by Eileen Weber
There is a food revolution underway and it includes what your kids eat at school. Lunchtime in the cafeteria has been a hot topic in recent years regarding our children’s health. Obesity and juvenile diabetes rates are skyrocketing. Our children may not outlive us, but instead die young. And, the chicken nuggets and mystery meat on the lunch line may be the biggest reason for this.
Chef Ann Cooper, the Director of Nutritional Services for Boulder Valley School District in Colorado is a strict, and formerly of Berkeley, Calif., has recently teamed up with Whole Foods Market for a “School Lunch Revolution.”
To Cooper, know as the “Renegade Lunch Lady”, the most important challenge is to change the School Lunch Program. She has been an innovator in changing what cafeterias serve-from high processed foods to organic and natural foods. While she admits changing the school system will take funding, she sees it as a pay now or pay later Catch-22. Either we put the necessary funding into school nutrition so our kids are healthy, or we pay for it later with disease, untimely death and that ultimately puts the burden on the healthcare system.
“The government has spent $147 billion on healthcare,” she said. “So the government is already picking up the tab even in this economy for our bad health. The school lunch is not a dumping ground but a health initiative and should be seen as preventive medicine.”
Cooper strongly supports the idea that if kids learn how to eat in a healthy way in school, they will carry that home. With her consulting firm Lunch Lessons, LLC, and her non-profit organization F3: Food Family Farming Foundation, working in conjunction with Whole Foods Market seemed like a no brainer. Her F3 Foundation has also started a web portal for schools to access fresh recipes and tips on how to make a school lunch more nutritious at TheLunchBox.org.
One lunch recipe is for a bean burrito. It calls for eight ingredients which include brown rice and salsa with the option to make it from scratch. Even an old stand-by like grilled cheese calls for whole wheat bread. Simple ingredients, simple recipes.
Part of Cooper’s drive to change the school lunch is making school food, cool food. But how do we do that?
“In the same way we made it uncool,” she said of the heavy marketing and advertising on American television. “We’ve had successful initiatives to get us to stop smoking or wear seat belts. We need to put that kind of effort into eating whole, healthy foods.”
Cooper’s philosophy is in line with another health food maven, Michael Pollan, renowned author of such titles as The Omnivore’s Dilemma: An Eater’s Manifesto. Pollan has been quoted in numerous publications as well as his own that we need to drastically rethink our food system. And when it comes to school lunches, Pollan is very assertive in his opinion.
“School lunches have nothing to do with nutrition,” he said in a May 14th interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! “We feed our kids cheap ground beef, cheese and corn products. They eat chicken nuggets and Tater Tots. We’re teaching our kids how to be fast food consumers. It’s not about health and it needs to be about health.”
But with all this talk about the “catastrophe of the American diet”, as Pollan puts it, school lunches are starting to change ever so slowly. According to a New York Times article dated August 10th, the price of the school lunch has gone up to accommodate the cost of fresh foods. There are now vegetarian dishes as well as those offering locally grown produce. While the majority of food choices available are still highly processed, it’s still a step in the right direction.
But when it comes to packing your own lunch from home, there may be another way to get your kids to eat healthy food.
“Have your kids be part of the process,” says nutritionist Patricia Restrepo of Key Biscayne in an August 2nd article in the Miami Herald. “Making fun things with them helps. Kids who have never touched a vegetable will suddenly eat them.”
If, as Chef Ann Cooper says school food can be cool food, it’s even better if their lunch box is fun too. There are plenty of alternatives to the hum-drum lunch box. Laptop Lunches makes everyday a trip to a Japanese restaurant. Designed like a bento box, little compartments leave room for a variety of different foods. In much the same way, the Dutch manufactured Oots lunch boxes are BPA, lead, and
phthalate-free containers that all snap together, including a thermos that can be stacked on top.
But the food we put in that lunch box needs to be healthy as well. “Unfortunately, a lot of parents get what they think is healthy when it’s really not,” said Sue Caldwell, owner and chef at award-winning Health In A Hurry. She says she often hears moms complain that they wish they could get their families to eat the organic, natural foods like the dishes she prepares in the store.
Caldwell said that while her clientele is extremely diverse, she does see parents coming in for the cookies and the wraps to put in lunches. “As the School Lunch Program ekes along,” she said of what strides have been made to change the system, “I think the prepared food market is going at the same snail’s pace.”
When it comes to health and nutrition, the tides seem to be turning in the school system. But it took obesity and disease to get us to sit up and take notice. We have the choice between healthy and unhealthy food on a daily basis. So the next time you shop, what choice will you make?