School Lunches and Child Health

In a recent interview with Organic Connections (September–October 2009), iconic chef Alice Waters discussed the vital need for every schoolchild to have a daily healthy lunch. Not only is this important for overall physical well-being, but a child needs proper nutrition in order to study and learn. With the current government provision of $1.00 per meal, real food is nearly impossible to obtain.

In 1979, Congress passed legislation that prohibited the sale of “food of minimal nutritional value” in meals served by schools. But according to the Natural Products Association, research shows that only 2 percent of children eat a healthy diet. U.S. school-meal programs are still laden with unhealthy fat, salt and sugar. Not surprisingly, the obesity rate among children and adolescents has nearly tripled, and child type 2 diabetes is increasing dramatically.

The organization Slow Food USA, of which Waters is a part, has launched a campaign called “Time for Lunch”—designed to get parents, teachers and children all across the country active in providing children with healthy lunches at school.

“Our campaign is about school lunch because it’s such an important issue,” Gordon Jenkins, Advocacy Campaign Coordinator with Slow Food USA, told Organic Connections. “The National School Lunch Program feeds 31 million kids every school day. Our program is also very timely because the Child Nutrition Act [of which the school lunch program is a part] was supposed to be renewed in September but has been delayed. So the timing is right to focus on school lunches.”

The first major stage of the campaign was a multitude of planned events called “eat-ins” on Labor Day 2009, to which local, healthy food was brought and shared at locations throughout the country. It is obvious that parents have attention on getting their children healthy lunches—the success of the events went off the charts.

“The eat-ins were successful far beyond what we thought we could accomplish,” said Jenkins. “We had never organized a national day of action like we did on Labor Day. We were aiming for 100 events to take place in 25 states, but we actually got over 300 events in all 50 states, and over 20,000 people came together. For us, that was a huge accomplishment.”

In places such as the International Peace Gardens at Jordon Park in Salt Lake City; the lawn of the one-room schoolhouse on Madeline Island, Wisconsin; and a busy corner in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, people came and participated in these potluck events, sharing in the fresh food and signing petitions to be submitted to Congress in favor of our children’s health.

“People organized eat-ins, say, in front of city hall and got 400 people to come and legislators to participate,” Jenkins related. “Other people from a PTA just gathered some parents and had a potluck at school. Or, in some cases, farmers gathered their CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] members and had potlucks on their farms. It varied place by place, and it really reflected each of the communities.

“The goal was to put this issue on the map, and launch the campaign in that way. We wanted to get people all over the country working on this, and we wanted for them to raise awareness in their communities and do outreach. Mainly we wanted to just gather people and get everyone to sit down together and say, ‘Look, we have this issue. Our kids are not getting the food they need at school. We’ve got this piece of legislation in Congress that could change that, so what could we do to advocate for change?’”

About Slow Food

Slow Food USA—part of the worldwide Slow Food grassroots movement—seeks to create dramatic and lasting change in the food system by reconnecting Americans with the small, local farmers, traditions, plants, animals, soils and waters that produce our food. The organization also seeks to inspire a transformation in food policy, production practices and market forces to ensure equity, sustainability and pleasure in the food we eat.

To learn more about Slow Food, its mission and its work, see the Organic Connections issue of November 2007.

You can also visit the Slow Food USA website at www.slowfoodusa.org.