How to Get Good Food Into Schools

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Kim Severson's piece about school food in last week's New York Times food section discusses some of the barriers to producing decent and tasty school food: cooking skills! There are plenty of others, as detailed in Dana Woldow's terrific three-minute video detailing the situation in San Francisco's public schools--as seen by kids in that system. As the kids put it, "We need better school food!"

On the day the Times piece appeared, I was doing a tour of a couple of New York City school lunch programs. One was to a small K-to-9th grade school in the low-income Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. This school may not have had much money, but it had everything else needed to make school food work: a devoted and smart principal, a committed staff, and a school food director who set high standards. The food looked, smelled, and tasted good, and the kids were eating it.

School kids are bombarded with junk food all day long. If they didn't eat so much of it, they might eat real food and support the school lunch program to a greater degree.

How did this school perform this miracle? Easy. Everyone cared that kids got fed and liked what they were eating.

The next stop was Brooklyn Tech. Same food; different experience. If caring was present, it didn't show.

For one thing, the junk-food vending machines were in the lunch room (not a good sign). Worse, they were open for business (a flat-out violation of federal rules). Even worse, nobody seemed to be doing anything about it, at least as far as I could see.

My conclusion: school food can be really good, even in poor neighborhoods, if everyone involved cares about it. Can we teach schools to care? Of course we can.

And officials can make it harder for schools not to care. The New York City Education Department says schools have to cut way down on bake sales, with exceptions for parent groups, parent-teacher associations, and birthday celebrations.

This policy will undoubtedly elicit complaints, but I don't have much sympathy for complainers. School kids are bombarded with junk food from multiple sources all day long. If they didn't eat so much of it, they might eat real food and support the school lunch program to a greater degree. That's why those open vending machines are so troubling. The messages they send are, "It's OK to eat junk food in school," and, "It's OK to disobey federal rules any time we want to." Not a good idea.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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