How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children?s Health
"Whether the overall goal is simply to bump some greasy fries off the school menu or to have a totally new kitchen installed for from-scratch cooking, no lunchroom revolutionary should be without this battlefield manual...[a] detailed blueprint for building a better school lunchroom today."
"This meaty, practical off-shoot of Kalafa's film will help parents turn anger into positive action."
"Amy's thoughtful, well researched work continues to sound the bell for all of us working so hard towards this effort."
"An excellent book which shows why and how a school food revolution must begin if we hope to reclaim the health of our children."
"With fascinating stories and surprising facts, Amy Kalafa has created a terrific guide for all of us worried about our kids' health. May her bright style and clear action steps empower those yearning to make a difference."
"It should be a birthright in our country that no child is hungry in school and that every day - every child has access to delicious/nutritious food. Lunch Wars is a great tool for parents, advocates and school food professionals as they make this goal a reality,"
There's a battle going on in school lunchrooms around the country...and it's a battle our children can't afford for us to lose.
The average kid will eat 4,000 school lunches between kindergarten and twelfth grade. But what exactly are kids eating in school lunchrooms around the country? Many parents don't quite know what their children are eating-or where it came from. As award-winning filmmaker and nutritionist Amy Kalafa discovered in researching her documentary film Two Angry Moms: Fighting for the Health of America's Children, these days it's pretty rare to find a piece of fresh fruit in your average school lunchroom amid all the chips, french fries, Pop-Tarts, chicken nuggets, and soda that's being served. But what, if anything, can parents do about it?
Written in response to the onslaught of requests she received from parents who saw her film and asked, "If I want to attempt to change the food culture in my kid's school, how on earth should I get started?!" this empowering book arms parents with the specific information and tools they need to get unhealthy-even dangerous-food out of their children's school cafeteria and to hold their schools and local and national governments accountable for ensuring that their growing children are served healthy meals at school. In Lunch Wars, Kalafa explains all the complicated issues surrounding school food; how to work with your school's "Wellness Policy"; the basics of self- operated vs. outsourced cafeterias; how to get funding for a school garden, and much more. Lunch Wars also features the inspiring stories of parents around the country who have fought for better school food and have won, as well as details Amy's quest to spark a revolution in her own school district.
For the future health and well-being of our children, the time has come for a school food revolution.
When I'm interviewed, I'm often asked to share my story. Why did I become so passionate about school food? I've had to think long and hard to answer this question, because now that I'm so involved in the school food movement, it's difficult to remember the "before"!
Like most members of my generation, I grew up on a typical American diet of soda, chips, pizza, Velveeta cheese, steak, chicken, potatoes, and peas. Not nearly as much fast food as today's kids, but Burger King, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and others were a new, cool phenomenon in the sixties and early seventies, and we ate our fair share. In elementary school, we never questioned the food in the cafeteria line. There wasn't a choice of menu items beyond substituting a PB and J for the hot lunch. I recall referring to the meatloaf as "barf loaf," and looking forward to a dessert of frosted white cake about one inch square in size. Our simple school meals were cooked by lunch ladies in hairnets, most of whom were related to someone in the lunch line.
I was and still am a highly sensitive person. As a child I was diagnosed with allergies to trees, grass, pollen, synthetic clothing, and other chemicals. I considered myself a closet hypochondriac, never wanting anyone to know how lousy I felt much of the time. Sinus infections, skin eruptions, menstrual cramps, migraine headaches, and fatigue were medicated with progressively stronger tablets and elixirs. My eccentric temperament caused me to believe that I could never have a "normal" career, so I joined the ranks of the self-employed long before such status became fashionable. As a film and video editor and later as a producer, I was able to hide behind the scenes, creating an alternate reality that did not have to take place in real time. Thus, I could work around my schedule of symptoms.
On this path, I met and married a fellow filmmaker who took me home to meet his family in France. On first impression, I was amazed and somewhat appalled by their apparent obsession with food and drink. Each extended visit required hours around the table several times a day, an experience that made me long for sandwiches chewed over the kitchen sink with my dad when my mother wasn't home.
I had experimented with health food in college; a housemate shared with me during his macrobiotic phase, but in those days, "organic" was often synonymous with "deformed" and all that tofu made me gassy. Over time, though, I began to realize that I felt better when I ate my husband's French food (which was also quite delicious). I enjoyed following his mom to the market—a huge open- air plaza with dozens of vendors selling scores of species of seafood, an entire aisle of stalls featuring locally made cheeses, aisles of vivid fruits and exotic vegetables I'd never seen before and pastries that were delicate beyond any I'd ever tasted in America. Curious, I began learning more about the connection between whole, unprocessed food and health (mine in particular). I also discovered the politics of food in America. I learned that our food system is one of the major causes of global warming. I realized that farm- fresh, chemical- free, whole, unprocessed food was not only good for me, it was healthier for the planet, and probably better for lots of other people as well.
Eventually, my husband's "gourmet" obsession merged with my awakening "sustainability" obsession. In 1985, with a friend, we purchased a defunct dairy farm in Bovina, New York, and soon launched the first certified organic poultry and game bird operation on the East Coast, while maintaining our other life as filmmakers in New York City. Then along came the kids; our two girls were raised on mostly organic and homegrown whole foods. My husband packed the girls a homemade lunch for school most days, and neither of us gave much thought to the food served in the school cafeteria. Periodically, I would try to sell my various television network employers and friends on the idea of a program on food, the environment, health, and politics. "It's just not sexy" was the typical refrain.
