food.  That's what poor inner-city minority children, already at greater risk for obesity, diabetes and a host of other health problems, are eating twice a day.  That's what our tax dollars are funding.

There was often a token piece of fruit on the tray, which, sadly, often went straight in the trash.  I used to sit and eat lunch with my students occasionally, and force everyone to eat some fruit or vegetables before leaving the table to play.  But it was a losing battle.  If I'd known during my teaching days that I would one day be blogging about food issues and going green, I would have taken photos of the cafeteria food served to my students.  Then I'd have proof.  (Note that while the school lunches pictured throughout this post are not from LA Unified specifically, they remind me of the food I witnessed being served to kids when I taught there.)

I often used to think to myself, somebody's cousin is getting rich off this garbage.  How else could you explain the contents of those trays?  It seemed like the program's main purpose was to serve as a dumping ground for the processed food industry.  While some teachers sometimes ate the cafeteria food, when I forgot my lunch, I chose to go hungry rather than eat anything that came out of the school kitchen.  And this was before I ever bought a vegetable at the farmer's market or cared about the ingredients of my personal products.  Even then, I knew that food was disgusting.

While it's been 5 years since I taught for LAUSD, I'm pretty darn sure a food revolution has not taken place since I was there.  I was proud that while I still taught there, the board voted to have vending machines selling soft drinks (a source of revenue for cash-strapped schools) banned from all LAUSD schools.  But despite this and some other very recent improvements to the guidelines for school lunches, I believe that the quality of school lunches is still abysmally low and allows far too much processed packaged foods into children's diets.  

So, I've decided it's time to get a little bit more involved.

Take action on other timely topics:

    How will you take action?  

    Photo credit: All photos from What's for School Lunch? (which has interesting photos of non-U.S. school lunches too).  All photos in this post are of U.S. school lunches.  While not from LA Unified specifically, they remind me of the food I witnessed being served to kids when I taught there.  For even more disturbing glimpses of school lunches, just search for "school lunch" in Google Images, or walk into your child's lunchroom.

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    1. Love this post, Betsy! I just caught some of the first season of Food Revolution and was grossed out, mad, and dumbfounded all at the same time. School lunches are really a complex problem that deserves serious attention, and I am sure that Jamie Oliver's interventions in these school districts are not perfect, but boy did he shine a light into the darkness! Why is it so hard to serve kids REAL FOOD??

    2. Great coverage on this topic. So fascinating, but it leaves me shaking my head. I'm going to go check out The Lunch Tray!

      You may be interested in this article from the Chicago Trib about the city banning homemade lunches. Seriously!

    3. Thanks, Kitty! My friend Lil, when she first told me about Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution said, this stuff is no surprise to you, but it's been horrifying and eye-opening for many of us. I am very glad it's coming to light. You'd think esp. in LA kids could get access to fresh real food.

      Anne@ModernMrsDarcy, I heard about that article elsewhere. It was true at my school that kids often did bring horrible food from home (chips and soda, even though we told parents they couldn't sent soda, and never let the kids drink it) -- but then, most parents in my schools did not have access to a grocery store. Most were carless, and, honestly, what could they think American children actually ate based on the ads they saw on TV? Immigrants get very poor information about what it is to be American from advertisers.

      At any rate, if my kid were in that Chicago school I would be livid. What about parental rights for heaven's sake?

    4. Yes, I can't believe the crap that the students at the inner city Mississippi middle school I used to work at would be served. Yuck. They used to beg to share my lunch with me, and so I usually brought extras for certain kids. And they didn't even know what things were. Like sugar snap peas were completely alien.

    5. Great post Betsy! A food revolution is a must-we are not teaching our children well by serving that garbage. The scary part is the kids actually like the food. Changing around the hot lunch programs is a great place to begin dealing with the growing issue of childhood obesity-seems like a no brainer to me! Thanks for sharing all the great ways to get involved.

    6. Thanks for taking action on this!

      My son went to a childcare/preschool where the food was terrible, partly because they didn't have a real kitchen (only microwaves and crockpots) and partly because low price was top priority. At least they allowed us to send substitute food for him, although food was included in tuition.

