Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer, writer and host at the must-read American blog about kids and food (“in school and out”) called The Lunch Tray. She has been a fearless crusader for healthier school meals for several years, and was the brains behind the successful petition to the USDA to get rid of pink slime (fatty beef trimmings treated with ammonium hydroxide and added as filler to ground beef—yuck!) in the meat served in American schools.
I always enjoy her smart and nuanced writing and thinking about kids and food issues—especially her unapologetic defense of equity in the cafeteria—but I also appreciate that she sometimes blogs about what she’s feeding her family. School food is that kind of issue: the personal really is political.
So, of course, I was honoured and delighted when Bettina asked to interview me about What’s for Lunch? Here’s an excerpt from the Q &A after the jump. To read the whole thing, please visit The Lunch Tray. In fact, visit The Lunch Tray anyway.
The big news in lunch this week was the USDA released its new standards for school meals. Pizza will still be considered a vegetable and the french fry lobby maintained its hold on the list of acceptable foods (and still isn’t happy that “the potato is being downplayed,” reports the New York Times), but according to observers like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, these new standards are the best ever, representing “one of the most important advancements in nutrition in decades.”
New nutrition standards: does that mean no more Frito pie?
The USA will now join countries around the world that offer healthy guidelines for school meals.
Salt will be limited, no trans fats allowed, kids will be offered a wider variety of fruits and veg, milk will be low fat and whole grains are prioritized. School lunch providers will get an additional six cents per school lunch in order to achieve these new standards. (USA Today offers a few more details here.)
It’s about time.
But the fight for healthy school lunches is not over. The new standards will be phased in over time, there will no doubt be food companies looking for ways to cut costs, and the amount provided per meal may simply not be enough in the first place. Vigilance is necessary.
Check out Bettina Elias Siegel‘s always excellent analysis at The Lunch Tray for more on the Good, Bad and Ugly of the new standards. I also thought Mrs. Q., of Fed Up with School Lunch fame, did a nice job expressing how parents can help improve school lunch in her babble.com column.
Incidentally, Mrs. Q. posted an interesting piece about lunch ladies. Seems the staff of Chicago school cafeterias were actually asked what they think about school lunch. More evidence of their makeover, methinks.
Photograph by Yvonne Duivenvoorden, an early peek at my upcoming book, What's for Lunch?
Don’t miss the scathing must-read New York Times Sunday Review piece by Lucy Komisar about how the food industry is making American kids “fat and sick” while raking in profits. Here’s an excerpt:
“One-third of children from the ages of 6 to 19 are overweight or obese. These children could see their life expectancies shortened because of their vulnerability to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Unfortunately, profit, not health, is the priority of the food service management companies, food processors and even elected officials. Until more parents demand reform of the school lunch system, children will continue to suffer.”
Last week was National School Lunch Week in the U.S., and in order to “celebrate” it, the University of Southern California’s Masters of Arts in Teaching created this infographic on the reality and consequences of childhood obesity. Wow. When you put it that way…
Mrs. Q,the anonymous teacher who ate lunch in her school’s cafeteria every day for a year and blogged about it—generating thousands of hits a day—has come out of the closet.
Turns out, Mrs. Q is a Chicago school-based speech pathologist named Sarah Wu (rhymes with Q, of course). Her book Fed up with Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Survived a Year of School Lunches,has just been launched.
I’ve been following Mrs. Q since she started, checking out her blog mostly to see the pictures of the largely unhealthy and invariably gross-looking food (squishy, doughy hot dog buns, dried-up tator tots, mushy frozen corn, overly packaged everything) that she—and the kids in her low-income school— had to eat. She was like a more low-key, less gonzo Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame).
And like Spurlock, eating the nasty food on offer in the cafeteria made her sick.
I found the images of her lunch—often slightly grainy and blurred— shocking and disturbing because while she had a choice in the matter, many of the kids eating the same food did not. But it was also fascinating to watch how she became more politicized about the horrors and complexity of school lunch as the year went by. It started out as an experiment, and became a campaign.
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
A nutrition and public policy expert, Marion Nestle is one of the vibrant mothers of the American food movement. Her 2002 book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health is a kind of bible for people interested in the subject. And her ever-growing list of other books (on subjects ranging from pet food to why calories count) continue to win awards and influence many.
She writes a regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle answering readers’ questions about food. I particularly liked a recent column where a reader wrote in to ask her how she can go farther than simply voting with her fork in order to affect change in food policy. It’s a question I think we all need to ask ourselves.
And Nestle argues—as I do in What’s for Lunch?—that school food is a great place to start:
“I particularly like school food as a starter issue for advocacy. Improving school food is nothing less than grassroots democracy in action.
Schools matter because kids are in them all day long and they set a lifetime example. If you have children in school, take a look at what they are eating. Could the food use an upgrade? Start organizing.
All schools are supposed to have wellness policies. Find out what they are and talk to the principal, teachers and parents about how to improve access to healthier food and more physical activity.
Another well-kept secret: The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers technical assistance to help schools meet nutritional standards. The USDA encourages advocacy. It says its work is easier when parents push the schools to do better.
Many groups are devoted to school food issues. Some have published guides to getting started or developing strong wellness policies. They range in focus from hands-on local to national policy.
There are a lot of stories, video and podcasts out there that chronicle the worst of school lunches in America.
It’s a greasy, gory ride through tales of Frito pie, pizza and deep fried chicken nuggets. Of course, there are going to be widespread changes as the new Child Nutrition Act gets put into place, but it turns out, one of the biggest school districts in the country made the change several years ago.
According to The New York Times City Critic Ariel Kaminer in this video and article in the paper, New York City’s public schools started serving healthier meals six years ago. No fried food, no artificial ingredients, no trans fats—and all for about $1 a meal.
And the best news? Kids like the food. Especially the salad bar.
Now if they could just get rid of those nasty disposable Styrofoam trays…