Not a day goes by without the media addressing America’s growing obesity crisis, and lately the discussion has settled on our children. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that if American children don’t get their weight in check, their anticipated health problems will significantly shorten their lives, and make them the first generation in our nation’s history to die at younger ages than their parents. In fact the CDC has said, of the children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African Americans and Hispanics will contract diabetes in their lifetimes, most before they graduate high school. This may mean that within 10 years, by 2018, that 40 – 45% of all school age children could be insulin dependent – the potential health ramifications are overwhelming, the more so, because this is ALL preventable.
The state of our nation’s food supply is unconscionable, the fact that agribusiness controls 90 percent of that supply, and of just how little most Americans know about how the food they consume is produced and processed. As a chef and an advocate for children’s health and life-long wellness, I hope to inspire action on the part of parents, administrators, health care professionals and advocates to make change – before it’s too late.
Why focus on children’s health? Pound for pound, they’re the ones most strongly impacted by the chemicals used to produce and process food. They eat more food than adults, which means that any antibiotic and hormone residues in their foods collect in their tissues in greater concentrations. And because they’re young, they’re also the ones most easily influenced by change. It occurred to me that if children could be educated from the start to make better food choices, they would carry these “lunch lessons” well into adulthood. Affecting the generation already most at risk would also help ensure the sustainability of our future food supply.
My journey began at the Ross School, a private school on Long Island, where we transformed the lunch program by hiring professionally trained chefs, redesigning the dining area, and, most important, expanding the menu to include regional, organic, seasonal, sustainable fare. Meat moved off the center of the plate, and vegetables, grains, and legumes took center stage. Salads became a school favorite, and, best of all, wellness and nutrition education were adopted as permanent elements of the school’s curriculum. The program was a huge success, but everyone wondered if something like it could be established in public schools.
Alice Waters was the first to bring such changes to public schools, with her Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California. When I was offered the opportunity to implement change throughout the food system that serves the Berkeley Unified School District, I decided it was time to jump into the “belly if the beast,” public school food. The challenges we continue to face in the Berkeley public schools are many, but over the past three years we have transformed the lunch program of the entire district.
Taking on the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is no small task, even at the local level. The system is riddled with red tape and systemic problems, not the least of which is that, at its heart, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the NSLP, has a dramatic conflict of interest: According to the 1949 Farm Bill, whose purpose was to aid and protect farmers and help stabilize rural economies through a commodity-foods program, one of the USDA’s main areas of responsibility is to provide assistance to farmers and producers. Today, the commodities program offers a high level of support to food producers who have considerable lobbying clout in Washington, DC. Many of those producers distribute products that are made into foods that are high in fat and low in nutrition and, once delivered to the public school system, by law cannot be sent back, sold, or given away. Given this system, it’s impossible for the USDA to act in the best interests of both our nation’s food producers and our children.
Today, as the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District, I coordinate 90 employees in 17 locations, who serve over 8,000 meals per day and touch the lives of all of the 9,000 students in the district. We are responsible for producing and serving delicious, nutritious food in the cafeterias, as well as for the implementation of the district’s hands-on cooking and gardening curriculum. Our vision is to “teach every child to seek, grow, prepare, and eat nourishing, delicious and sustainably grown food, empowering them to make choices that have a positive influence on their personal health, family, community and surrounding environment.”
Recipe for Success A strong school-lunch program eliminates processed foods and puts a high emphasis on fresh whole foods cooked from scratch. But, as you might imagine, choosing fresh, locally grown foods presents schools with all kinds of challenges. Unlike those of 20 or 30 years ago, most of the cafeterias in today’s schools lack fully functional kitchens and the trained staff to operate them, which makes actual cooking a virtual impossibility. Additionally, inadequate funding makes it extremely difficult to shift from processed to locally grown fresh food.
In Berkeley, we identified five challenges: food, finance, facilities, human resources/education and marketing.
FOOD: To permanently and effectively implement a healthier school-lunch program, we began by saying NO to:
- Highly processed foods full of sugar, salt, fat, additives, preservatives, and coloring. Ingredients in many of these types of products have been linked to ADD and ADHD.
- Trans fats, because there is a direct link between them and high levels of LDL (“bad” cholesterol).
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is highly unnatural, highly processed, highly controversial, and extremely prevalent in our food supply. Statistics show that since HFCS was introduced to the marketplace in the late 1970s, the rate of obesity in the US has more than doubled. Prior to its widespread use, obesity rates had been quite stable.
- Fried foods, with their high fat content, are bad for everyone—but a recent study by the Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care found that, among 14,000 people surveyed over a three-year period, 9-to-14-year-olds who increased their consumption of fried foods gained weight above what is considered a normal rate over the course of a year.
- Refined sugars and flours. White flours and sugars have been stripped of their nutritional value and enter the bloodstream quite rapidly, causing a rise in the glycemic index and producing the effects of hypoglycemia: shaking, sweating, altered thinking and behavior. Instead, we’ve chosen to promote complex carbohydrates, overall a much healthier choice.
- Vending machines that sell soda, candy, and chips should be removed.
- Competitive foods are foods that are sold in school cafeterias but that are not part of the NSLP and are therefore not regulated by USDA policies. This means that, day after day, children with money can buy such unhealthy items as fried foods, cookies, sodas, Slushees, and chips. Competitive foods should be eliminated from all schools.
