Dr. Susan Rubin: Slow Food for Children’s Health

Dr. Susan Rubin: Slow Food for Children’s Health

The Slow Food movement is one of the most powerful—and tasty—grassroots activities taking place in the world today. It started in 1989 as an answer to fast food and fast life and the disappearance of local food traditions. Slow Food is accomplishing its aim by restoring people’s interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. It is now a global organization with supporters in 150 countries, including a strong sector in the US.

Because children are our future, Slow Food incorporates them into many of their events and activities. Dr. Susan Rubin is a Slow Food chapter leader and also a consultant to Slow Food USA, focusing on improving the health of school lunches. It is no surprise that Slow Food is looking to Dr. Rubin for guidance; the fight for healthy school lunches is one she knows well, as was reported in the film documentary Two Angry Moms in 2007.

“I started this journey a long time ago (I jokingly say the turn of the century) back in the 1990s,” Dr. Rubin told Natural Vitality Kids. “I have three children, and I was a dentist. I discovered very early on that my kids were being fed candy at school in the cafeteria—Fruit Roll-Ups, to be exact. From the viewpoint of a dentist, that was just about the worst thing to have happened. So I got involved in my local cafeteria and my local PTA and soon hit all the obstacles that were there to be hit, because we’re pretty messed up around food in this country.”

Dr. Rubin says she then “went down the rabbit hole” of our food situation, and as a result of her own increased knowledge she ended up creating a junk-food awareness program. She returned to school and studied nutrition, which broadened her viewpoint on junk food. “As a dentist I thought sugar rotted your teeth and made you fat,” she said. “By going back to school for holistic nutrition, I discovered that sugar is a major anti-nutrient and really bad all around.”

Through her continuing studies, Dr. Rubin began learning more about the food system in general and so became involved with Slow Food and school food advocacy. She founded a not-for-profit organization called Better School Food. “Better School Food supports anybody that’s trying to advocate for a better food environment,” said Dr. Rubin. “It’s not just K through 12; it’s also preschool, after-school, and even college level.”

It was during this time that Dr. Rubin met up with filmmaker Amy Kalafa—and inadvertently became the star of a documentary. “Amy wanted to make a movie about school food and heard about me,” Dr. Rubin recounted. “She then followed me around for a year. We filmed Berkeley, California, and some other notable school districts and what was going on with them. That kind of gave me my 15 minutes of fame, and I was able to do a lot of traveling across the country in screening the movie, including talking at the Mayo Clinic and screening in front of Congress. The exposure expanded my little Better School Food organization nationwide, and now that’s pretty much what I do full time.”

Fruits of Observation

From her substantial experience in seeing what has truly worked in bringing healthy food to kids, Dr. Rubin has amassed much useful information on what the real problems are and what solutions can be successful in resolving them.

“The main problem of children’s health is easy,” Dr. Rubin pointed out. “Our kids and grownups are eating too much packaged processed food that’s made far away. One of the things I discuss a lot in my talks is that obesity is very visible and very measurable, but it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. When treating obesity as if obesity is the only problem, we make mistakes such as Nabisco 100-calorie snack packs. That is not the answer. We need to start eating real food, and that is solved by getting kids to grow food in schools and having a really integrated curriculum where food matters.”

Dr. Rubin has discovered, as have numerous other school food pioneers, that involvement is the key to getting kids eating healthily. “I’d like to see a garden in every school—and not necessarily to supply the cafeteria, but as a really good teaching tool,” she said. “Just putting healthier food in the cafeteria is not a sustainable solution to this problem. By kids growing food, they fall in love with vegetables. A piece of ownership happens. Magic happens.

“There are so many ways to tie curriculum into that garden as well. There’s math—you can calculate yields and area and all sorts of stuff; there are various kinds of science, plenty of social studies or history, depending on what crop you’re growing, and there’s clearly art.

“I’ve seen school gardens in every corner of this country, not just in California. There’s a middle school in Belfast, Maine, that has a hoop house—they’re growing chard and different varieties of leafy greens all winter long. I know it’s easy to do in Berkeley where the weather is nice, but we can do this anywhere.”

