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Local Appetite Key to Fixing School Lunch

The conference was the Centers for Disease Control's inaugural national obesity meeting. (Weight of the Nation)

As Congress moves to reauthorize childhood nutrition programs this summer, Capitol Hill is abuzz with talk of new national standards to get junk food out of schools. But at this week's Weight of the Nation conference, held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel here, a panel of experts emphasized the importance of local efforts to improve school lunch.

"Grass-roots buy-in is as important as state policy," Barbara Fish told an audience.

Fish, a member of the West Virginia board of education, should know. In 2005, the board established statewide standards for foods and beverages sold to students in schools. In 2008, she led the effort to meet strict Institute of Medicine rules – no snacks with more than 35 percent of calories from fat, for example – and mandate enforcement.

National and state policies are important. But Fish said the key to success in West Virginia is indoctrinating school principals, teachers and parents. Principals create the culture of a school, she said. Nutrition directors ultimately decide whether there will be greasy, fatty pizza or fresh, wholesome versions students still want to eat. Though West Virginia mandates that all schools meet the new standards, parents are often best at ensuring the rules are followed.

Nutritionist Deanna M. Hoelscher agreed. As director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Advancement of Healthy Living in Austin, Tex., she works closely with school districts and individual schools. Indeed, Hoelscher says that, in order for the effort to succeed, the entire community must support healthful eating. There can be only fresh fruit and healthful snacks in schools, but "if stores sell junk food and soda and kids can walk across the street and get it, it won't work," she said.

Fish and Hoelscher's comments support my reporting on school lunch reform. Yes, stricter standards are important. And yes, more money for school lunch would be terrific. But dynamic, creative teachers and food-service directors seem to make more of a difference. That's why we're seeing huge changes in Baltimore where Tony Geraci runs the school food service and progressive programs in Burlington, Vt., where Doug Davis runs the show.

It makes me wonder: Maybe we shouldn't be talking about more money for school lunches but more money for "lunch ladies." Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has made a strong case that cities can attract better teachers when they pay them competitive wages. Isn't the same true for the people who decide what kids should eat? What do you think?

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  July 28, 2009; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, nutrition, school lunch  
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$1.25 per meal

That's what the San Francisco Unified School district has to spend on school lunches.

For $2.00 per meal a local company that already serves many San Francisco private schools will deliver freshly-prepared, organic, nutritious meals. That's only 75 cents more and we can't afford it.

At my daughter's school, a federal program brings in a nutritionist once a week to teach the kids about healthy eating. It funds family education about healthy meal preparation and we receive an endless stream of paper encouraging us to feed our kids well. Meanwhile the school district doesn't have the money to actually feed the kids what they are telling them they should eat. They get greasy spaghetti and microwaved burritos.

We need more money to feed kids fresh food.

Posted by: margiewylie | July 29, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

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