The fact is indisputable: Our children are offered junk food everyday for their school lunches. All over Fairfield County, weekly menus offer processed chicken nuggets, nitrite-filled hot dogs, French toast sticks, nachos and other fast-food items. This is not uncommon. Meals made with hydrogenated corn oil, trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup are found in cafeterias from the inner city to affluent suburbia. In today’s brave new world, experts agree that a dangerous combination of parental apathy and profit-minded food-service companies is turning the concept of “nutritious school lunch” into an oxymoron.
New York Times food writer Michael Pollan minces no words about who’s to blame in his recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “Big agribusiness has Washington in its pocket,” Pollan writes, adding that today’s junk-food culture has produced a “national eating disorder.” Cheap and plentiful corn is used to produce dozens of “edible, if not nutritious, products” ranging from the thickener in a milkshake to the modified cornstarch used in processed chicken nuggets. In other words, fast food — which is synonymous with the frenetic pace of our twenty-first century lifestyle — is stealing our children’s birthright to eat a nourishing diet.
The question is: Why do we let it happen?
Fairfield County parents are well-read and well-intentioned; most are aware of what the U.S. Institute of Medicine called “a national epidemic” of childhood obesity and the related surge in cases of juvenile diabetes and hypertension. But somehow the idea of good nutrition became a scary subject. While nobody hesitates to demand state-of-the-art computer labs or new athletic fields, many critics of school-lunch quality asked not to be identified in this article. “This is a very small town,” said one Weston mom. “I can’t risk putting my child in an awkward position at school.”
Plus, in our own very comfortable corner of suburbia, parents tend to worry more about their kids’ academics than their eating habits. “It’s a strange disconnect,” says filmmaker Amy Kalafa. “We have very informed parents in these towns, but this issue is off their radar screens.”
Amy is at the Weston Library for a pre-release screening of her documentary Two Angry Moms — a film she hopes will be the catalyst for change in school-lunch programs throughout the U.S. Ironically, this debut is taking place on the second day of National School Lunch Week, proclaimed by the White House to be a statement of our government’s “commitment to the health of our children and to ensuring that they receive nutritious meals and develop good eating habits.”
Amy and her husband, Alex Gunuey, traveled from their Weston home across the country to document the realities of our nation’s school-lunch programs, investing three years and their own money, even tapping their home equity line to produce the film. Their quixotic quest was triggered by Texas Agricultural Secretary Susan Coombs’s comment that “it would take two million angry moms” to change the school-lunch program. Since two million starts with two, they soon partnered with Susan Rubin, a Westchester dentist, holistic nutritionist and founder of Better School Food, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the connection between what kids eat and their health, behavior and ability to learn.
Part exposé and part pragmatic recipe for change, the film not only tracks the problem nationwide, it also focuses on several school systems that have made real progress in their menus. In Berkeley, California, for example, Chef Ann Cooper oversees gardening and food programs covering 10,000 public schoolchildren. “We’ve gone from ninety-five percent processed foods to ninety-five percent made from scratch,” she says. “We have only hormone- and antibiotic-free dairy and we offer fresh fruit and vegetables at every meal. It costs about fifty cents more a day per kid, but we’re spending $117 billion a year on diet-related illnesses. So what’s the real price?”
Part of the problem, no doubt, is financial. “School lunch is not considered part of the curriculum,” Amy explains. “It’s administered by the United States Department of Agriculture.” Enter the double-edged sword known as food-service companies. Tasked with providing adequate meals for our children, their first priority, as a business, is profit. And, like it or not, junk food sells.
Following the screening of Two Angry Moms, a panel discussion includes lively exchanges between dissatisfied parents and Phil Schaefer, vice chairman of Weston’s Board of Education. Schaefer is one of those responsible for changing the school system’s food-services contractor to Whitson’s Culinary Group. “Certainly it’s not perfect,” Schaefer says, “but we have made some improvements. Things are much better than [they were] five years ago.”
“The menus look okay on paper,” one mother responds. “But it’s just spin, not reality in the cafeteria. It’s deceptive, plain and simple. They say brown rice, but [they still serve] white rice. And I don’t think baked instead of fried processed chicken nuggets are a big improvement!”
“These food-service companies are a recipe for disaster,” says Bob Pritsker, an angry dad and former restaurateur and chef now living in Weston. “We need the kind of leadership that will throw these big companies right out of our schools. They’re making a buck on the backs of our children.”
[Editor’s Note: None of the food-service companies contracted to the school systems described in this article responded to a questionnaire sent by the writer.]
