Read an Excerpt From Lunch Wars

6 years ago

If you haven't had a chance to pick up a copy of BlogHer Book Club's October pick, Lunch Wars, here's an excerpt to get you started.


I’ve been collecting this list of myths since I began my quest to learn what could be done to improve school food. They’ve been chanted to me like mantras, repeated by force of habit. Henry Ford famously stated, “If you think
you can do a thing or can’t do a thing, you’re right.” It’s all about attitude.
Here are some of the myths, and some ideas for addressing them to help
change attitudes about wellness in your school community.

  • The kids won’t eat it; the kids won’t like it. Most kids are more flexible than we give them credit for. If new foods
    are introduced properly (tasting, learning about what the food is and
    where it comes from), children learn to like them readily. Not all kids
    like every food, but in every example I’ve found, more students preferred
    the new food -- with some exceptions like nuggets and fries --
    these were tough to wean from and were phased out over time.

  • Kids need choices so they can learn to make good choices. Offering children unhealthy foods and drinks at school contradicts what
    they are taught about good nutrition and sends a mixed message. Why
    shouldn’t all the choices be good choices? We don’t ask kids if they’d
    rather have recess or math! Limiting choices, especially in the younger
    grades, helps kids develop a taste for good food, and good eating habits.
    When kids choose soda, candy, and junk food instead of eating a meal,
    they don’t get the nourishment they need to learn properly.

  • We don’t have many obese kids in our school, so the food is not a problem.
    Obesity is only part of the problem. Most of the nutrition messages
    we hear are focused on obesity, but America’s children are developing
    chronic diseases at earlier ages and emotional, behavioral, and
    learning disorders are epidemic. These behaviors have demonstrably
    improved in schools that have eliminated junk food.

  • There’s no such thing as bad food; you’re contributing to eating disorders
    by making kids anxious about food.
    This is a myth perpetuated by the food industry. Junk food addiction
    is its own eating disorder and causes disease. Our children are
    being exploited by the food industry and that shouldn’t be allowed in
    school. Teaching children a healthy skepticism about processed food
    and exposing them to a wide array of real food choices will enable
    them to make decisions based on knowledge rather than fear.

  • It’s calories in, calories out. Kids just need to get more exercise.
    A common myth is that protein is protein, regardless of its source,
    and that feeding children manufactured, standardized, industrialized
    food products fortified with vitamins is a healthy diet. This myth
    blames the kids for being fat and lazy but doesn’t take into account
    that their lack of energy may be due to the lack of life force in the
    calories they are consuming.

  • It’s only one meal a day.
    180 days a year x 12 years = 2,160 meals -— double that if there’s a breakfast
    program. That’s a lot of food. For many kids, especially low-income
    kids, school food makes up two-thirds or more of their diet.

  • It’s the parents’ fault kids don’t eat well.
    America is now raising its third generation of fast-food babies. Many
    of today’s parents did not grow up in households where food was
    freshly prepared. As a culture, we are losing our food knowledge. We
    also have become a society of single parents or two working parents
    who have little time to prepare meals. Schools therefore need to help
    teach children what their parents often cannot.

  • This is a matter of personal choice; parents should decide what their
    kids should eat, not the schools.
    That’s basically what Sarah Palin is saying. Unfortunately for her
    argument, educators make decisions on behalf of their students every
    day. From curriculum content, to where they should go on field trips,
    to whether the district must cut the music and arts budget or the
    athletics budget, parents can give input but must ultimately rely on
    school administrators to act on our behalf.

  • Who needs it -— let’s just drop the meal program and let them bring lunch.
    I heard this argument in Darien, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest
    school districts in the country. I’ve also seen it in conservative op-ed
    pieces. According to USDA regulations, as long as one child in the
    district qualifies for a free meal, the school must sponsor the meal
    program. It exists for the kids who need it; those who don’t can bring
    their own.

  • Sales will drop.
    Districts that have improved food quality report that sales may go down
    initially, but recover and surpass previous numbers within about six
    weeks. Out of sixteen schools surveyed in California, thirteen reported
    that sales of à la carte items dropped, but more children bought school
    meals, which increased overall revenue. Maine, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania
    school districts have also reported positive results.

  • It costs too much.
    This is the pay now or pay later paradox. We can spend money on
    good food for children now, or spend far more on their health care
    down the road. Annual costs for treating diet-related diseases in
    America have increased by 400 percent over the past thirty years.

  • It’s too much work.
    It is more work but it’s not too much work. A return to real food
    in schools means increasing job skills and part-time local employment
    opportunities. Even staff members who are initially resistant to
    change will come around when they receive proper training.

  • We don’t have trained staff.
    There is technical assistance and skills training available from the
    government as well as local volunteer efforts. You may find that your
    staff morale increases as they gain skill, confidence, and positive feedback
    in the cafeteria.

  • We don’t have a kitchen.
    Smaller districts in some regions are banding together to share a central
    kitchen. Others may contract with a local caterer to provide food
    that meets their specifications.

  • We don’t have the right equipment.
    Ask your PTA, apply for a government grant, find out if your district
    has a fund or a bond for improvements. Kitchen equipment
    manufacturers and local appliance stores are also good places to seek

  • We can’t do this in every school.
    How about beginning in one school and growing from there?

  • We can’t get better food from our approved vendors.
    Food service management companies (FSMC) may make this excuse
    and if they do, then fire them. Your district has hired the FSMC to
    deliver a meal plan that meets your food policy guidelines, which
    should be specified in their contract. If they signed a contract that
    specifies local or organic ingredients, then that is what they must
    deliver. They need to find better vendors.

  • We can’t purchase fresh food.
    Even a district that relies heavily on commodity food has some flexibility
    in the food budget. If the food service director (FSD) can’t or
    won’t find sources for fresh food, parent volunteers can take on this
    task. Once the initial arrangements have been made, the FSD may
    find it simpler to manage than anticipated.

  • We can’t store or process fresh food.
    In that case, your district may need to team up with another by pooling
    resources and developing a campaign to build a kitchen that
    has the capacity to store and process enough food to supply several
    schools. This model is proving efficient and economical even in some
    rural areas where the schools are spread out.

  • If we made fresh food, how could we ensure it’s safe?
    Every school cafeteria is required to have a HACCP plan and a
    ServSafe-trained employee. Nearly every one of the food-borne illnesses
    that have made headlines in recent years have come from the
    industrial food sector, not from local farms or small producers. Proper
    food handling procedures are not difficult to learn.

  • The school food movement is elitist.
    Some of the best examples I have seen of model school food programs
    are in districts where more than half of the students qualify for free
    meals. New Haven, Connecticut, and Berkeley, California, are just
    two examples. In fact, research shows that children from low-income
    families take up the new foods more readily than those in more affluent

  • We have too many other academic priorities -— school food isn’t an educational
    issue, so it’s not my job.
    A school superintendent told me this one. The USDA requires nutrition
    education and a school food policy, so clearly the government
    feels that it is an educational issue.

  • We’re already doing a great job. Our food is healthy; we meet all the
    USDA requirements.
    Yes, you are. The families in our district want to support you and help
    you go beyond the USDA standards. We want to work with you and
    help figure out what resources you need to meet the standards of our
    new food policy.

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