A Taste of School Lunch

The Institute of Medicine and Michelle Obama are taking on school lunches. As you’ll remember from our late summer campaign to renew and revamp the Child Nutrition Act, these school lunches reach more than 31 million kids and the other programs within the Child Nutrition Act provide breakfast, after school snacks, nutritional assistance, and more to families in need. Slow Food and Michelle Obama are urging you to write your representatives to support changes in the Child Nutrition Act. Slow Food’s Time for Lunch campaign asks for a one dollar per lunch increase, stronger Farm to School Network support, money for training kitchen staff to cook and stoves with which to cook, grants for school gardens, and a commitment to fresh, nutritious foods. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign takes the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine to push for more vegetables in school lunches. So write, call, and sign the petitions but I’d like to ask one more favor; get lunch at a public school. Wait in line, get the tray, and dig in.

I was thinking about school lunch last night at the Food From the Heart event at the Ferry Building. It was a beautiful event. Commuters wandered into the building and found red and purple linens stretching to either end of the hall. Spreads of ceviche, pastries, empanadas, oysters, meats, mushrooms, fondue, and, of course, wines welcomed visitors into a packed party and out of the gray rain. I used to hate eating in the school cafeteria. It was so rushed and always unsatisfying. I’m wasn’t a shy kid but situations like that, with kids yelling and teachers scolding, made lunch an event to be avoided. My dad used to come by and rescue me and my siblings when he could just so we could eat on the benches out front with him.

So what made the crowd so different last night? Ed Bruske wrote about Michelle Obama’s “tall order” for school lunches in the Washington Post today. He took a trip to a D.C. school to see how lunch is made, served, consumed, and sometimes not consumed. At the end of all this, he asks how we get from here to there. What made lunch in a small town in Ohio so different from last night’s event? This may be an unfair comparison. The vintners and vendors profit from their quality and creativity, whereas school lunches are a public service whose only beneficiaries are big agricultural business lobbies. And then of course there’s the discrepancy in wine consumption which may have done something to elevate the mood last night along with the live music and tango dancing. But even in the middle of the rush, vendors excitedly answered questions, vintners discussed late-season harvests, and people smiled even as they bumped into each other. So, in addition to the vegetables, the reintroduction of cooking, and the participation of the child in every stage of the eating process, from seed to stomach, perhaps we need to encourage kids to taste, perhaps we need to tell them about the breads they’re eating, perhaps we need to give them the opportunity to respond. Bruske points out that the cafeterias rely on consumption to secure aid and so they look to kid-friendly versions of edible. But what if kids were encouraged to actively taste and not passively consume throughout the day, tasting the difference between a green bean brushed with cool dew and that same green bean warmed in the afternoon sun? What if we made them write it down, pushed them to expand their vocabulary and be articulate? What if we offered the time to develop an understanding of pleasure based not on ignorance but on knowledge? Maybe the pink, sugar frosting wouldn’t hold the same appeal anymore. Maybe lunch time could feel a little more like a meal.

Write it down. Be articulate, write to your representatives:


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