“We are open to learning what works in other school systems,” Schaefer responds. Then, offering up the familiar “bottom-line” argument against overhauling school-lunch programs, he adds, “But changes need to make sense financially.”
When he brings up the topic of “budgetary constraints,” the reaction from parents is disbelief and anger. Weston’s schools have been revamped to the tune of more than $80 million in recent years. No expense was spared in constructing new buildings for Weston High School and Middle School and equipping them with the latest computer systems. New athletic facilities, according to many residents, are at least Olympic-level. So why does nutrition always take a back seat?
BACK TO BASICS
Not all of the blame can be placed on big agribusinesses. What about that “consumer apathy” mentioned earlier? Some parents take an active role in their kids’ nutrition and eating habits; others let the junk-food junkies run the show.
Next door in Wilton, Chartwells Educational Dining Services manages the school system’s cafeterias. At Wilton Pediatrics, Dr. Jeanine Freliech, a mother of three, acknowledges progress but still has concerns that she communicates to the schools as official adviser on medical matters, including nutrition. Recent improvements in Wilton, Dr. Freliech points out, include eliminating vending machines that sell sodas and sports drinks. But she is skeptical regarding packaged snacks — like Rice Krispies Treats or Pirate Booty — that are deemed “acceptable” by the State of Connecticut. (The state offers schools a financial incentive to order only “approved” items.)
“I see, on average, one obese child a week,” she says, noting that this number is atypically low since the town’s very active sports program tends to keep kids burning up whatever calories they consume. Her pediatric group treats approximately 300 obese children annually — and that figure does not include those who are merely overweight.
Good nutrition, she insists, means going back to basics like fresh fruits and vegetables. “My kids are twelve, ten and six, and I pack lunches for them four days out of five,” Dr. Freliech says. “I want them eating healthy food — which I know they won’t get at school. Believe me, as a working mom, it would be much easier for me to just give them a few bucks to buy lunch.”
In Fairfield, Pat Raftery heads up SNIP — the School Nutrition Improvement Panel started by the PTA two years ago. “Studies show a direct link between good nutrition and higher academic performance,” Pat says. “I think that alone is a compelling reason to make changes.”
The town’s food service is currently “self-sustaining,” meaning that it is run by the Fairfield public school system, not managed by an outside contractor. Still, in the spirit of the American marketplace, corporations pitch junk food and the school system buys their products. “Junk food is easy money,” Pat says, because our kids have been programmed to buy it.
But kids who purchase junk food typically do not buy the school lunch. Since the federal government reimburses schools for each lunch bought, the schools were losing that potential income. “When SNIP first took a hard look two years ago,” Pat says, “Fairfield’s participation rate — the number of kids buying the school lunch — was only twenty-seven percent.”
That’s when Food Director Joann Fitzpatrick implemented some of SNIP’s suggestions, eliminating the worst junk-food choices along with other less nutritional “a la carte” options. As a result, the participation rate skyrocketed — because kids suddenly had no choice but to buy the school lunch. Financially, it was a win-win strategy and nutritionally it was a start.
Then the unthinkable happened.
“The kids complained loudly about being deprived of their junk food,” Pat says. “And, if you can believe it, so did their parents.” After a short trial, the changes were deemed a failure. Pat blames insufficient marketing of the new approach to parents, but considers it ironic that children, who clearly have developed some very bad eating habits, were allowed to nuke the new initiatives.
The frustration doesn’t end there. To help get the point across to the powers that be, SNIP summarized all of their recommendations in a PowerPoint presentation. So far, it has yet to be viewed by the full Board of Education. “Getting past procedural obstacles requires tenacity,” Pat says. “When they’re faced with just a small number, they tend to dismiss you as troublemakers. We need a lot of parents in town to complain for the right reasons.”
So why aren’t more moms and dads up in arms?
“It’s complicated,” says Westport chef and ABC-TV food expert Nicole Straight, who also teaches busy parents how to prepare delicious, nourishing dinners that take no more than fifteen minutes from prep to plate. “School food is a hard topic to discuss with parents because there are so many contradictions.” The most glaring? “The moms I know,” Nicole says, “would never eat what their kids are being served in school.”
Nicole pulls out the current monthly lunch menu from her kids’ school. “There are a million things wrong,” she says. “Where’s a roasted chicken drumstick with half a baked potato? That’s easy to do. But they’ve got fried mozzarella sticks, full of fat. Why not meatballs made of ground turkey instead of what I’m sure is a cheap variety of ground beef?”
