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School Cafeterias: Survival of the Fittest
Sarah Rich, 22 Aug 06

kidlunch.jpg While Darwin faces expulsion from many U.S. classrooms, evolution is alive and well in many lunchrooms, with healthy, even organic, meals offered in more and more schools.

Sustainable food is one of the most well-visited topics in this bright green conversation, and school lunch options have been under scrutiny since obesity and its related conditions took over as the nation's leading killers. Projects like Edible Schoolyard have become iconic models for the transformation of kid cuisine and youth perspectives on food.

But an article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine says that waxing rhapsodic about the joy of introducing homegrown, organic food to students will not take us to the tipping point with this issue. What is needed, argues the lengthy piece, is cold hard data that improving food in schools improves people's health, and so justifies the investment required to change the menus and teach kids about nutrition.

What's happening now is a lot of in-school research, gathering evidence by feeding kids the good stuff. One of the leading culinary investigators is the Agatston Research Foundation, founded by the inventor of the South Beach Diet. Numerous others, from Kellogg to Kaiser to Clinton have jumped on board as well, now that the government is taking an interest in seeing more than the inconclusive scientific findings revealed in what little investigation has so far been done.

This coming school year is the first when schools receiving federal lunch subsidies will have to create a wellness plan - a detailed strategy for how nutrition will be provided and taught. In addition, the actual nutrition requirements set by the government for school meals are expected to become more rigorous this coming spring, on the heels of the revised "food pyramid."

Clearly this is a good move towards ensuring healthier fare and healthier kids at school. What I really want to see is the same thing happening in hospitals. If we think it's preposterous to feed our children meals that don't promote wellness, what are we doing feeding our sick people meals that don't promote wellness? Some programs are in place (with Kaiser taking a leading role) to get better food into hospitals, but the issue still remains far more peripheral -- and the food still far more abominable -- in health care facilities than in schools.

Imagine how easily the government could gather scientific evidence to back the idea that better food would help us more quickly move ailing people out of the hospital and onto their feet. We could set up the experiment the same way: start feeding sick people vitamin-rich, high fiber, low-sugar foods and then watch what happens. My hypothesis would be an evolution in the success of inpatient healing.

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An interesting thought, but I'm not sure that hospitals are necessarily equivalent to schools because the occupancy period is much lower.

At a more general level however, the problem with hospitals is that bean counters are usually in charge.
eg: I recall listening to some Melbourne surgeons express their frustration when told they were limited in how many 'stents' (blood vessel corsets?) they were allowed to use in a certain period.

Sure, they said, they're expensive. It's even more expensive to deal with the readmissions arising from situations where stents were not used.

The same usually applies to catering: tenders usually going to the cheapest providers.

Still, it's a matter of recognising that good economic strategies involves more than wondering where the next bean is coming from.

(Incidentally, not wanting to spoil your intro, but didn't I recently read that it's *Kansas school boards* facing expulsion over the non-teaching of evolution ?)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 22 Aug 06

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for pointing to this piece. I’m actually writing a similar report about Portland’s Abernethy Elementary and offer a few thoughts on navigating this somewhat problematic article. The rub lies in the writer’s careless application of the admittedly important goal of reversing the “epidemic of obesity” to broader statements about a “school lunch test.”

As WC readers would know, obesity is far from the only test we might pass by rethinking school lunch. How about all the benefits of local and organic foods? Not to mention that when we feed kids food we care about, we cultivate respect and self-respect.

Yes, these types of projects will experience the difficulties that the NYT details. Sure, kids still like to eat burgers and pizza. Some habits don’t change so fast – or ever. I take consolation from the fact that, at Abernethy, the pizza dough comes from celebrated local fave Hot Lips, whose practices set a very high bar.

More about the: Abernethy project.

Posted by: Howard Silverman on 22 Aug 06

Whoops. Those links again:

Hot Lips
Abernethy project

Posted by: Howard Silverman on 22 Aug 06

I do not have the sources currently at hand. But I remember reading about organic and healthy food producers who distribute meals to schools. There are examples where new organic and healthier producers have stepped into the market and beat our the traditional food producers by providing healthy, organic options for the same price point as the traditional businesses. This is a trend mostly on the west-coast hopefully we can see spread rapidly. Additional Source: USA Today Article

Posted by: Chad Weinman on 23 Aug 06

I agree with Howard Silverman's comments that reducing obesity shouldn't be the only test of a successful school lunch program. The NYT article mentions higher academic performance and increased attention spans as other outcomes of nutritious meals, but then goes on to focus on obesity as the primary indicator. When I read that, I wanted to scream, "DOESN'T ANYONE CARE ABOUT HIGHER ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE?"

To me, nutritious -- not to mention locally-grown, organic -- school lunches are a no-brainer for ALL the right reasons.

Posted by: Amy H on 23 Aug 06

I'll back up Amy's point. The main thing I take away from the documentary Supersize Me was the enormous effect that healthy diets had on behavior problems. In many schools, the number one concern is not obesity, or even academic achievement, but simply maintaining order. I would love to see some data on referrals, detentions, suspensions, and expulsions in a standard school versus a healthy diet school.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 23 Aug 06



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