Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Policy Point Wednesday: School Lunch Activism in Chicagoland

So, if you follow this blog, you may be wondering about Saturday’s panel discussion about the film Lunch Line.  I found the film to be an excellent review of the history and politics behind the school lunch program; if you want to get involved in the issue, it's a terrific place to start. (It's well worth the $20 to buy the DVD if you can't find a local screening.)

I was glad to be able to attend two local screenings and participate in two very different discussions: the first screening took place at Northwestern University, and the audience mostly appeared to be students and professors interested in social and political issues.  The panel was quite interesting, involving the filmmakers, experts - and some Chicago students who were researching school lunches.  Much of the discussion revolved around the question of whether or not lunches should be designed to appeal to children.  An audience member observed that if we don’t allow porn in school libraries, we can say the same about desserts at lunch…and one of the filmmakers quietly responded.  He said the comparison between porn and lunch food was apt, as there is often just as much politicized disagreement about what constitutes porn as there is about what constitutes "food;" lunch is an extremely complex issue.   Another student, following this thread in the conversation, related how his peers abroad would wistfully watch kids on TV eating pizza and candy – but they ate the stew they were given for lunch, anyway.  He seemed to think that if kids are truly hungry, they will eat whatever is offered to them.

The second screening was at our local public library, and the audience consisted mainly of parents and local activists and advocates.  Since our District’s Superintendent was on the panel, the discussion was quite spirited, mostly centered around “nutrient-based” vs. “food-based” menu planning options offered by the USDA.  (In a “nutrient-based” system, as long as the target nutrients are in the food, any food is allowed – the film showed vitamin-enriched gummi bears that can be offered instead of oranges.)  The panel included Rochelle Davis of the Healthy Schools Campaign, whose “Cooking Up Change” program was featured in the film, and she discussed many of the successful changes in the Chicago Public School lunches – and how sometimes changes are not always well-received by students.  Parents were vocal with their concerns about the high sugar content of many lunch items.  One parent spoke up to say that she saw school lunch as a social justice issue: the kids who most need lunch are the ones most likely to be negatively affected by appealing but less than healthy lunches.

As I heard the parent talking about social justice, it occurred to me that something often gets overlooked in this discussion: if lunches are meant to educate children as well as to nourish them, lunch providers should offer foods that are easily accessible.   I know many people want school lunches to be high-quality, local and organic - but, say our District decides to fund $5 or $8 organic, local, gourmet meals - what message does that send to the children who can't afford those foods outside of school?  While there is much work to be done with our current food system, my primary objective in working towards better lunches is to teach children about healthy food choices, so they can bring those healthy habits home and carry them the rest of their lives.  I think this is an accessible goal, and I hope to see change coming soon.

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