Next year new federal guidelines to promote healthier school lunches will go into effect as mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Among other things, the legislation calls for less fat and salt in school lunches and more whole grains and locally grown fruits and vegetables. In this interview, EdSource’s Sue Frey talked with Amy Kalafa, author of the newly published Lunch Wars: How to Start A School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health (Tarcher 2011). She also produced a film, Two Angry Moms, that helped focus national attention on the issue.
EdSource: How does California compare with the rest of the country?
Kalafa: California is ahead of the country in the larger culture of food, and that has resulted in more model programs in this state. But it doesn’t mean that the state as a whole is ahead because most school food in California looks like school food in Rhode Island and Texas and Chicago. It’s coming from the same factories, and it’s processed and packaged and full of chemicals and sugar and salt and junk. So in that sense, California is not ahead.
But every time I turn around, somebody’s telling me about another district in California that is doing something great. Chef Alice Waters in Berkeley is one of the first models. Riverside has been doing it for a long time, and Riverside is a high-poverty district. So it’s not about the haves and the have nots. It’s about the communities that get together and decide that this is an educational priority.
EdSource: What impact do you think the proposed federal school breakfast and lunch guidelines will have on school meals?
Kalafa: They’re already raising awareness about the meals program and the issues involved. But food programs must be seized on as a local issue—district by district. We cannot expect the federal government to administer a program in every local community.
It’s not a federal mandate that is changing school districts that are really taking this to heart. It’s parents and administrators and teachers and students who are involved in raising their own food IQ and teaching food literacy. They’re hiring chefs, and chefs know how to really use whole grains, soaking them overnight so their vitamins and minerals are more available, doing it right.
EdSource: You mentioned in your book that we could get good ideas from other countries. Which countries stand out?
Kalafa: I was so struck by Brazil, which we often think of as part of the developing world. I met a woman whose mother runs a lunch program in a medium-sized city in Brazil. They have a gardener who lives on site at the school and runs the school’s garden. Her mom gets government commodities like we do here—mostly things like rice and beans and yucca, which is a popular starchy vegetable there. But they’re whole foods.
The food in the school is so good that kids bring leftovers home so it feeds the whole community. They look at junk food and fast food as a luxury item. It’s so expensive that they can’t afford it, so they’re eating much healthier even though, in a way, it’s poor-people food. And that’s true of a lot of other countries, even in the developed world.
My husband’s family is from France. Because food is such a part of their culture, they have four-course lunches in every school in the country. You’ll see kids eating beet salad and celery root salad. They offer just one meal, but the kids all eat it and like it because it’s what they know. They’re taught to have a palate that can discern subtle flavors, which is the opposite of what our kids are taught. Our kids are taught if it’s not sweet and salty all at once, then it doesn’t taste good.
EdSource: You say that you can motivate children to choose healthy foods. What are some tips for parents?
Kalafa: Watch cooking shows. Kids love cooking shows. I’ve worked at a lot of cooking shows, and I can’t tell you how many families and how many kids—even 8- or 9-year-old boys—come up to me and ask about a chef, saying: “Oh I love her show.”
Try new recipes. Look things up on the Internet. It can be really fun to plan menus and take kids to the grocery store and get them involved in choosing the produce, teaching your kid how to pick the ripest melon. Kids learn with their senses, so if they can feel something and smell it and squeeze it, they understand.
And, of course, growing some of your own food no matter where you live. Even if you have nothing but a window sill, you can grow a beautiful herb garden and then kids will taste things they’ve grown.
EdSource: What is happening with school gardens around the country?
Kalafa: There is a big movement in the country to get a garden in every school, and they function really as classrooms. Now states, including California, are putting out curriculum around school gardens and sustainability. And federal law requires districts to have wellness policies. The Center for Ecoliteracy in the San Francisco Bay Area has a model wellness policy, and they also have some wonderful books for teachers on sustainability education.
Wellness policies that address food can also address things like waste in school cafeterias. Are we still eating off styrofoam trays and tossing them in the garbage? Some schools are changing all of that and getting kids involved in the zero waste movement as well. In some districts, it’s coming from the kids.
EdSource: Is that common—kids bringing about change in food policies?
Kalafa: Almost every middle and high school anywhere I go has a green club of some kind. A lot of those kids are asking schools where the meat comes and whether they are using humanely raised meat. They are also asking for vegetarian and vegan options on the menu.
There’s increasing awareness on the part of kids about where their food comes from and how it relates to sustainability. Kids are learning about it online. In videos that get passed around, kids see how chickens are raised on the factory floor with no space and no claws and legs broken. Kids are really sensitive to that. They get really upset about it. That’s motivation.
Media literacy is another educational area that has an impact on kids’ choices. When they learn that big food manufacturers are targeting them with millions of dollars of advertising and trying to get them hooked on really junky foods from an early age, kids get indignant about that.
EdSource: What are effective ways for parents to make changes in their schools?
Kalafa: It always has to begin with a conversation, asking questions and starting a dialogue. Ask the food service director, “What are your needs? What would you like to do if you could?” And then try to find ways to support the program.
It’s a paradigm shift to get people to start to think that this is a missed educational opportunity and that we might actually be doing harm. Nobody wants to hurt kids.
You may not be able to change all the food in the cafeteria in the first year you’re involved. You may need to volunteer in the classroom or to be a monitor in the cafeteria or to start a school garden or to have a garden club. Try to find the easiest way to get your foot in the door and then develop your action plan from there.
There are so many ways to attack this from the educational standpoint. Bring pediatric cardiologists to speak. Hold a Saturday morning or after-school event so that parents can taste some examples of foods that are whole and healthy and see that they’re good.
Find people who are sympathetic in the administration, celebrate the good stuff you accomplish. Be creative and host fundraisers that don’t have junk food involved. Be that parent who is working toward positive results. And then people in the community will start to get interested and you can grow your coalition from there.
Healthy school food has become a parent-teacher organization issue now. When I started, it was too controversial for the PTO, but now they’re hosting screenings of my movie and raising funds for new kitchen equipment or to train staff in how to cook from scratch.
EdSource: Are there any California examples of effective parent lobbying for healthy food?
Kalafa: I just met Gabby Scharlach from San Rafael. When she was 12 years old, she raised $30,000 to build not just a school garden, but also an outdoor classroom with a kitchen at her school.
EdSource: You’ve been tackling this issue for many years. Are you surprised to see the school food reform movement gain such traction recently?
Kalafa: No, not at all. It’s a tipping point phenomenon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that this is going to be the first generation in American history that would live shorter lives than their parents. The statistics on childhood obesity were and just continue to be dire. Just two weeks ago, they said that 50% of the kids born after 2000 are predicted to be obese. We have to wake up and deal with it. We’ve lived in denial for a long time. We are a culture that’s pretty darn good at that and it’s bankrupting us. When people wake up from that kind of a stupor, they start looking around for solutions.
Certainly having the First Lady of the United States and then a TV star like Chef Jamie Oliver can’t hurt a cause. So we’ve got some very important people that are really speaking out now and there are some really knowledgeable leaders like Kate Adamick [who helped to turn around the food program in Santa Barbara] who know how to solve this problem in the trenches. There are models that we can learn from.