Recently Michelle Obama and White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass hosted almost 1,000 chefs on the South lawn of the White House to talk about how chefs can make a difference on the issue of school nutrition. I took Mrs. Obama’s words to heart, which is why I’m devoting today’s blog to the subject.
As I mentioned in tonight’s episode, my mother ran a school lunch program for nearly 20 years. My brothers and I urged her to retire long before she actually agreed to. When I pressed her about it, she said that for a great many of the kids at her school, the food she planned and prepared was the only food they’d eat all day. She wanted to ensure that they had at least one good meal, and she was loathe to step away and entrust their well-being to someone else.
So when my wife, Lori Silverbush, teamed up with fellow filmmaker Kristi Jacobson to direct and produce a film on hunger in America, I was more than glad to sign on as Executive Producer. The film asks why a nation wealthy enough to provide healthy and affordable food for all of its people has a massive problem with food insecurity. A core premise of the film is that hunger in the U.S. is fixable … and a key means to accomplishing this task is the provision of universal free lunch to all of our school children.
Currently, there are over 45 million Americans who are food insecure. Almost 17 million of them are children. That’s 17 million hungry children who cannot focus on their teachers and tasks in the classroom, and who are at risk of developing behavior challenges. Quite apart from how distracting the sensation of hunger can be, studies have proven that there is a direct link between proper nutrition and brain development. When the brain isn’t fed while our children are young, it sets off a chain-reaction of lifelong and society-wide issues.
Furthermore, our nation’s epidemic of obesity is not always due to lifestyle choices, but to lack of access or good options. Our First Lady’s campaign against obesity is, in fact, a campaign against an aspect of poverty. When families run low on cash or food stamps run out (which they do because the programs are underfunded), parents turn out of necessity to the cheapest food to feed their children, which is usually fast food or empty calories like ramen noodles. So not only are their children’s brains not fed what they need for proper development, but their children’s bodies are being primed for obesity, and for such dire health issues as diabetes and heart disease in the future. (This problem is compounded by the fact that so many schools have had to cut their physical education programs due to budgetary concerns.) The ripple effect of poor nutrition in the early years is staggering, not just for each child but for society as a whole: Some experts estimate that hunger and food insecurity costs our economy over $120 billion a year in health care costs, lost wages, and productivity, etc. Add to that the costs of health care incurred over a lifetime due to poor childhood nutrition that I just mentioned and you have an idea just how vital this issue is for all of us.
Currently, the government subsidizes schools to provide free lunches for some, reduced-price lunches for others, and lunches at “full price” for the rest (“full price” is in quotes because these lunches are also government-subsidized). A writer I greatly admire, Janet Poppendieck, argues in her book, Free for All, that lunches should be free for all children. Why? We make desks and textbooks free to all children in this country – not just the poor ones – because we recognize that without them, kids can’t learn. The current system stigmatizes the kids who can’t afford lunch, leading many who qualify to turn it down and go hungry (one kid I know explained that she’d rather be hungry than labeled and teased). We spend a fortune under the current system on the paperwork and labor to figure out who should get a free or reduced lunch – enough to cover the cost of a universally-available program. And just imagine the purchasing power schools would have if they were feeding all children, and the economies of scale they could employ in buying healthy ingredients; think of the systems for buying from local farms and producers that could be put into place, en masse, which would be a huge jolt to an agricultural sector that desperately needs it. Imagine the stimulus to the economy in training tens of thousands of workers to actually cook in schools, rather than simply heat up or reconstitute the processed food public schools currently serve. Some years ago, schools began treating lunchrooms like fast food restaurants by installing vending machines to sell branded products and soft drinks, as a way to raise more money for lunches. If universal school lunch was funded adequately, and nutritious and delicious food was actually being cooked and served to everyone, the schools could get rid of the junk food and the vending machines once and for all.
Some people argue that fast-food is all the kids want to eat. But when we talked with the kids at Alice Deal Middle School, they complained about the school lunch: “Pizza, pizza, pizza every day – we’re sick of it!” They loved the food we served (most of it, anyway!). They came back for seconds, thirds, fourths. They ate it voraciously and were vocal in their appreciation and approbation of real food. One young woman that my wife and I mentor always requests the same treat when we see her: salad. To her it is the most exotic, exciting food in the world – one that her family can’t afford. So to assume that all kids would only eat junk food when fresh, delicious, well-prepared food is available to them is giving them far less credit than they deserve.
And by the way, not only do I feel free lunch should be universal; I think breakfasts should be, too, and served right in the classroom – not in a separate (stigmatized) cafeteria. Studies of a pilot program here in NYC that provides breakfasts during homeroom showed a statistically significant increase in academic performance and good behavior among the children who received it. The teachers were over the moon about it. Sure, in an ideal world all kids would get healthy, nutritious breakfast at home, but we are deep in a recession, and many families – even those with working adults – need help making sure their kids get what they need.
As our Elimination Challenge highlighted, it is very difficult to create nutritious food within the current school lunch budget. The truth is, whole and nutritious food can be expensive, because it is expensive to grow. Junk and fast-foods are cheap because the USDA heavily subsidizes their main ingredients: commodities like corn for high fructose corn syrup, and soy, for cheap additives like soy protein isolate (i.e., MSG. )
Amazingly, fruits and vegetables, are not subsidized in this country. Small farms growing food with nutritional value lack the political clout to lobby the USDA for their fair share which they could, in turn, roll over to the consumer in the form of lower prices. The legislation and regulations have gone awry; what began as agricultural policies to help us through the Great Depression and WWII have become unwieldy and counter to this country’s best interests. We need to change the subsidies situation to make nutritious food more available and affordable to all.
Farm subsidies will be voted on in a new Farm Bill in 2012 – Hungry in America should be released right around then, and I hope it helps wake Americans up about how their tax dollars are being spent on outdated subsidies instead of important children’s feeding programs. In the meantime, there important childhood nutrition bills pending before Congress. They’re not popular initiatives on the Hill right now, since, like all spending bills, they require offsets from other programs. But providing universal free lunch and breakfast would have a huge positive impact on the health of our children and, therefore our nation’s future.
As for the Elimination Challenge: It’s amazing how one team was able to provide what seemed like so much more food than the others with the same budget. I commend their ingenuity. Whereas there was absolutely nothing good to say about Jacqueline’s dish. I wish there were, but it was starchy and terrible. And even were it delicious, it made no sense for her to serve the children a dish containing that much sugar. Adding all of that sugar flew in the face of the whole goal of the challenge, i.e., to feed the children nutritious, non-fattening food that was low in sugar and free of additives. I’ll add that Amanda is just lucky that Jacqueline’s dish was as disastrous as it was, since I cannot believe that no one stopped Amanda from making that sherry chicken for a cafeteria full of children. One last note: It almost appeared as though Angelo really played the rest of his team, trying to lose so that Kenny would be sent home. I don’t know if it’s true, but it certainly seemed that way…
P.S. To learn more about Ag Subsidies you can check out: http://www.ewg.org/farmsubsidies