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Taking on the school cafeteria



In 2007, independent filmmaker and mother of two Amy Kalafa released Two Angry Moms, a documentary that fought the junk food and malnutritious school lunches ubiquitous in American school cafeterias. In the process, she discovered a network of powerful food manufacturers, misfiring government subsidies and budget-minded school districts.

In her recent book, Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children's Health, Kalafa reiterates her documentary's message about unhealthy school lunches and provides resources for concerned parents. Her monthlong national book tour makes its eighth and final stop at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books & Music on Sept. 28.

Independent: Your documentary, Two Angry Moms, was released four years ago and brought school lunches to national attention. How has the conversation over school lunches changed since then?

Kalafa: It's changed so much, in a good way. When I made the movie and I was researching and filming, I was looked at as a rabble-rouser and adversary in the school food world. Since that time I think people have come to embrace all the advocates out there, and many of them have become advocates themselves. People realize we're all on the same side; we're all concerned about children's health. We see the impact on America's kids.

Who are you trying to reach with this book? Describe the reader you had in your mind as you were writing.

The reader is anybody who cares about kids. You don't have to be a parent. I've had many, many teachers, school administrators or staff, or grandparents whose kids have kids in school write to me. Ideally, I hope parents of very young children will read the book because this is a cause you have to jump into for the long haul, for years and years to come.

Characterize the typical school lunch as you refer to it in your book, and how it comes to be.

The typical school lunch is often not made in the school cafeteria. Very often it's something that's been processed in a factory somewhere and shipped across the country in some kind of plastic container and possibly even reheated in plastic containers and served to kids that way. A lot of artificial ingredients, a lot of preservatives, and the foods generally lack color, everything beige and bland and not very alive. But that's a lunch that would meet the government guidelines. We have a generation of schoolchildren that are overfed and undernourished. Kids are making a lunch out of a giant pretzel or a giant cookie because they're not satisfied by the school lunches.

Burgers, fries, sodas and snacks are classic items in school cafeteria culture, but you claim that it's possible to convince kids to 'choose broccoli over Pop-Tarts.' How?

First of all, I think that schools should only have good choices for kids. There's no reason to ask whether they'd have broccoli or Pop-Tarts. It's like saying 'would you rather have recess or math?' We determine what's good for them educationally. But kids can absolutely make that choice, and it's not by saying 'Pop-Tarts are bad, Pop-Tarts are bad.' It's by educating their palate. If they're used to seeing limp and gray green beans on a food plate, they're going to say 'I don't like green beans.' But if they have a fresh green bean lightly steamed, maybe they'll say I do like green beans. It's training their palates from an early age to prefer fresh, healthy food.

You devote a large part of your book to organic farms, local foods and school gardens. How are those related to reforming school food?

We refer to it as 'school food and environmental and food literacy.' When a child learns food literacy, it raises food IQ. Kids are smart. When they have a school garden, they start questioning 'Why don't we have this in the cafeteria?' That's how many schools see change. Kids in one Long Island school went on strike. They wouldn't buy lunch until they got a salad bar. It's about learning. When you start learning about food, you get invested in it.

How do you convince the parents who don't see the need to change the inexpensive school lunches for the more expensive alternatives you're suggesting?

Many parents themselves were raised on fast food, and we're in the second or third generation of fast food, and they're thinking 'If it's good enough for me, it's good enough for the kids.' But it's something we have to pay attention to now. Americans spend less than 10 percent of our income on food, which is very cheap. But we spend 17 percent on health care. In Europe, they spend 17 percent on food and 10 percent on health care. If you ask a parent, 'Would you rather spend more on food and less on healthcare?' they would say yes every time. It's a pay now or pay later situation. We've got kids who are sick with diseases that used to only strike adults. It's going to cost more in health care in the long run.

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