Parkway Public School in Greenwich, Connecticut is an exemplary model of public school education, except when it comes to eating. Last week my step-mom Chelsea was invited to have lunch with her 6-year-old daughter Ophelia. She was shocked to discover the limited and unhealthy food choices available in the lunch line: pancakes, Smuckers maple syrup laden with high fructose corn syrup, sausage links, an oversized cookie and sweet creamed corn. The picture Chelsea sent me of Ophelia, beaming a proud smile as she carried her tray of “food”, was utterly disheartening. Apart from the fact that healthy food is critical to Ophelia’s growth and intellectual development as a child with Down syndrome, her tray represented a shocking failure in the U.S. education and food system. My own experience researching school food systems has revealed fundamental flaws, which exist even in one of America’s most privileged towns.
In the face of rising childhood obesity and climate change, our education system continues to fall short of providing nourishing food that supports a thriving and healthy environment. Every, single day our neighboring New York Public Schools dispose a pile of Styrofoam trays 8.5 times the height of the empire state building, the same trays on which Ophelia carries her pancakes. I would bet that the caloric value on Ophelia’s tray is enough to feed lunch to two hungry adult men. According to the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity has increased from 7% in 1980 to 20% in 2008 in children between the ages of 6 and 11. My twin sister Dimity, a public school teacher, can attest that the high sugar and carbohydrate content of Ophelia’s lunch would almost certainly spark a ‘hyper’ afternoon for my little sister, distracting her from learning. Although parents, teachers and community members have recently begun to protest the wasteful and unhealthy feeding programs in public schools across the country, major barriers continue to hinder progress with a clear division between public and private schools.
Private school students consistently fare better when it comes to healthy food for three major reasons: money, demand, and independent food service providers. Without diminishing the accomplishments of private schools in implementing farm-to-fork programs, such as Unquowa School, the quality of school food is partially tied to higher tuitions, and thus, more purchasing power. Meanwhile, public school lunches cost on average $2.46 per child, a challenging budget for serving a nutritious meal packed with farm-fresh fruits and vegetables. Believe it or not, this is the raised price reflected in Obama’sHealthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
In addition, private schools tend to contract independent food service providers who have more flexibility in where they source food from, in part because they work on a smaller scale. Public schools commonly work with large-scale corporate food service providers like (Aramark, Sodexo and Bon Appetit) who have exclusive purchasing contracts with equally large-scale vendors like Sysco. However, few people know that their contracts provide 5% to 15% leeway in food purchasing. In other words, these companies can source food outside of contracts with large-scale vendors like Sysco, for example, from local farmers. With enough customer demand, they will take it a step further and pressure their contracted vendors to source better food as well.
Parent and teacher demand may be the single, most critical factor in improving school food. In the era of green-washing, where everything is “farm-fresh”, “local” and “organic”, we cannot risk being satisfied with public statements about farm-to-fork improvements, which in my own experience can be weakly supported. We need to truly understand food distribution and how to build pathways for better food to reach school cafeterias. We should clamor to meet the farmers feeding our children and receive weekly menus with listed food sources. These sorts of facts and first-hand experiences will boost our confidence in public school feeding programs.
In Connecticut, several people have rallied to put the pressure on, including John Turrene of Sustainable Food Systems and Amy Kalafa of Two Angry Moms. However, Ophelia showed me that there is a lot more work to be done! What will it take to get every parent and teacher advocating on behalf of their children and students’ future? Join me in taking a stand for my little sister and her peers across the country!