Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Psst, I have a secret...School Lunch

I want schools to serve lunch that is so healthy, so tasty, and so convenient that parents will be making lunch dates with their kiddos at school and every kid will want to buy lunch tickets. I want schools to serve lunch that is made with real food from local producers considering that there are farmers around here looking for outlets for their bountiful produce.

The problem? There are problems.

Labor is what makes fresh produce into meals. I know this because I do a lot of food prep in my kitchen making breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a family of four.

Farm produce is most abundant in the summer when school is out. School cooks find other employment during the summer months as the school cafeterias are closed. Most schools have only enough labor otherwise known as kitchen staff or cooks to "heat and serve" the food offerings. There is no time allotted for chopping vegetables, making sauce, or for manning a salad bar. There might be local produce but turning it into a product that can be consumed and used by schools is a whole other issue. Locally processed foods exist but tend to be more expensive, harder to come by requiring alternative thinking or methods, and isn't always from local sources.

Schools are given very little money for food purchases which tends to encourage schools to use cheap processed products that the lunch tickets sales demonstrate that kids with a choice are not choosing to eat. The rest of the kids just might not have the luxury of choice and, considering the poverty present in this area of the United States, the school food may be the only fuel for their brains. Nonetheless, school lunch matters and the existence of problems doesn't absolve us from the need to try.

The Way is Unknown
A parent's recourse to the problems? Brain power seems like a useful strategy. If we band together, collaborate, raise the bar for ideas from kids, cooks, and farmers that move us even in micro steps toward exciting healthy school lunch food and school food offerings that is made from real food then we might score a win for our kids and our community.

I don't have a secret agenda or many secrets for that matter. I just want people to care, to step forward, to not be afraid to try, to stretch, to risk something for kids that could mean improved nutrition, tastier food, and a stronger farm to school table connection.

Thoughts for parents to consider for school events:
  • Purchase local produce like melons or fresh fruits like tangerines instead of cakes, cookies, & ice cream for school events
  • Host a Fruit Cup Social-- Ask parents to help with processing local produce to make fruit cups instead of ice cream as a way to contribute healthy snacks
  • Invest in your school cooks-- Make a PTO Grant for “School Cafeteria Cook Trainings” to attend training or meetings when local resources don’t allow them.
  • Make a PTO Grant for “Local Food Day” and use the funds to purchase local foods. See if kids buy more lunch tickets, repeat. Determine if there is an interest in changing as demonstrated by increased ticket sales
  • Apply for a Grant that fits your school and share your experience with other local schools-- check the web for school lunch grants
  • Weed the school garden
  • Ask your child’s science teacher if they (can) incorporate the school garden into the science curriculum 
  • Ask you child’s math teacher if they (can) incorporate a food journal or recipe conversions into the math curriculum
  • Sponsor a best Soup or Casserole recipe contest and share the recipes at your next PTO event
  • Sponsor a favorite vegetable contest & get the kids to vote on it
  • Host a sample party and find out which tastes kids, teachers, and parents prefer
  • Take stock of what you child actually eats in a day-- write it all down and talk about it-- the treat reward, the after school or sport snack, the quickie dinner, etc.
  • Host “Food Art” and see what can be done with melons, pumpkins, etc. to play with food
  • Share resources that promote healthy eating tips like this from Live Healthy Appalachia:  Healthy Celebrations
  • Ask the teacher for 10 more minutes of recess instead of party snacks to celebrate your child’s birthday
  • Coordinate with other monthly classroom birthdays to bring a vegetable, a fruit, & balloons so you add health and vitality not sugar and fat
  • Volunteer to be the PTO Food Coordinator for your school's PTO Events
  • Support local resources that promote food initiatives like Rural Action, Food is Elementary
  • Read and learn about school lunch programs so that you can be a proactive voice in fueling the brains of the future like USDA's Farm to School Program
  • Care enough to do something, donate money, or try something new

A friend and I recently collaborated on a project. Afterward she texted me, "How did you get so wise?" I sat looking at my phone screen thinking I screwed up, a lot. For that one moment of perceived brillance, there were several failures in its wake. I still screw up a lot, but, frankly, I don't dwell there. It slows you down, makes you so careful that you give up. I don't give up easily. Just ask anyone whoever told me no. I'd venture a few friends in Japan can vouch for my tenacity. Some things are worth nudging along.

I'm crazy passionate about food which apparently leads some people to assume ideas about me-- zealot devotion comes to mind. I'd prefer that no one give my kiddos sweets or candy because I want them to eat real chocolate that isn't made with high fructose corn syrup. That doesn't mean I haven't bought halloween candy from Krogers because I have. I advocate real food, but that doesn't mean I never eat processed food. Sometimes I go to Larry's Dog House all by myself and get a chocolate milk shake. I advocate local produce because it tastes great and makes for a healthier food shed, but sometimes I eat bananas from faraway. Sometimes I'm hungry and I eat what is right there. However, I know real food makes me stronger, helps me to think more clearly, and I think every kid in America could benefit from a brain fueled by real food from some dirt just down a road they know.

It's about you, me, kids and community. Kids who are going to grow up and work in the neighborhood, a business, and with tax payer dollars. The community we get is the one we build. We've got to do something and just about anything is better than sitting on our hands being perfect.

Reach with me, please.