Asparagus: Too Cool for School Lunches?

9 years ago
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When it comes to the health of our children, people can usually put aside their differences for the common good.  Except maybe not when it comes to the issue of school lunches.  An op-ed co-written by Alice Waters in the New York Times has sparked an interesting debate, and highlighted some differences of opinion when it comes to the best way to revamp public school cafeteria offerings.  

Waters uses the schools in her own backyard as her model:

“Schools here in Berkeley, for example, continue to use U.S.D.A. commodities, but cook food from scratch and have added organic fruits and vegetables from area farms. They have cut costs by adopting more efficient accounting software and smart-bulk policies (like choosing milk dispensers over individual cartons), and by working with farmers to identify crops that they can grow in volume and sell for reasonable prices.”

That sounds really great and all, but do schools even have real kitchens these days?  Or is it more like a giant bank of microwaves?  In other words, do the cooks in Lunch Lady Land actually cook anymore?  

They do in France.  From Samantha at Growing Up Gourmet:

“Oh to be a kid in Paris.  To play along the banks of the Sienne and wander in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. To ride the carousel at the Jardin du Luxembourg and play peek-a-boo in the narrow streets of the Marais.  And to eat cauliflower gratin, braised lamb with rosemary, and stinky soft cheese.  For lunch.  At preschool.  As reported Monday on NPR, this is precisely the kind of menu served at the 270 public day-care centers throughout the city.  Along with homemade applesauce, local and organic produce, and even tomato garnishes in the shape of a rose.”

No shit.  But I mean, that’s France.  We do things a little differently around here.  Instead of braised lamb, for example, we have sloppy joes.  Hold the cauliflower, hold the gratin, pass the tater tots.  The only garnish in sight: a packet of ketchup.  We win!!!  

But all elementary school nostalgia aside, we should do better.  If $5 per lunch, Waters’ estimate of what a revamped meal would cost, sounds steep (and it does to many), consider the cost of a Happy Meal.  As Ezra Klein of the Internet Food Association argues:

“Parks don’t save us money, but it’s good that we have them. There are things we should do because they should be done. We’re the richest nation in the world.”

One critic of Alice Waters’ crusade is Tom Lee, also of the Internet Food Association, whose debate with Klein was picked up by Mark Bittman’s NYT blog, where the spirited commenting continued.  While Tom agrees that major changes need to be made, he complains that the mission has been hijacked by insufferable food snobs:

“I got a little irked when I saw Waters throwing around terms like “organic” and “locally produced” in her proposal.  I enjoy foodie pretension as much as the next guy (ask me about my strongly-held opinions regarding shallots as a sandwich onion replacement!), but dicking around with that nonsense while middle schoolers are contracting diabetes is frankly inexcusable.”

Wooooooowwwww.  What did the small family farmers ever do to you?  Why can’t the farmers be part of the solution?  Their kids go to school, too.  And while they're dicking around trying to grow healthy vegetables for their communities without simultaneously polluting them, is it so unreasonable to expect that people would, oh, I don’t know, buy them?  And then eat them?  Perhaps, smile?  Reestablishing connections within the community just may be the key that gets this whole thing to work.  Just because something happens to be popular at the moment doesn’t automatically make it worthy of contempt.

Of course, there’s the issue of growing season length.  Here in Massachusetts, you’ve got June through October to coax stuff out of the ground if you’re lucky.  Throw out July and August for summer vacation, and that’s really only three months of fresh vegetables.  On the other hand, hey, that’s three whole months of fresh vegetables!!!  When the winter comes, it’ll have to be back to frozen again.  Or maybe we could get the kids to spend their recess canning.  

In the end, between the economy and the reality of overhauling such a broken system, I think it’s going to have to be a balance.  Fresh, local, chemical-free fruits and vegetables in season are what we should be aiming for whenever possible.  Probably, a lot of things will still need to be trucked in.  The main goal, I think, is to get rid of the empty-calorie crap in the caf and get some vegetables into these kids somehow.  Aim high, Alice Waters.  Aim high.

Tammy Donroe can also be found documenting the messy collision between food and life on her blog, Food on the Food.