      This is his first year in public school, and we didn't even consider having him eat the lunches that are made for the whole district at a central facility and reheated in styrofoam trays! He brings his lunch and often comments negatively on what he sees in the school lunch.

      But I worry about the kids who can't afford to bring lunch. Luckily, a group of parents at my son's school is fighting for better lunches!

      When I was in grade school, a girl had chips, Twinkies, and a Coke in her lunchbox...and the lunchroom aide pounced, absolutely aghast! The girl shamefacedly said her mom was sick and big sister packed her lunch. But these days, many parents would pack a lunch like that. :-(

    7. I don't watch much TV, so have missed most of this show that I should probably be addicted to. One thing that really stuck out to me in the one episode I watched was that some kids don't even know what a tomato looks like in its whole form. They've never seen one. Everything they eat comes from a can or a box. Scary. It's really spurred me to be sure my son is involved in our garden. I want him to know what real food is.

      That was kind of a side note, I guess. These school lunches are horrible. Children can't live off that stuff and stay healthy. If I were a school superintendent, I'd be like "Yeah! Come in and fix our school lunches!" Don't they know that nutritious food will not only make the kids healthier, but also help them be more successful in school???

      Apparently school lunches have gotten worse, too. When I was in elementary school, there were two days a month that they had "junk" food like hot dogs or pizza, I think chocolate milk was offered once a week, and dessert once a month--I remember asking my mom if I could buy lunch on those days, lol. Not that the regular lunch days had the best food, but at least they didn't serve chips, and there was usually a vegetable besides french fries.

    8. Kelly, those who worked in schools were some of the few who realized how bad things were until Jamie Oliver came along. You are a good soul for sharing with your students!

      Groovy, Yep, they like it. Just like most people who eat processed food all the time. I've found that kids who eat very little junk food at home are pretty grossed out by it though.

      Becca, yes the real issue is the kids who can't afford to bring their lunch. The kids for whom the School Lunch Program was DESIGNED, for heaven's sake. B/c they are poor and they are kids, they have little political voice, and that's why I think the food industry has been able to get away with murder for a long time in this arena.

      Lisa C, That's how I remember it to, more or less. I did occasionally get school lunch and it was recognizable food that was actually COOKED in the cafeteria! Remember when lunch ladies cooked?

    9. NEWS FLASH! Just got an email from the Food Revolution with this news (we can make a difference!):

      "Huge news! Last night on the Jimmy Kimmel show, Superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District John Deasy announced to Jamie that he's going to recommend that LA schools stop serving sugar-filled flavored milks in school!

      Amazing! And it couldn't have happened without your hard work and support."

    10. Hi all!

      Just wanted to say how incredibly happy it made me that reading The Lunch Tray has become part of your plan to get more involved in school food issues. [Blogger sigh]

      As you may know from reading the blog, I both write about school food reform (along with any other topic under the sun relating to kids and food) but I also am involved in my own district's (Houston ISD) efforts to improve school food. And one thing I've learned is that it is NOT an easy thing to do. Even when a district has good intentions, there are so many obstacles to improving school food, starting with lack of funding and ending with a lack of student acceptance of healthful food (a big issue), and a million problems in between. I'm not without hope but I'm definitely a realist . . .

      If you do want to dig in to the issue even more, I highly recommend "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America," a book by Janet Poppendieck. It is wonderfully comprehensive in explaining why school food is such a mess and offers ideas on how to fix it, and it's very readable for a lay audience.

      At any rate, really glad to have found you all -- and that you've found The Lunch Tray! :-)


    11. Thanks for stopping by, Bettina. Thanks for the book rec and I noticed you have a lot of awesome resources for learning about the school lunch movement. I understand it's complex -- and it doesn't surprise me that it has issues, given the schizophrenia of our food policies in this nation. The USDA, which runs the program, often seems to be at cross-purposes with itself.

    12. Betsy:

      Totally. That's one thing that Free for All does really well - explains the weird hodgepodge of agendas that led to the present day National School Lunch Program. I wish we could blow the whole thing up and start over! :-)

    13. Oh my goodness, thanks for the shout out! Even with watching last season, I have still been amazed anew this time around that LA is, arguably, worse than the middle of the stroke belt South. Way to become a fighter in the Revolution and help with the cause!


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