Friday, October 09, 2009

Sam Kass is Captain of Team Good Lunch as The White House, USDA, & Dept. of Education Work For Better School Foods

Next week is National School Lunch Week, and Sam Kass is eating a lot of lunch lately...
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have both pledged to improve the foods in school lunch programs, and they're not waiting for Congress to change the federally mandated standards for foods that are allowed in feeding programs (a hot-topic subject of debate among school lunch advocates, because currently, allowable foods include very unhealthy choices). Instead, White House assistant chef/Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass has been very busy lately, meeting with school lunch directors in Washington--as well as in Virginia and Maryland--to check out programs that are already doing things right. Kass has been spending time with Karen Duncan, wife of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as part of an investigative team that's a joint project between the Department of Education, USDA and the White House, and they've been making school calls to institutions that already have innovative and healthy approaches to lunch programs, which include lots of fresh produce and farm to school sourcing. Today, Kass's Team Good Lunch will visit the Fairfax County Public School system, for an event with the School Nutrition Association. Kass and Mrs. Duncan--as well as Christie Vilsack, wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Janey Thornton, USDA's Under Secretary for Food and Nutrition will attend, and sample foods from the national school lunch and breakfast programs. Yesterday, federal feeding programs received an additional $135 million in funding from Congress to help combat child hunger, as both the House and Senate authorized funding for the 2010 fiscal year. (At top of post: Kass visits with students in the edible garden at Hampstead Hill Academy in Baltimore; Mrs. Duncan is in white, smaller photo is Kass)

A visit to Baltimore: Hampstead Hill Academy and the Great Kids' Farm

Two weeks ago, Team Good Lunch visited Baltimore, Maryland's Hampstead Hill Academy, a public charter school, and Baltimore City's Food and Nutrition Service's Great Kids' Farm. The 33-acre organic farm is part of an innovative program run by Baltimore City Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services Director Tony Geraci, a school food visionary who has instituted all kinds of school lunch changes to promote child health and reduce obesity rates. Geraci is a chef, and in charge of feeding 85,000 kids, and he takes it very seriously. He's instituted Meatless Mondays for the entire Baltimore school system this year, and hopes schools will be completely free of any frozen foods by January. The Great Kid's Farm was created to teach students about healthfy foods in addition to supplying produce for schools; the farm also has chickens and goats. After visiting the farm, Kass, Mrs. Duncan, and Matt Yale, Chief of Staff of the Department of Education, joined Geraci and students for lunch at Hampstead Hill's cafeteria, which included a salad of local microgreens, local apples and nectarines, and eggplant dip that students had made with vegetables and herbs from the school's own garden. (Above: Kass, seated, at lunch at Hampstead Hill; to the left is Tony Geraci, Hampstead Hill school principal Matt Hornbeck stands in back, and Mrs. Duncan is at right)

Exemplary school lunch initiative from the private sector: United Fresh Produce Association
There's been other activity at the White House, too, to encourage getting better foods into school lunch programs. Representatives from United Fresh Produce Association recently visited the White House to discuss healthier school lunches; the association has been very active in working to get more fresh fruits and vegetables onto kids' lunch plates. United Fresh represents produce growers, packers and distributors nationwide, and they've got their own major school lunch action going on. In September, as part of their Washington Public Policy Conference, United Fresh launched a salad bar campaign to get salad bars into schools nationwide. On Sept. 9, at Fresh Festival, an evening reception on Capitol Hill, United Fresh displayed a salad bar--and then donated it to DC's Elsie Stokes Whitlow Public Charter School. United Fresh has pledged to continue their campaign, and they're seeking to donate more than 100,000 salad bars to schools across the country. School lunch infrastructure like salad bars are critical for best-practice school lunch programs to succeed, but many schools lack infrastructure such as refrigeration, prep and storage areas--and even cafeterias. Private initiatives will be critical to change this, in addition to the federal, state and local initiatives that are government funded. United Fresh has become a leader in their field. During their White House visit, United Fresh reps also had a tour of the White House Kitchen Garden, which they've publicly applauded, because it's such a terrific project for children's nutrition education (Above: Representatives from United Fresh and Elsie Stokes Whitlow School at the Fresh Festival, with the salad bar)

Moving forward...
In a recent interview in Men's Health magazine, Obama domestic policy advisor Melody Barnes, who is part of Mrs. Obama's food policy team, noted that the Obamas plan to take on Congress next, to advocate for legislative changes for the foods allowed in federal feeding programs--and that's something that a bevy of legislators on The Hill are interested in, too, as are the many citizen school lunch advocacy groups. It's a terrific long-term goal, but it's really progressive that the White House is not waiting for this to happen, but instead examining programs that are already making a food policy end run--and encouraging these. The White House activity, combined with the USDA's new focus on improving child nutrition programs, is a real paradigm shift, after years of no changes in federal feeding standards. USDA's new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which seeks to "marry" school lunch programs with local farmers, has just earmarked $50 million from Department of Defense funds for fresh fruits and vegetables, which the USDA would like to come from local farms and go to schools (in this post, there's a look at how the White House and USDA are partnering in child nutrition efforts). And the fact that the Department of Education is on board is unprecedented, too. All of President Obama's ambitious educational goals are simply not attainable by malnourished, hungry kids...and it's pathbreaking that better food is becoming part of their rubric, too. It speaks well for a much healthier future for America's kids, particularly when once again, Secretary Vislack is being lobbied hard by the pork industry--once again--to make another huge purchase of commodity products for federal feeding programs.

*Yesterday, Tony Geraci testified before the House Subcommittee on Healthy families and Communities, which is chaired by Rep. George Miller (D-CA). Geraci discussed his innovative approaches to child nutrition, and discussed his students' Cafeteria Bill of Rights, among other things (a video of the testimony is here). Geraci also has a fleet of refrigerated trucks in his program to deliver produce from local farmers to his schools, and he's seeking to build a central kitchen, as well as create a fish farm at the Great Kids' Farm.

*National School Lunch Week is October 12-16. Check out the School Nutrition Association's school lunch menus, and decide for yourself if you'd like your child to eat this.

*The Community Food Security Coalition has an excellent document about Farm to School programs, "Nourishing the Nation One Tray at a Time." Download it here [PDF]. There's also a state-by-state listing of Farm to School legislation here [PDF].