A few years ago, Amy Kalafa and Susan Rubin were Two Angry Moms on a mission: to show America just how rotten school lunch food had gotten in our country.
It's not like folks hadn't known for years that the fried and processed junk that lunch ladies served up these days was pretty crummy. But their eye-opening exposé sparked a movement, and countless moms signed up online to help join the fight for a more sustainable school food environment.
But even after seeing her film, Amy was bombarded by parents who wanted to know exactly what they could do to help move the needle in their own communities.
So, like a general preparing for battle, Amy drew up her own plan of attack: a 370-page step-by-step manual that is one part Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and one part Marion Nestle’s What To Eat, with more than a dash of practical mom-to-mom advice thrown in.
Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health (Tarcher/Penguin 2011), covers virtually every problem any concerned parent might encounter, from how to decode all the polysyllabic artificial ingredients in cafeteria foods, to navigating local bureaucracies, to proposing actual menu makeovers.
TakePart spoke with Amy about her new book, and her tips for parents getting started on their own quest to change their kids’ cafeteria food.
TakePart: You say that one of the first things parents should do is make a lunch date with their kids.
Amy Kalafa: Even the USDA recommends parents should have lunch at school with their kids to see what the options are at the cafeteria. Every year we try to get parents to dedicate a week—usually October, coinciding with the National School Lunch Week—to go and have lunch with their kids, meet the staff of the cafeteria, meet the school administrators and learn about what improvements the school has made or is in the process of making, and take it from there. You’ve got to experience the food by tasting it. Obviously, you’ve also got to read the menu, and even more importantly, you can ask for the school to provide you with a list of all the ingredients that are in each and every item in the cafeteria because most schools are still using a lot of packaged, processed foods.
How have the new federal food rules helped people improve school lunches? What else needs to be done?
In some ways there’s this perception that we fixed the problem because there are new federal regulations. I consider those regulations really a floor, not a ceiling. There are some major improvements in terms of the requirement to have fresh fruits and vegetables, and they’ve put restrictions on the amount of sodium they’re going to be using, and there’s support for farm-to-school programs and school gardens. On the other hand, it’s very hard to implement a program with not enough money to fund it, so there’s always going to be a clever food manufacturer who meets the requirements and still sells pretty low-quality food.
It’s really in our local communities that we can make the greatest changes, and that’s really looking at local wellness policy. Every school district in the country is required to have a wellness policy. In the book I have examples of model wellness policies where everything is specified, so that 25 percent of the food will be sourced locally and it will be fresh.
For parents who want to get involved, how can they use the book to plan their attack?
I broke the book down so that you could sort of jump to a certain chapter to get what you needed. The first chapter really just talks about what’s in the food in school so you can get a good understanding of the kinds of ingredients that are used in processed foods and why we don’t want our kids eating it. The next chapter I wrote about advocacy. I was not much of an advocate when I started this. I interviewed a lot of people who are advocating for a variety of environmental and sustainability issues and learned from them how to be an advocate without being abrasive—without turning people off and having people just push you away. I think that’s a really good place to start—just learning how to approach your school system, your school administrators, your food service director and say, "Hey, I want to work with you," because a lot of parents—and even I am guilty of this—think, "Oh, why don’t they just do it this way?"
Isn’t it just easier for a parent to say, "I’m just going to send my kid with a brown bag lunch every day?" Why isn’t that a solution?
Well, you know, that’s what my husband and I did for years. My youngest is in college now, and they both went to school with a brown bag lunch. So I was able to ignore the issue pretty well until I started making a movie about school food and I went to my daughter’s middle school just to see how the lunch program worked there.
It was computerized and I had the food service director show me a readout—we had put a little money, like $20, in my daughter’s account for days she might forget her lunch or want a little something—you know, thinking my daughter would purchase soup or a bottle of water. She pushed the button on the computer and I found out that every day she was purchasing potato chips, rice crispy treats, pop tarts—all manner of junk food. There was no one in the cafeteria saying, "Honey, you brought your lunch, why don’t you eat your lunch?" I realized that the school was really undermining the good work I was doing. It doesn’t really solve the problem when your kids are being offered these other choices at school. Even the parents who are sending their children to school with a bag lunch will hopefully join in this movement and get involved because we do have to think about the more than half of the kids in the country who are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program, and who can’t afford to bring that brown bag to school. There’s a social justice issue along with the issue of the health of all of Americas kids.
How have you seen the movement change since you first got involved with “Two Angry Moms?”
Well, there have been a lot of positive changes. The first few years when I started researching the documentary, and throughout its production, it felt like nothing was happening. It was really depressing and I did meet people who had worked so hard and then given up. Things have really started to move in the past couple years, I think with the entire food movement that is sweeping the nation in terms of local and organic, and people looking at the food system, school food is a part of that and it's been swept along. So there’s an increasing awareness. I think we're about to reach the tipping point where something is going to happen.