My food world and my film world intersected but never meshed until December 2004, when an assignment for Martha Stewart Living sent me to the exclusive Ross School in Easthampton, Long Island. At the Ross School I met chef Ann Cooper, who had been lured from a "white tablecloth" restaurant in Vermont to run the school's wellness program. Ann coined an acronym for the school's food: Regional, Organic, Seasonal, and Sustainable (ROSS). Meeting Ann Cooper was an epiphany for me. The day of our interview I told her I'd be back to make a documentary about school food.
I spent many months researching the chemistry, sociology, and politics of industrialized food. I learned how dramatically our food supply has changed in the past fifty years. The processing and commodification of food in America have resulted in abundance and affordability, but like a balloon squeezed at one end, there's an opposite impact at the other. American kids are often overfed, yet undernourished. Studies, books, articles, and my own experience convinced me irrefutably that there is a link between childhood consumption of junk food not only with obesity and diabetes, but also with other health, learning, and behavioral disorders in children. My passion became more than a personal interest; I felt strongly that the American system of food production and distribution was a political issue affecting every child in America, and that schools had to play an important role in it.
School food is a reflection of American food policy and food culture in general. Since school is where we teach our kids what we think they need to know to be prepared for the future, I felt there was a huge missed opportunity to include real food education in the curriculum as well as in the cafeteria. I wanted to reach as large an audience as possible with my message that we need to examine our food culture, that this isn't just about cupcakes and childhood obesity. Every controversy has a bad guy, and the food industry PR firms had been quick to point fingers at parents. I wanted to counter the spin and point a finger back at the industry. I felt powerless as a parent to have any impact locally or nationally, and I wanted to know what I could do. I wanted to find out what was being done, and what could be done, to change policies and implement programs that provide better food and better food education for children.
I hadn't actually been in a public school lunchroom in years, so one of the first places I filmed was my daughter's middle school cafeteria. Reading the labels on the many packaged products for sale confirmed my worst suspicions: the school cafeteria was a microcosm of American fake food culture. Healthy-sounding products like Nutri-Grain bars had high fructose corn syrup listed as one of the first ingredients (well hidden under a foil flap that you had to fold down to read the tiny print!). The low-fat yogurt also had high fructose corn syrup, aspartame (artificial sweetener), artificial flavoring, and coloring. I asked the food service representative to show me how the computerized checkout system worked. She produced a readout of my daughter's purchases over the year and that's how I became an "angry mom." We had put money on account in the cafeteria for days when our daughter might forget her lunch, or when we might be running too late to pack one for her. I was truly shocked to discover that she had been purchasing fries, Rice Krispies Treats, Pop-Tarts, and soft drinks on a daily basis. No wonder her lunches often came home half-eaten.
I felt isolated in my community and wondered if we were the only parents in our school district who believed our efforts to feed our kids well at home were actually being undermined by the food offered in school. Two Angry Moms became the story of my quest to learn what parents like me needed to know, and do, in order to change the food environment of our children's schools.
Searching for someone who was leading the charge, I found and interviewed many moms (and one very angry dad) who had sat on food committees, nutrition committees, and wellness committees, and valiantly tried, and failed, to get better food into their schools. Criticized as nutrition Nazis and food police, they were often ostracized, banished from school cafeterias, and occasionally even run out of town. It was a greater effort to find successful models to document, but I was eventually led to many.
The frustrated parents I met advised me to steer clear of attempting to create change in my own school district while I was making the movie. These moms suggested I would get so bogged down in local politics that I would never have time to produce the film. They were right. After a few thwarted local interactions, I heeded their counsel and stayed under the radar in my hometown, choosing instead to travel the country with my camera, following the revolution fomenting on a national scale. I also documented the crusade of Dr. Susan Rubin, her organization Better School Food, and its impact on one suburban school district over the course of a school year.
Just a couple of weeks into the project I read a quote from then-secretary of agriculture of Texas Susan Combs, who said, "It's going to take two million angry moms to change school food." I figured if we could grow from two to two million, we could impact policy both locally and nationally. I realized that this was a movement as well as a movie. Along with making the film, I built a website, angrymoms.org, where parents, teachers, administrators, school food service workers, health professionals, and students can download information, sign up to host screenings of the movie, and find each other to form local networks.
I found model school food programs in the rarefied halls of Yale University, in a largely Hispanic desert community in California, in the urban streets of Harlem, in the chilly mountains of New Hampshire, and in a community just a few miles from my home. By the time I caught up again with chef Ann Cooper (my original inspiration from the Ross School), she had been hired by Alice Waters, owner of the famous Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California, whom I consider to be the fairy godmother of school food. Each example shows how the efforts of parents and community leaders have led to the implementation of new policies and programs. Many of these programs, if adopted on a large scale, would go a long way toward reversing the ominous statistics on declining children's health. Due at least in small part to Two Angry Moms, the controversy over school food is now part of a national conversation, and that's a step in the right direction.
Since the film's release, I've been traveling with the movie, speaking at libraries, school auditoriums, movie theaters, and conferences. Wherever I go, the questions I'm asked most are "How can we get more information about this?" and "How do we begin in our school district?" What follows is a hard drive's worth of research compiled into a manifesto that can be used as a guide to school food activism. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, so I've highlighted lots of examples from people I've met and places I've been to over the past few years. I've tried to give you the information you need to get acquainted with the issues surrounding school food so you can immediately start making a difference in your own community.
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