THE GOOD NEWS
Having an agribusiness manage school-food services is not necessarily a bad thing, it just depends on which one. And there are, thankfully, a few success stories out there — most notably in Fairfield’s Unquowa School’s “Farm to Fork” cafeteria menu. By his own admission, Chef John Turenne, president and founder of Sustainable Food Systems, LLC, spent a lot of years “working on the wrong side” for a large corporation. “Every Friday the numbers would come in,” he says, “to say whether we had succeeded or not. It was all about making a profit.”
John decided to define success differently. As executive chef at Yale, he created the nationally recognized and first-of-its-kind Yale Sustainable Food Project — a back-to-basics focus on quality and locally grown produce. He forged direct links to regional organic farmers and artisanal food producers. “In America, we spend twice as much on reactive healthcare than we do on the foods that could keep us healthy,” he says. “That’s got to change.” Unquowa brought John in as a consultant three years ago, then hired his company to manage its dining services. “We were doing home-cooked meals,” says Sharon Lauer, the head of the school, “but using frozen and processed ingredients, including milk that contained growth hormones.”
Sharon’s goal was to make school lunches a learning experience by teaching a larger awareness of how foods are grown and the relationship of what we eat to the ecology and ethics of the world we live in. From preschool through eighth grade, students learn that pasture-fed beef comes from cattle raised humanely. Cage-free eggs produced by free-range chickens come from an organic farm just up the street. Sport Hill Farm is also the site for Unquowa’s Summer Farm Camp, which gives kids hands-on experience in gardening, recycling and the science of composting.
“We get most of our vegetables from this farm,” says Chef Peter Gorman, hired by John to create the school’s menu. “Our compost fertilizes their produce. The kids get to see recycling in action.”
“The food for the week is butter,” preschool teacher Janice Shannon reminds the class at her family-style lunch table. “First we’ll learn about it, then we’ll go into the kitchen where Chef Peter will teach us how to make it.”
After school, the kids are clearly excited to bring home jars of butter they’ve churned themselves.
A recent lunch featured a variety of made-from-scratch main courses, plus a salad bar with a variety of just-picked greens, crisp veggies, a selection of fresh fruit and Chef Peter’s legendary granola made with Red Bee Honey — an artisanal variety produced by Marina Marchese, a Weston beekeeper.
“Marina comes in and talks to the children about honeybees,” Sharon says. “She explains to them how important pollination is to so many of the foods they love to eat.” A favorite dessert is a slice of apple in honeycomb drizzled with honey.
Matthew, a seventh-grader from Westport, is having mostly granola with half a turkey sandwich on the side. “I eat different stuff every day,” he says. “Everything’s good, not like what they gave us in public school where even pizza tasted terrible.” Meanwhile, lunch table teacher Rosemarie Sullivan is paying careful attention.
“I might send someone back to the salad bar,” she says, “to take another look around.”
On this day, dessert is one-inch-square chocolate-coconut brownies made with less sugar and topped with fresh whipped cream. The kids cheer, although a third grader says, “That’s like, maybe two bites.” Sous-chef Dan Lawrence explains that, for this kind of dessert, it’s just the right size. “Too much sugar,” he tells the kids, “doesn’t make you feel good.”
“Parents have enthusiastically supported the new approach,” says Sharon, adding that she would like to debunk the myth that programs like Unquowa’s are too expensive for public schools. “What we pay John,” she says, “is comparable to what the big companies are paid.”
Added savings come in the form of portion control. Two full-time chefs know how to buy well and minimize waste. Organic milk is more expensive, but kids pour only what they will drink from a pitcher on the table. And what about that bottom line? “Our new healthy lunch program runs at no additional cost,” Sharon states proudly.
Meanwhile, National School Lunch Week was actually an exercise in frustration for SNIP’s Pat Raftery. Letters were sent to parents, inviting them into school to have lunch with their child. This clearly set off alarms at the Fairfield Board of Education. “Suddenly, they were talking about overcrowding [if all the parents came to school],” Pat says. “It was ridiculous. And it’s a non-issue anyway because we have an open-door policy that gives parents the right to do this whenever they want.”
Still, it was clear that nobody wanted the parents around. Although lunchtime visits could have been scheduled throughout the school year — to alleviate the overcrowding issue — permission to send a follow-up letter has been withheld. “They’ve made it a logistical issue,” Pat sighs, “which speaks very loudly about where we are right now in Fairfield.”