Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tom, in his own words

You know, Tom Colicchio and I don't often see eye to eye, especially when it comes to the wild and wacky world of Judging Rules on Top Chef. However Tom's blog this week was a little more serious than normal. So I thought I'd give the man his say on an issue he cares about very deeply. This was taken directly from his blog at Bravo Agree or disagree with him, he certainly makes a passionate case.


Last week we met this season’s chefs. This week, the chefs hit the ground running, with a lighthearted Quickfire Challenge and a very serious Elimination Challenge …one that tackled an issue very close to my heart.

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:


the dogs' mother said...

Two folks whose children qualified for free and reduced lunch a friend who is a teacher and my BIL the farmer and national guard pilot. Something wrong with that.

Making Space said...

To add to the post: the lunch and breakfast provided in schools is funded by Title I funds. Title I funds have, since the GWB years, been directly linked to No Child Left Behind. Students are given high-stakes standardized tests year after year. Each school's results on these tests determines how they stand with NCLB and their Title I funding. Title I is designed to provide for children in need/at risk. NCLB requires ALL students in the school (even, for example, special ed students who are not for a variety of reasons capable of taking tests) to take and do well on these high stakes standardized tests.

So the funding to provide (inadequate, nutritionally appalling) food to students at risk and in need is tied to these same students doing well on tests the human brain was not designed to take under any circumstances.

Imagine that your ability to eat depended on your ability to do well on a test. This is the situation we have in the schools today.

I agree with Tom but I want him to go farther, but then I will admit to almost uncontrollable outrage at NCLB. I believe my rage is warranted when I look at hungry children who are told to do well on a test in order to eat. Am I oversimplifying? A bit. But not nearly enough.

Buzz Kill said...

I would have to agree that Tom is right about bad the food in the school cafeteria can be. My 12 year old actually started bagging his own lunch a couple of months ago because he thought the food in the cafeteria was too fattening - TOO FATTENING. I was actually kind of proud of that although packing his lunch (and he does most of it) is an extra chore in the morning.

One more thing - Lori Silverbush and Janet Poppendieck - Bwahahaha

I just couldn't help myself.

Big Shamu said...

Yes Froggy, very wrong.

I'm glad the moms and dads of the blogs are speaking up. I didn't realize that aspect of NCLB, MS.
And Buzz, you and the Mrs. are raising a great kid.

(snort silverbush and poppendieck, Tom knows how to pick them)

Milk River Madman said...

Much of what Tom has to say, I agree with 100%, especially the part on farm subsidies. There is no other industry in America that is paid to "not" produce. There is something very wrong with that. The US produces enough food to feed each and every citizen. Why are we importing wheat when there are literally thousands of bushels in bins all across America? Or Beef? Or Corn?

The convenience of easy to make food (microwave ready, etc.) is as big a contributor as fast food.

While I still shudder at the thought of any child going to bed hungry, I am hesitate to support a NATION wide free lunch program. Only because of the amount of government waste in everything they do.

All of Tom's points, from budgetary constraints to being able to buy on economies of scale, are very valid, its the bureacracy that ruins these programs, not the advocates.

Another part of the problem is our overall laziness as a society. From no exercise to preparing premade meals, our society as a whole, has taken the easy way out which is almost always the least healthy way.

LaDivaCucina said...

I'm happy to read about something from this show I am actually interested in and that holds a bit of social value instead of the usual TC drivel like stupid, ego-driven dramas and what Padma is wearing. Yay, Tom and Yay, Sham for posting.

As you know I am interested in seeing the demise of urban food deserts in our cities. This links in with what is actually accessible and what is affordable to many poor and yes, even middle class families. It's hard to believe that in this "rich" country of ours where we have a TV in every room, computers and video games, that so many of our kids are undernourished.

As a citizen that has lived in four major cities in America, I have seen first hand how expensive it is to eat healthy, even without kids. I certainly can't afford to buy wild salmon at $30 a lb. yet find the alternative, farmed salmon, to be disgusting and not a healthy or cost effective choice.

A mom can choose to feed her kids something off the dollar menu at a fast food joint much cheaper than it would be to make home made vegetable soup. That is wrong and part of the problem too. Or, she might not even have a grocery store to get to that even carries fresh produce!

Also adding to the problem is how we are bombarded with so much misinformation that is just plain false. Many parents think they are feeding their kids healthy foods when in reality they are not. (like serving juice that says "10 vegetable servings in one bottle!" instead of having a piece of fruit and some veggies with dinner) It is hard to be educated in what actually is and is not healthy, thanks to misleading claims by advertisers jumping on any "health" or "green" bandwagon they can to promote their products.

Kudos to Buzz's kid who prefers to take his lunch. And yes, it does take more time in the morning, so get up an extra 10 minutes early! I don't understand people that say "I don't have time in the morning to eat breakfast or make lunch." B. to the S.

I like the idea of a nationalized lunch program and it's time we put our kid's health and education over other programs in this country that I believe to be wasteful or excessive. I'll go back to the old lefty saying: ""Wouldn't it be great if our schools had all the money they needed, and the Army had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?" Our priorities are all wrong in this country....

Big Shamu said...

You know what, even if we disagree, we are at least talking like civilized adults.

As much as I'd like to take the "eat local" movement into our schools there are still major logistical problems. Tom mentions farmers but let's face it, eating local also means eating seasonal. So what do you do about fresh fruits and vegetables in the seasons when they are not being harvested? What happens if you have a contract with a farmer to him to supply your school program with his produce but it's wiped out by a storm or a drought or some other catastrophe? Who are you going to get to supply your school now and what price?

As for the quality of lunches, I would have to agree that the easiest way to produce those lunches are chosen and produced to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Then again it's got to be hard to try something new on kids only to have them dump in the garbage because they don't like it.

Still I have to believe there's a better healthier way to serve lunch to kids.

Milk River Madman said...

Have some nuns from North Dakota stand watch and make sure they clean their plates. That's how I learned.

Sharon Rudd said...

Lots of factors involved, and no easy fixes to these problems. Thanks for the civilized discussion. BTW, have you read this blog, which includes a number of perspectives and guest posts?

Dani said...

We bag Elizabeth's lunch too. She likes having a lot of fresh fruit and you just don't get that with school lunch.

Anonymous said...

there are lots of innovative programs being funded in schools and communities by private foundations to get fresh local produce into public and charter schools as healthy snacks (in KC the academy lafayette snack station)and to allow families receiving food assistance (WIC, snap--what used to be food stamps) to double the value of their $$ to buy seasonal produce at local farmers markets (known as "Beans and Greens" in KC, promoted by the Wholesome Wave foundation in other communities). The hope is to create a model that government can adopt and replicate on a much larger scale. some local farmers now use controlled growing conditions that allow for year round (or close to year round) growth of fruits and veggies. Yes, supply can be a challenge in "unforseen conditions" but so far the programs seem to be enthusiastically received. find out about these programs in your local community, support them when you can and help really change eating habits!