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Hooray for Healthy Lunches

December 6th, 2010 by jacqueline

Also printed in the Huffington Post

Congress just sent President Obama ground-breaking legislation that will dramatically expand and improve school lunches across the country. In a recent Los Angeles Times article about the bill, the reporter led with a crazy-cute photograph of a Nettelhorst student happily devouring his school lunch. Random AP shot? Not quite.

Here’s the back story: when it comes to health and wellness initiatives, Nettelhorst, my neighborhood public elementary school, has moved mountains: we successfully lobbied to become a Healthy Choice Pilot School, giving us one of the system’s coveted salad bars, honored by the Healthy Schools Campaign and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. We’re also one of the only public schools to have guaranteed recess for every kid, everyday–it’s a gift from our teachers who voluntarily gave-up a union-mandated planning period in order to supervise it.

Parents have led the charge. We helped develop the school’s nutrition policy forbidding sweets for classroom parties, which has been a tough sell for those drinking the same sugary punch as Cookie Crusader Sarah Palin. One of our moms, Tracy Wosniak, founded a program called “Waste Not Wednesdays,” where she helps fifth graders weigh the lunch garbage, and then, compost the table scraps. We started a weekly French Farmers Market.

Knowing that student health and wellness is intimately connected with environment, we’ve also transformed the school’s infrastructure, all pro bono. Our lunchroom has become “Bistro Louis” with a charming Parisian mural, soundproofing and surround-sound that plays jazz and classical music. We’ve renovated two playgrounds, an auditorium (with flexible seating so that kids can exercise during recess in inclement weather), and a teaching kitchen with Oprah designer and HSN star Nate Berkus. In partnership with the Chicago Blackhawks, we built a street hockey field in the front playlot and a a state-of-the-art fitness room. We’re in the process of building an Outdoor Classroom and organic garden with Arbor Day, Greencorps Chicago, Smarty Pants Are Leaders and Nature Explore.

All good things to be sure, but we’ve been unable to crack the biggest problem, namely, what’s being served on the lunchroom pass-through. Case in point, when the school called to say that my ten year-old son Zack forgot his lunch, I asked the clerk to loan him $1.85. “Duh. Of course we offered him money, Jacqueline,” she responded. “Guess what your kid said? No thanks. I’d rather starve. My mom says the schools serves garbage, and we don’t pollute our bodies.” Ouch.

As I trudged back to school to deliver Zack’s forgotten lunchbox of expensive organic food, crafting a lecture on “personal responsibility” in my head, I felt for the rest of the kids making due with limp pizza, Chef Boyardee, or heaven knows what else. We are the lucky ones. Almost half of all Nettelhorst students live in households that struggle to put food on the table. For some of these needy children, meals eaten at the school–lunch, breakfast, or snacks in the after-school cooking classes–will be the only meals of the day.

The Child Nutrition bill, which has strong bipartisan support, will go a long way towards improving the food situation at Nettelhorst and at schools across America. The $4.5-billion bill makes another 115,000 children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and provides 29 million more meals a year in after-school programs. School districts that comply with the new standards will receive an additional federal payment of 6 cents for each lunch served, a pretty big incentive to get with the program. While the bill encourages school districts to follow federally determined nutrition standards and source locally grown produce, some question if it goes far enough.

Organic food advocate Greg Christian, Chicago’s answer to Alice Waters, argues that every school should have an organic garden on site, teach sustainable agriculture in the classroom, and serve food that’s organic and made from scratch, everyday.

We heartily agree, but for all our talent and determination, my school community’s been unable to move the system itself. As a stopgap measure, we’ve enlisted Gourmet Gorilla, a small independent company, to provide affordable, healthy, locally sourced, organic snacks after-school and boxed meals, hand-delivered to every classroom, right before lunch. While this program has proven to be a great amenity for many families, it hardly solves the food problem for the school’s neediest children.

Unfortunately, Nettelhorst, like a third of all Chicago public schools, is cursed with a “steam and nuke” kitchen, which means that anything served hot (or warmish) is processed elsewhere. Pretending for a moment that a donor dropped from the sky to convert our dwarf kitchen into an actual cooking kitchen, there’s still no guarantee that the food produced in it would be much improved.

Christian says the real culprit for the current crisis is the USDA. Because the agency’s main job is to sell highly subsidized conventional crops (like corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat) and farmed foods (like dairy and beef), cheap, low-quality surplus food gets pushed into our schools. While pilot programs and salad bars are positive steps, they tend to mask the larger systemic problem, namely that children can’t learn if school districts continue to serve sub-standard food, day in and day out.

“Change will only come about through contracts,” says Christian. “If sustainability plans are written into the RFP’s, the winning bidders will be forced to execute them.” Few large growers and processors would be able to compete if they continue to deliver the status quo. Given the might of Illinois’ agriculture lobby, you can imagine how popular his idea will be around here.

But there’s hope. The First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood hunger and fight childhood obesity has our country taking health and nutrition seriously for the first time since WWII. Without waiting around for any top-down permission, my school has already instituted many of the bill’s guidelines, but we know first hand that it’s going to take some real political muscle to move the current system.

Mr. President, the new legislation awaiting your signature is a giant step in the right direction–on behalf of the students at my little public school, including my son, Zack: Thank you for putting kids first.

Follow Jacqueline Edelberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/walktoschool

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