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Slow Food Launches School Lunch Campaign

Daniel Eiskant polishes off a fruit juice last year at Georgian Forest Elementary School in Silver Spring. (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)

School may be out, but the politics of school lunch are just beginning. Today, Slow Food USA launched a national advocacy campaign to bring "real food" into the national school lunch program.

This summer, Slow Food members will circulate a petition and meet with legislators to demand, among other things, more money for school meal programs. The campaign will culminate with Labor Day "eat-ins" in 100 cities. The events, part sit-in, part potluck, are designed to show broad support for more healthful food in schools.

That Slow Food is spearheading a national political campaign might come as a surprise. The Brooklyn-based organization is better known for championing artisan producers, small farmers and "the pleasures of the table." And critics have long branded the group elitist for glorifying pricey microgreens and heirloom meats.

The campaign is part of a new direction for Slow Food. Last September, the organization held a conference in San Francisco, where the fooderati came together to eat and discuss political issues from school lunch to workers' rights. In February, prominent Slow Foodie Alice Waters wrote an op-ed in the New York Times laying out her vision for school lunch.

"We're now at a point where we can speak with a national voice," says Josh Viertel, who took the reins as the group's president eight months ago. "We're trying to reposition ourselves as an organization that can make change locally and nationally."

Viertel said the decision to shift gears has a lot to do with timing. For the first time since Slow Food was founded nine years ago, there is an administration that appears receptive to the movement's values. Publicly, Michelle Obama has championed the benefits of home-grown food with her garden on the White House lawn. At a harvest celebration last week, she explicitly stated that better food in schools is key in tackling the obesity crisis and reforming the American health-care system.

Privately, administration officials have told slow-food advocates that they are open to their ideas but want proof of widespread support to drive changes.

Slow Food has several legislative demands. Most important, it wants to increase the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches by $1 per student. The government now pays $2.57 for a free lunch and $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch. The group also wants federal nutrition standards to be implemented for food sold outside the lunch line and secure funding for school gardens and farm-to-school food. (Learn more about its platform, Time for Lunch, at its Web site.

Securing the extra dollar per student, which would total more than $5 billion annually, won't be easy. Indeed, my sources say it would be astonishing for Congress to allocate that kind of money when the country faces record deficits.

Viertel admits that it is an uphill fight. But he argues that improving food in schools is a smart way to save money on health care over time. "If we don't push at all, then the choices are defined by the bad actors," he said. "We need to create room for politicians to make good decisions."

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  June 23, 2009; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, Slow Food, nutrition, school lunch  
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It's a nice goal, but more than an "uphill fight." Cooks aren't using government "cheese" and canned salmon because they want to and schools are letting fast-food franchises in because taxpayers constantly reject requests for enough funding to avoid them. To expect an increase in what critics decry as welfare is never going to happen until a catastrophic event involving adulterated foods or something similar occurs. Also, to all the pack-your-own-instead-of-relying-on-the-government types, I've worked with kids and seen plenty of lunch bags with nothing but sugared cereals, chips, candy and pop.

Posted by: marksabbatini | June 24, 2009 7:28 AM | Report abuse

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