Dr. Rubin also sees teaching cooking as a vital piece of the education. “I love Jamie Oliver’s idea that in order to graduate high school, you should be able to cook ten different items,” she said. “I meet so many college kids that barely know how to boil water. Knowing how to cook is a life skill that will save them thousands of dollars. I think it’s really important that kids know how to feed themselves.”

Activism

One element that has drawn attention to Dr. Rubin’s activities is her activism for school lunches—conducted with a bit of humor but designed to bring home a point.

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“I’ve done many different stunts over the years, but one of the things I did early on was because of the darned vending machines,” Dr. Rubin recalled. “I went one morning to my daughter’s middle school and got in line at seven in the morning. I used ten dollars’ worth of quarters and bought one of each item in that vending machine—all sorts of candy and silly junk. I brought the whole collection to the principal and dumped it on his desk—and he was kind of shocked! He didn’t know that was there. I thereafter used those samples in a lot of talks I did.

“I think making trouble—stirring the pot—is a good thing,” she continued. “Hence the name Two Angry Moms as a movie. And now that technology has evolved to where it is, I really encourage people to go and have lunch in the cafeteria and to bring their cell-phone cameras and photo-document it; because a menu is kind of meaningless—you really need to see, smell and taste the food.”

She cites several examples of this type of activism. “There’s an anonymous teacher who spent last year eating school lunch, photographing it, and blogging about it in her school district out in Illinois,” Dr. Rubin related. “Her name on Twitter is Mrs. Q, and her blog is called ‘Fed Up with School Lunch.’ This is a model that is very powerful. Let’s use social media; let’s use these tools to build this movement. It really does make a difference to go in, take those photographs, and put them on the web or bring them to your school board meeting. A picture tells a thousand words.

“Another little bit of troublemaking: I had a high school senior contact me a year ago who had some allergies, and she really wanted to find out what the ingredients were in the school food. For example, what was in the chicken nuggets? Not just the calories, the fat grams and the carbs. She was getting nowhere with her school. The food service management was run by a company called ARAMARK. So I encouraged her to take it online and start a petition, and she did. I also encouraged her to blog about her adventures in doing this. She ended up getting national attention, because there were other parents across the country who were attempting to find out the same thing: what’s in the food? Now, because of this girl Tara in Chicago, there is a mom in Texas who’s trying to get a law passed in her state about ingredient transparency.

“The world has changed so much now that we have the Internet. We can all work together and collaborate to get a better food environment.”

The Mission

Dr. Rubin concluded with a statement of her own mission—which not coincidentally falls right in line with that of Slow Food.

“My mission is to reconnect people to food and where it comes from,” she said. “I think we’re extremely disconnected. It really has to do with raising the food IQ. For me it’s no longer totally about nutrition; it’s actually about food. I jokingly say it’s about the ‘F word.’ And that, in fact, is what I do almost every day at some level.

“For instance, I just got back from Canada; I was up at the Toronto Organic Growers Association conference doing a presentation there, explaining what the school food situation is. But I also connected to bigger issues, because I feel that the food movement and the environmental movement are really one and the same. The issues of oil and energy are directly related to food and water. My circle just keeps getting wider the more I stay involved in this. As an environmentalist, I think we need to fight coal and we need to insulate our houses—but we also eat every day; so I think getting connected in that whole piece is fun, delicious and healthful. That’s why growing food in school gardens and community gardens to me is a big part of the solution.

“We’ve missed the boat at home because everybody was busy, and we’ve gotten suckered into this cult of convenience and eating on the run and eating processed packaged foods. But by reconnecting and growing more food, we will start to heal that.”

For additional information from Dr. Rubin on improving our school lunch situations, visit www.betterschoolfood.org.

Go to www.slowfoodusa.com to get the latest news on Slow Food and their many activities.

Find out more about Dr. Susan Rubin at www.drsusanrubin.com.