Lessons in School Lunch

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I don’t know about you, but to me the words “school lunch” evoke memories of pizza squares that tasted like stale bread topped with greasy, rubbery cheese; vegetables of the soggy, insipid, canned variety; and overly sweet chocolate milk with a distinctly cardboard-y aftertaste.

Apparently, things haven’t gotten much better in the decade (okay, two decades) since I last set foot in a school cafeteria. Among the people calling for an end to such uninspiring, and usually unhealthy, fare is the Obamas’ new White House chef, Sam Kass. As Tara Parker-Pope reported on her New York Times blog, Well, Kass gave a talk last year criticizing the state of the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or low-cost lunches to about 30 million children a day. Unfortunately, Kass lamented, most of what’s on the menu is high in fat and low on fresh, nutritious vegetables—a recipe for disaster in light of the growing childhood obesity problem.

Alice Waters, whose Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse was championing seasonal, local foods long before the term locavore was coined, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the Times laying out a plan for remaking the school lunch program.

In fact, she has already helped establish one model for the school lunch of the future, the Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, in Berkeley. In 1994, Waters joined forces with the school and community to create a one-acre schoolyard garden that would not only feed the children but also teach them valuable lessons about ecology, nutrition and where their food comes from. The students take part in every aspect of the “seed to table experience”: tending the garden, preparing meals and turning table scraps into compost to help the cycle continue.

At mealtime, students and teachers at King sit down together and share food and conversation, a reflection of Waters’ adherence to the Slow Food movement—and remarkable, considering one study found that, on average, schools provided the last student in line at the cafeteria with 13 minutes to eat his or her lunch; a third of schools provided 10 minutes or less.

Some of the recipes mentioned on the Edible Schoolyard Web site sound pretty appealing: pumpkin and kale soup, Jerusalem artichoke fritters, stuffed grape leaves. It’s almost enough to make me wish I were back in middle school. Okay, I’m lying; nothing could make me wish for that.

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