Passing grades

Parents push for nutritious school lunches

By - Aug 1st, 2009 12:01 am
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4461670In early 2005, I was visiting my family back home in England. Sitting in the back of my parents’ car, on the way into central London, I was gazing out at the “East End,” a working class area, littered with housing projects and 1960s-designed school buildings. It’s a grim, gray urban landscape that London’s tourists don’t usually see.

My dad started talking about a chef who was trying to make a difference in those inner city schools. A chef? Surely he meant a teacher? No, he meant a chef. He was referring to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver whose television show had aired the week before, and had taken Britain by its collective shoulders and given it a good shake.

Oliver had been inside school cafeterias to see what Britain’s children were eating for lunch and what he found shocked him. Highly processed, high-sugar, high-salt junk food had replaced the traditional food of his English childhood. Gone were the roast beef, carrots and potatoes; in their place were French fries and burgers with more preservatives than nutrients.

In an ABC News report at the time, Oliver said: “If you look at (…) a product like a sausage or a burger – and you look at the ingredients, you should have four or five, but (there are) 49 and you’re like ‘Wow!’ I realized that there were more standards in place for dog food than there were for our own kids.”

Oliver set out to change the system, vowing to create a healthy, affordable menu for schools. A television show tracked his progress as he took on skeptical lunch ladies, reluctant children and a small budget that wouldn’t budge (approximately 70 cents per student). When the show aired, it caused an outcry, which is exactly what I was hearing about in my dad’s car.

“It’s wrong, it’s immoral,” Oliver told ABC News, “Who on earth is policing it? Who in the government has hope for your kids? No one.” In response to Oliver’s show, however, the government came through. Britain committed more than $500 million to school lunch reform.

Back in the U.S.A.

Fast forward four years, Oliver’s show has been aired on The Learning Channel, and he has set his sights on America’s schools. And he is not alone. American celebrity chef, Ann Cooper, aka the Renegade Chef, has taken on the decidedly unglamorous job of improving the fare in school cafeterias. In a video on, Cooper talks about how she changed the menu in the Berkeley, Calif. Unified School District. Out went processed nachos; in came burgers from grass-fed cattle and broccoli. And she stayed within budget.

Cooper is the author of “Bitter Harvest” and “Lunch Lessons,” the latter written while she was working school kitchen duty. Passionate yet pragmatic about her subject, Cooper leans forward as she talks, and she talks so quickly you get the impression she has too much to say, and is worried she’ll run out of time. Like Oliver, she expresses disgust at what we have been feeding our children. “This food was never touched by human hands!” she says of the over-processed and packaged food she found when she arrived in Berkeley. Cooper describes the changes she has brought to the district. She has trained her staff to cook seasonal, fresh produce, and smiles: “We feed children real food (…) We’re not all organic, we’re not all local … so I guess those are the sort of compromises, but we have to get rid of the processed foods.”

Yes, we can!

Fortunately, we appear to have a president who agrees, and his Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release that providing fresh fruits and vegetables and more nutritious food to schoolchildren is a priority for the administration. Child nutrition programs are up for renewal by Congress this fall.

President Obama has proposed a $1 billion annual boost for those programs, including school lunches. The increase would go to improving program access, enhancing the nutritional quality of school meals, expanding nutrition research and evaluation and improving program oversight, said the White House.

In a tandem effort, the government is eyeing reform of vending machines in schools. The Child Nutrition Act of 2009 (HR 1324) gives the Secretary of Agriculture authority to oversee “competitive foods” sold on school campuses during the day. What’s the point of a healthier lunch program if a child can walk away from the broccoli and grab a bag of chips and a soda?

It may seem surprising, but HR 1324 may be met with opposition; not from sweet-toothed teens, but from the schools themselves. District officials rely on the revenue from vending machines to pay for programs and services, and they won’t like losing those funds. You can track the bill’s progress at, or go to for a detailed summary and updates.

According to Reuters, an estimated 32 million children eat lunch each day through the school lunch program, and about 8 million participate in the school breakfast program. This year, there is a surge in activism, with petitions galore on the Internet, appealing to Congress to enforce higher standards for those millions of children.

Want to know more about Obama’s food policies? How about Michelle Obama? Not only has the First Lady made headline by working in the White House organic garden, she has also given speeches on the importance of a healthy school lunch program. Go to for entertaining and informative updates.

What about here?

So what about us? What about Wisconsin? What about Milwaukee? MPS has so many challenges, it’s hard to imagine officials have time or money to begin assessing or changing what our children eat; they’re too busy trying to make sure they learn. But the two are interdependent.

An Exchange magazine article written by Maggie Jacobus several years ago outlined the relationship between good eating and productive learning.

Jacobus interviewed Mary Bruyette, a teacher at Appleton Central Alternative High School in Appleton, who said: “If you’ve been guzzling Mountain Dew and eating chips, you’re flying all over the place. I don’t think you’re going to pick up much in class.”

Former MPS teacher and current Registered Nurse, MaryAnne Scherer is the mother of a six-year-old and an advocate for healthier school meals here in Milwaukee.

“I have seen the effects that eating a good breakfast can have on kids. My eighth-graders would often come to school having not eaten, or having eaten something like ‘Flamin’ Hot Chips’ from the corner store. I bought fresh fruit and granola bars for my first hour classes and they would pitch in what they could to help pay for it. It made a big difference in the kind of classes we had in the early morning; kids were more focused and motivated to learn after eating.”

Scherer’s son attends Highland School in Milwaukee, where children are offered a morning snack. Dismayed by the high sugar content of those snacks, Scherer would send her own healthy alternative. When she spoke to other parents about the issue, she discovered others were concerned, as was the teacher, Ms. Shannon.

Shannon and Scherer contacted Pam Mehnert, General Manager at Outpost. What happened next was a pilot program bringing healthy, organic, hot lunches to Highland School once a month during the 2008/09 school year.

Mehnert secured funding from Organic Valley to help cover the cost of the program, and Outpost delivered the food, as well as complimentary education. The children received a flyer with an “applesaurus” mascot on it. ‘Applesaurus’ taught them about the benefits of the lunch they were eating, and Outpost’s staff nutritionist Judy Mayer followed up with classroom visits.

The menu included chicken stir-fry, organic celery nuggets with organic peanut butter, veggie pizza, organic mashed potatoes, fish nuggets, turkey enchiladas, organic bananas, organic sweet potato fries, baked spaghetti and meatballs and a favorite among the kids – chunky monkey banana bread.

Outpost is adding Bay View’s Downtown Montessori school to the program this upcoming year, and the word is out. Catering Manager Avie Cumming has been talking with other school officials to see if they are interested in the program for the 2010 school year, based on the pilot program at Highland.

As for Highland? Scherer says, “We are in our second year and struggling to find the funding to continue. Our goal is to provide a breakfast snack from Outpost each day. If we get breakfast down to even $1 per day – multiplied by 175 students for 175 school days, we need to raise $30,000 to accomplish this. A dedicated group of parents and staff at Highland are committed to improving the quality of food we serve to our children and will continue to make this happen.”

Clearly, this is a story that is being acted out on stages across the country and beyond, at a time when the food industry in general is coming under a great deal of scrutiny. Two parents went so far as to film a documentary on the topic. “Two Angry Moms” is a film that asks, “What happens when two ‘fed-up’ moms try to change the school lunch program?”

I guess we’re going to have to see the film to find out. Go to

School Lunches 101

If you want to know more about the movement to get healthier meals on our schools’ menus, check out the following sites: (search for HR 1324)

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