- Hormones and antibiotics. Foods produced with antibiotics and hormones are more dangerous for children than for adults because antibiotic and hormone residues in foods collect in children’s tissues in greater concentrations than in adults. In the US, the severe overuse of antibiotics in the raising of food animals may create strains of bacteria with resistance to those antibiotics. Experts also have grave concerns about how the presence in our food of hormones such as estradiol is affecting the puberty rates of pubescent girls, and have noted that increased hormones are directly linked to higher rates of cancers of the breast and ovary.
We said YES to:
- Gardening classes, because hands-on experiential learning is an extremely effective tool in connecting children with food. They learn that carrots and potatoes grow underground, and that a freshly picked ripe tomato tastes remarkably different from one bought in a store. Classroom teamwork helps create an atmosphere of shared personal growth as children learn to make wellness choices that will last a lifetime.
- Cooking classes can be amazing experiences for children. Not only do they learn a valuable life skill, they expand their palates while taking ownership of their creations. And sitting down to eat with their classmates is also an important part of the learning experience.
- Tastings held in cafeterias, as well as during cooking and gardening classes, are a great way to get students to try unfamiliar foods. Even something as simple as tasting different varieties of the same type of fruit can be a palate-widening experience for children. Perhaps their parents or caregivers have only ever bought Red Delicious apples, and the first time they’ve had a chance to try a green or yellow apple, or even a different variety of red, is at school. Because Red Delicious may never have been to a particular child’s taste, he or she assumed that they simply didn’t like apples—and now can’t get enough green apples. Also, when children see friends eating something that they themselves have never even considered trying, it gives them the confidence to branch out and take a little risk. Often, they discover they like it.
- 40-minute lunch periods and Recess before lunch are mandatory parts of a healthy school-lunch program. No one likes to be rushed through a meal—we like to savor what we eat, and take our time to chew, swallow, and digest our food. Shoving it down in a mad dash to get somewhere else gives us indigestion, or forces us to eat less to avoid stomach upset. Children are no different. They need time to enjoy their food and the company of their friends in a calm atmosphere. Holding recess before lunch helps ensure that, when it’s time to sit down and eat, children will be hungry. It also means they’ll return to class ready to learn, with that burst of energy that comes after eating a good, healthy meal, rather than wasting that energy by running it off immediately after lunch.
- Child-size salad bars are a must for a healthy school-lunch program. Giving children a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and proteins is a great way to augment their diets, help them try unfamiliar foods, and make healthy choices. We know that one of the things that encourages children to try new foods is repeated exposure. If they see green beans on the salad bar every week for six or seven weeks, eventually they’ll get curious about them. One day they’ll put a few green beans on their salad, and whether or not they like them, they’ve taken a risk and expanded their palates, and perhaps have realized that trying something new can be good. The next time they see something new on the salad bar, they’re even more likely to give it a try.
- Cooking from scratch absolutely must be the focus of any healthy school-lunch program. Schools across the nation need to say good-bye to chicken nuggets and hello to roast chicken, toss out the French fries and get busy roasting potatoes and other colorful root vegetables. Canned fruits and vegetables should move over and make room for fresh ones.
FACILITIES: I found that Berkeley’s kitchen facilities, like those of most public school districts, were in a state of disrepair or nonexistent. Refrigeration, heating, serving, and cooking equipment has since been installed in all 17 locations. The central kitchen has been remodeled, and a second central kitchen is being considered. Rebuilding cooking facilities is a mandatory part of the change toward a healthier food system.
FINANCING: All US public schools need more money to adequately finance their breakfast and lunch programs. Currently, the federal reimbursement rate is $2.57 per lunch. In addition, all districts receive 18.5¢ more per child for commodities foods. California schools receive another 19¢ from the state as a reimbursement for both breakfast and lunch.
Most schools spend less than $1 on food per child per day. With an increase of 50¢, to $1 per child per day, we can feed kids healthy food. Just think about this, many of us typically spend more on our daily coffee (a Vente Latte is often $5) than most schools have allocated for food for a week’s worth of meals for their students.
HUMAN RESOURCES: Unlike school-cafeteria staff of the past, most of today’s kitchen workers lack adequate food-service training. In Berkeley we provided uniforms, implemented culinary training programs, and developed guides for professionalism, pay scales, new job descriptions and staff configurations—all essential for running safe, effective, and healthy kitchens. If we want better food for our children, then we have to hire and train professional staff.
MARKETING: It’s one thing to make the food, another to get kids to eat it. Many successful school lunch programs around the country have employed traditional marketing techniques that treat children as potential customers: they “sell” the food. Attractive advertising, packaging, and service have been shown to increase consumption of a larger variety of school-lunch foods. A marketing campaign both supports and augments nutrition education as part of the basic curriculum. “Big food,” spends $20 billion a year marketing non-nutrient food to children, we schools needs to focus on marketing school food as cool food.
If we are going to positively impact the health of our children and our children’s children, then we need to make a change and make it now. I believe that we must demand the following:
- Universal Breakfast and Lunch – healthy schools meals should be a birth-rite in America
- Make school meals a health initiative and move oversight of the program from the USDA to the CDC
- Raise the federal reimbursement rate for lunch to $4.00 with a sliding scale based on local demographics
- Raise the dietary guidelines to ensure that chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk and canned fruit cocktail aren’t a reimbursable meal
- Promote fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and whole grains
- Eliminate all highly processed foods and foods of minimal nutritional value
Perhaps, just perhaps if we can do all of this we just might save our children and the planet as well.