Category Archives: Time for Lunch

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:

Food Access? There’s a Map for That

No eggs, no meat, no public transportation. D.C. is struggling with all of these issues after yet another snow storm. Conditions are bad, don’t get me wrong, but I wonder how many counties across America struggle without public transportation or adequate access to healthy food even on the sunniest of days.

The data is out there and now The United States Department of Agriculture has created an interactive Food Environment Atlas, mapping those data points including local foods, food insecurity, proximity to grocery stores, food prices, as well as providing information on the general socioeconomic makeup of the community. (

I poked around on the atlas, looking at the information it had for my home county back in Ohio. Not surprisingly, Licking County has .804 fast food restaurants for every thousand people. Compare that to .16 grocery stores for every thousand people. Here in Alameda County (my current home) things are a bit better; .25 grocery stores for every thousand people and .765 fast food joints for every thousand people. You can even find the number of people eligible for free lunch programs or participating in the breakfast programs associated with the School Lunch programs, yeah, a lot of people rely on them. For example, monthly participants in the free Breakfast programs for San Francisco total 1,175,999 people. It can tell you the ratio of cost comparing fruits to sugary snacks, low-fat milk to soda pop, etc. It includes information on taxes on various food items. It has percentages of farms with sales directly to consumers. It tells you a lot.

But keep in mind, there are some things the interactive map can’t tell you. It can’t tell you why exercise rates are the way they are. It does not detail how many parks are available or how safe they are. It doesn’t tell you about changes over time or the number of activists working tirelessly to improve these numbers. Statistics are always just a snapshot. Data collection is an important starting point to identify problems and design policy reform. But working on these issues, and convincing others that they are worth restructuring the way we think, behave, produce, and consume will require us to create an equally sensitive and thorough map of qualitative issues. We have to be able to describe the relationship between farmer’s markets and diabetes rates, between Farm to School programs and the large numbers of people who rely nationally administered meals through the Child Nutrition Act. We have to pay attention to how communities benefit when they can produce for themselves, not just in the data points, but in community relationships and  a sense of well being. We have to understand how stigma is created around government assistance in certain programs and not in others (social security is treated as an inalienable right while nutritional assistance programs, despite the name upgrade, are still seen as markers of dependency).

So, check out the map. Then get the stories. Change will require we are familiar with both the data and the narrative. In the end, I defend Slow Food’s goals because it seeks to preserve meaning, the meaning we create when we cook, when we produce, when we share, when we know. I feel Slow Food seeks what Wendell Berry describes as pleasure based not on ignorance but knowledge. And therefore, my challenge is crafted not just with numbers and ratios, but with stories and recipes.

A Baltimore School’s Cafeteria Bill of Rights

A student council marched down to the City School Board to show them what their school lunches consisted of and to insist that if the students had to eat it every day, then so should their representatives. And as the Civil Eats blog reports, the students were successful in bringing about real change for real food like switching to local produce, reconstructing actual kitchens on school properties, and instituting Meatless Monday. The man hired to help reform the Baltimore school food system, Tony Geraci, has helped not only Baltimore but has also begun to speak to Congress and to the White House Assistant Chef and Food Initiative Coordinator. Not surprisingly, through his contacts, Geraci has been supporting the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act including the steps proposed by the National Farm to School Network. Slow Food supported all of these at our Labor Day Eat-In and with the delayed reauthorization process, we must continue to draw our representatives’ attention to stories like that of the Baltimore public school system. Here are some of the rights listed by the Cafeteria Bill of Rights developed by the students as reported by Ralph Loglisci;

The right to nutritious and delicious food for breakfast and lunch.

The right to fresh fruit and fresh vegetables each day.

The right to choose-more than one main selection each day.

The right to give feedback and have input on the quality and selections made and have our input be given serious consideration.

So, exercise your right to give feedback and let your School Boards and your representatives know what you’re demanding.

The Meaning of Real Food in Schools

Curious tourists wandered by the check-in table with cameras in hand.
Smiling into the sun they asked, “What is this?”
“It’s a potluck, a political potluck.”
This was how we would begin our explanation of what an Eat-In is all about. So what does it mean when we stage a form of protest that no one can identify as such? It means it’s part of Slow Food.

Listening to the speakers at our Labor Day Eat-In, including Senator Mark Leno and author Daphne Miller, it became clear that Slow Food isn’t a typical political movement-in fact, for some it doesn’t feel political at all. But Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini understands the fundamental link between our social experience and our policies and this is why he is able to speak of a “right to pleasure.” This right, like any other, is in need of defense and attention. So when Slow Food demands that schools receive grants for gardens, incentives to buy local products, and an infrastructure to reacquaint us all with real food they do so as part of their defense of the right to pleasure. This is not the sort of pleasure we see on television but the pleasure we see right in our own kitchens. It is the moment Dava Guthmiller described as that first taste of fresh green beans. This pleasure is a complicated one involving the immediate appreciation of a simply good green bean as well as the knowledge of its creation, growth, and history.
Real food in schools means precisely this combination of pleasures. It is partly about getting good, healthy food that will better nourish children. It is also partly about shifting to a sustainable system that brings producer and consumer closer. And it is also about creating a place for children to explore the idea of fairness, of meaningful labor. Not only does the flavor and nutrition of a green bean have something to offer, but also its entire process of being. Children will learn to prepare and to wait until that exciting day when the little leaves of green emerge. There is no better way to learn of a product’s true value than to toil and play in the garden.
And that is what a political potluck is all about-toil and play. The dishes were beautiful and would have made Cezanne jealous. And the dishes were important: the onions slipped into the Civic Center in unsuspecting backpacks, the tomatoes were tucked beneath a towel and the subversive meal began. But it was a Slow Food kind of subversive, full of friendly conversation, letter writing, and recipe swapping. It was the kind of subversive you can bring your kid to-in fact you should bring your kid to.
So if that taste of politics felt familiar enough, then here’s something you can try:
Go have lunch with your kid at school. See exactly what it is you object to, I suspect it won’t be just the food. This is something policy cannot address as effectively and that is why it takes all of us to change. At my school, the cafeteria workers used to blow whistles if we got too loud during lunch. And if they had to blow it three times, we ate our meal in complete silence. And if you broke the silence, you didn’t finish the meal at all; you had to stand at the front of the room for the rest of the period. I wonder how those whistle-yielding workers would have felt doing that if the room was full of parents?
What kind of a food system puts workers in that position? Let’s put cooking back in the kitchen.

This is just the start. Keep reading, keep eating, and keep challenging.