Posted on Fri, July 02, 2010 by Slow Food USA
1 Comments | Categories: Food Justice, News, Current Events, Policy, School Food,
by guest blogger Bettina Elias Siegel of The Lunch Tray
When I was asked to write about why I recently started my blog, The Lunch Tray, I came to see that it really all started with a simple packet of animal crackers.
By way of background, I’m a former lawyer and current freelance writer living in Houston. I’m also the stay-at-home parent of two children at an HISD public elementary school. I’ve had a longstanding concern about public school food and last spring was appointed to a new Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) formed by HISD and Aramark (the company to which our food services operations are outsourced).
Right around this time, HISD was expanding its initial roll-out of a universal, in-classroom breakfast program, so at the first PAC meeting, HISD showed the parents the food it was serving for breakfast—Trix yogurt, high sodium biscuit and sausage sandwiches, Uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and the like. Horrible stuff, but what really baffled me was that at every meal, kids were also required to take a packet of animal crackers.
When I asked about the animal crackers, the HISD/Aramark dietician explained that they were needed for the meal to meet USDA nutritional guidelines and thereby qualify for government reimbursement. That really stumped me. I started to realize I’d stumbled into an area totally outside my prior experience, which led me to Janet Poppendieck’s fantastic new book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, an invaluable School Lunch 101 for anyone trying to wrap their head around our present system. [Editor’s note: we reviewed the book here.]
Meanwhile, when parents started finding out that I was on the PAC, it seemed like everyone had something to say to me. I was stopped in hallways to discuss everything from school food to Oreos at the 10 am soccer game—people clearly wanted to have this conversation. And, armed with the new knowledge I’d gained through the PAC and my own research, I realized I had a lot to say, too. Hence, The Lunch Tray.
Since joining the PAC and researching school food in earnest, I’ve come to recognize that this is a behemoth of an issue, with longstanding, complex problems that are rooted primarily at a federal, not district, level. That’s why, at least in a huge, urban district like mine (with its financial constraints and other worthy priorities, like reducing the drop-out rate), I often feel that the efforts of the PAC are futile or likely to result in weak half-measures at best. I believe the most promising mechanism for real change is influencing Congress at it considers the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (and thank you, Slow Food USA, for your efforts there), and perhaps also by taking action at the most local of levels—the individual school.
At bottom, I do believe that if we could look into a crystal ball and get a glimpse of America’s future school cafeterias, we’d see dramatic improvement over our current system. So many recent cultural shifts—a growing sense of alarm over childhood (and adult) obesity, a new interest in where our food comes from and how its production affects our health and environment, concern about climate change and the need to source food locally—all point in that direction.
I just don’t know how long it’s going to take to get from here to there.