Have you ever stopped to think about what your kids are being served for food at school? Until Lunch Wars by Amy Kalafa, I have to admit that I never put much thought into it. I looked at the menu, was dissatisfied with the options, and invested in a good lunch bag and containers instead, planning on ensuring my daughter gets healthy lunches by packing them myself. The thing is, I didn’t realize that, even if she isn’t eating the hot lunch, she is still affected by what her school is serving. It’s all a part of the school’s food culture, which Kalafa takes great lengths to explain and illustrate in her book.
Did you know that 15-20% of the food served in schools comes from surplus commodities? These are “foods that the government purchases from farmers and in turn donates to the National School Lunch Program” (46). The vast majority of these commodities arrive at the schools’ back doors already highly processed, practically unrecognizable after the big food companies have gotten their hands on them. The meat is lower quality than you’d find even in the grocery store. The fruit is now canned and full of high fructose corn syrup. The peanut butter even has hydrogenated oils. Even though the USDA has issued guidelines as to what your child’s lunch should look like (re: calories, fat content, vitamin D content, etc.), they’re negating their own policies of encouraging the well-being of our children by allowing schools to feed children this junk.
Kalafa outlines in her book not only the history of the National School Lunch Program, but how you can get informed and involved in your own community so you can see improvement. She doesn’t lie to you: it’s going to take a huge commitment. Change doesn’t happen overnight and you will need a lot of supporters by your side. You need to know how to talk to the groups in a manner that is not adversarial, too, as you’ll need all the allies you can get. But it can be done! She provides success stories throughout the book, which are encouraging. One such story is New Haven, located in my home state. As a community that is largely reliant upon help from the NSLP–New Haven is not a well-off city–she shows that you don’t have to be living in a wealthy town in order to get with the program. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Personally, I found it all a bit overwhelming. I appreciate the time and research Kalafa put into this book. It is no small statement; 346 pages are packed full with information and resources, so you can get a food movement going. She even offers advice if you’re not the sort to take charge and be the leader of a food revolution of your own. Still, I guess I’m just not angry enough…yet.
I agree that the food quality is abysmal and that a school is no place to convert children into consumers, lunch into a parade of brand name products (I hesitate to call them food, though I am just as guilty as the next person of drinking soda and eating Doritos) instead of good, wholesome food. I absolutely have taken her advice to heart and will share her information. But I don’t see myself banging down the doors at my daughter’s school and demanding they get with the program. No, I don’t want my daughter to eat that junk, and I do pack her lunch most days because of this. On the other hand, my husband keeps telling me that I need to let her “be a kid” and apparently, being a kid involves eating junk. I know; I don’t get it either. But it’s awfully difficult to encourage and enforce better eating overall when there isn’t a unified front behind the effort.
I guess my point is that it’s all well and good when you put it neatly in a book, delineating exactly what needs to be done to achieve the desired results. But in the real world, nothing is ever cut and dry, and not all of us have the time and energy to devote to such a massive mission. I am changed by what I read, indeed, but it’s just too vast of a project for me, at this time in my life. I respect others’ efforts to be the change you want to see, but I am not ready to lead the charge. Not yet. That doesn’t mean Kalafa’s book has fallen on deaf ears. And this morning, when my 6-year-old slyly suggested that for just $1, she can get ice cream to accompany hot lunch on Fridays, I knew that this issue wouldn’t be going away any time soon either.
Disclosure: The views and opinions expressed on this blog are mine alone, based upon my personal experience. While I received a complimentary copy of Lunch Wars from the BlogHer Book Club, which was used to write this review, as well as monetary compensation, there was no requirement for a positive review.