On Frito pie and social change

Not to let the cart get too far ahead of the horse, but there are signs that things are beginning to turn around in the US on the school lunch front.

They couldn’t have gotten much worse. Frito pie and pizza, breaded hot dogs, fried chicken nuggets and french fries, strawberry flavoured milk are all on the menu at many elementary school cafeterias—and that’s not a special treat, it’s every day. The nutrition standards are byzantine but suffice it to say french fries are currently considered vegetables.

Frito pie for lunch: corn chips, chili and cheese. A recipe for a mid-afternoon nap.

You could probably argue that at least there is a national lunch program and 31 million kids in the US get a free or subsidized meal during the school day—compared to say, Canada, where we expect a patchwork of heroic volunteer efforts (breakfast programs, lunches in low income communities) to feed our neediest kids.

But for years, American school lunch activists, public health folks and others have been arguing persuasively that, in fact, just providing any old food isn’t enough. It’s such a laissez-faire approach, after all, that’s lead to an obesity crisis—with rates of overweight children in the US tripling in the last 30 years. (A group of retired army officers recently released a report suggesting school food is not just unhealthy, it’s a national security threat and a big part of why  many young Americans are unfit to serve. This is a powerful finding considering  the school lunch program got its start post WWII when too many undernourished boys turned up to enlist.). And teachers see the impact of unhealthy eating in the behaviour of their students. Kids who don’t get a nutritious meal at lunch tend to be lethargic and out of it in the afternoon—not exactly a great place to begin learning.

There are lots of people and organizations doing exciting stuff on the school lunch file in the USA, but to me, the movement truly becomes unstoppable when kids like this group in Chicago start speaking up and demanding better food themselves.

In fact, it was not long after students from the Social Justice High School got up in front of the Chicago Board of Education and told the board they were sick of the junk they are fed every day (“I would have to say [the food is] nasty and disgusting — freezing cold, rotten at times. I mean, the fruit is sometimes rotten,”  Teresa Onstott, a sophomore told NPR), that the board adopted new nutrition standards. When they implement them next fall they will actually surpass the “gold standard” guidelines provided by the USDA.

Who says kids don’t want healthy food?

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