BY SYLVIA FIORELLO, RETIRED TEACHER, WRITER
Last September, on Labor Day 2009, I participated in Time for Lunch, a nationwide initiative of Slow Food USA designed to promote healthier foods in our schools. Our Eat In took place at Midway State Park located in the Bemus Point area on Chautauqua Lake. Sandwiched between the classic cars “Cruise In,” the amusement park rides and family picnics, our tent offered to the public samples of healthy food made from scratch. These samples included blueberry cobbler, carrot cake, cauliflower broccoli salad, Italian green beans and tomatoes, and Italian sausage from Someday Maybe farm in Forestville, made from their local farm-raised pork without antibiotics and hormones.
Park visitors were asked to sign petitions supporting more funding for the Child Nutrition Act that is coming up for reauthorization in September of 2010. These petitions will let Congress know that there is strong support for real food in our school cafeterias and that schools need more funding to provide those fresh fruits and vegetables. In the space of a two hour lunch we collected one hundred and twenty-eight signatures from park visitors.
Many interested supporters shared stories of their school cafeterias. The school that visitors talked about the most was Westfield Academy and Central School. According to a petition signer, Westfield is offering some very healthy, made from scratch selections in their cafeteria. Residents from other districts said that their school no longer had cafeteria equipment to cook cafeteria food and chose to purchase prepared food from a distributor who services many schools in Chautauqua County. Some parents said that their children chose to bring a bag lunch rather than purchase food at their school.
Our group found a consensus of parents who would like to see stricter standards for all foods sold in schools including junk food from vending machines that undermines childrens’ health and allows food companies to profit from selling obesity. Many schools are now outlawing these vending machines, which is real progress.
President Barack Obama has included an extra $10 billion for child nutrition programs in his 2010 budget proposal. First Lady Michelle Obama is promoting healthier eating and activity through her Let’s Move campaign which is working to reduce childhood obesity. Many groups are urging Congress to increase the free lunch subsidy to $1 dollar more per child. Senator Kirsten Gillabrand of New York State supports giving more to schools to provide fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains instead of canned and highly processed foods. She is co-sponsoring legislation to ban trans fats in school cafeterias.
On the negative side, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is seen by many to play a conflicting role. They are supposed to provide children with nutritious food yet
they continue to support large agricultural companies by buying their highly processed surplus food. Food service directors have a hard time serving healthy food when they have no choice but to serve the food in the form it comes in. How many ways can you serve chicken nuggets?
But, on the positive side, over the last several years foundations have spent millions to support healthy eating programs. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently announced that “The national movement to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic is gathering force and rapidly.” They have committed $500 million to help reverse childhood obesity by 2015. The WK Kellogg Foundation has pledged $32 million. With all these commitments and national attention, most agree that the time is NOW to get Congress to authorize to release some of the billions President Obama included in his budget proposal for child nutrition in the schools. Funding for schools would allow them to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, and might include farm to school programs, school gardens, adult education classes on healthy eating, nutrition classes for all age levels, taste tests for new foods, and field trips to area farms using organic or healthy growing practices.
For more information on the state level go to www.healthyschoolfood.org . At the local level, you can get involved in your schools’ local wellness effort as all schools participating in a federal school lunch program are mandated to have a local wellness policy. Parents are a child’s first teacher and we must care enough to get involved rather than expect our schools to shoulder the entire responsibility. Anyone wishing for more information is welcome to call me at 716-488-8301 after May 16th or email me at email@example.com. My next article will be on local school food service directors, what they are doing and what they would like to see happen.
Sylvia Fiorello is a retired teacher and writer. Her book, My Best Friend Ever, is a humorous how-to book for middle schoolers teaching them how to eat healthy and exercise and how to become a food factivist and activist.