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"If You Say Nothing, You Support It" (and My Opinion about Amy Kalafa's Book, Lunch Wars)

Posted Aug 21 2011 7:20am
If you're there, you're part of it.  And if you say nothing, you support it.  Such wise motherly advice I thought I had offered my younger daughter about a situation she was witnessing last year on the school bus.  My daughter eventually opted to not take the bus for the rest of that school year, which took her out of the situation, which was certainly a valid solution.  I thought of this as I sat at the Open House at her new school this past week, as her teaching team, one after the other, classroom after classroom, told us parents about the "merit system" that rewards the kids for really anything at all they do on the positive side of the ledger.  They cash in these merits every four weeks for "junk food."  That's exactly what they called it.

We had just come from the Physical Education/Health Department (okay, fine, the gym).  An impressive team of teachers made me want to "dress out" myself and start running laps or playing ball.  After that, I had passed a vending machine in the hallway and was happy to see only water and 100% fruit juice, but was discouraged to see a courtyard with no school garden.  And then the whole junk food thing happened.  
I had stepped out of the whole lunch food situation years before--seven, actually, when my older daughter was in 4th grade and we spent the year doing research and surveys, having meetings, and advocating for change.  During that time, I interviewed and met a woman named Amy Kalafa who had just released a documentary named Two Angry Moms.  I spoke at a conference and I wrote a cover article for Georgia Organics' publication about the school lunch challenge ( you can see it here ).  
Then, I burned out, or should I say, we opted out.  Nothing had really changed, except the addition of a GMO-laden processed-food vegetarian option each day, which my children never purchased because it was still so far from healthy.  I'd pop back in once or twice a year with a note reminding schools about the sanctity of a commercial-free learning environment (no Chick-fil-A "prizes" during school hours, please), but pretty much, I was done.  I am done.  This whole topic bores me.  We pack lunches every single day.  My daughters have no "emergency" money on lunch room accounts "just in case." (Amy's daughter's purchases of junk with her emergency lunchroom fund is what got Amy involved in the first place.)  My daughters are old enough to make informed decisions now, and they see and understand what is wrong.  (Also, I strongly feel they don't need "treats" for every single thing they do, and that Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right: The reward for a job well done is to have done it.)  We talk about how things will change and when they do, they won't have bad habits to undo.   And things are changing, not in my school system, but in some around us, and across the country, and in many colleges. 
Yet . . .
If you're there, you're part of it.  And if you say nothing, you support it.
Okay, so say something I did.  I wrote to the PE department, the principal, assistant principal, and the academic team.  I expressed concern about the conflict between what was being taught in PE and what was being encouraged in the classrooms.  I shared the school district's wellness policy statements about food not being used as a reward, and healthy messages being required consistently across the board.  I suggested alternatives be offered, and that the kids could possibly come up with some suggestions. I explained how my older daughter had a teacher who's big incentive in the class was allowing the kids to sign his stool at the end of the year, and how my older daughter swells with pride, five years later,  remembering how she got to do that.  I tried to be nice, because, frankly, I see my input as just drops of water in a teacup that will eventually overflow when enough people care.  And that's now enough for me.
And now, after this post, I intend to let it go (which isn't hard, because not one of them responded, except the teacher with the stool, whom I copied on the email because I had mentioned him).  And frankly, I've seen in my school cluster, that very, very few parents care about this, for reasons that I finally figured out may have to do with the House of Cards, in which so much of our modern life is built. (See When the House of Cards Tumbles, pages 80-82 in Food for My Daughters .) 
There are so many success stories of parents nationwide who have worked both inside and outside the bottom-of-the-barrel school lunch food system to change it that it could fill a book.  In fact, it did.  During this past week, I read a review copy of Amay Kalafa's brand new book, Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children's Health (which was just released three days ago).  The book is brilliant (and the tone is not nearly as bellicose as the cover makes it sound).  It is packed with success stories from parents just like you all over the United States.  It gives you every tool you could need to get involved and make a difference in your children's schools.  And it even includes a small section on how school lunch is treated in other countries (and continues to raise the question for me as to why we accept so little for our children regarding safety in so many products here in the U.S.).  (If you have not read much on this issue yet, proceed with caution.  It is shocking stuff.  If you decide to join me in packing lunches each day, there are many reusable containers out there that work great.  I also like to pack a cloth napkin and real fork.  I tell my kids that every meal is a four-star dining experience if you treat it that way.)

I spoke to Amy Friday.  I told her that parents were simply not rallying around this issue where I live, and that now that my own book is out (in which I spend exactly three pages, out of 260, on school lunch), I really have nothing more to say.  So this is it.  If you are interested in school lunch issues (and other garbage food messages bombarding your children all day in school), I strongly recommend you buy Amy's book.  I also recommend you read the best ongoing coverage on the issue, written by my friend and a former Washington Post journalist, Ed Bruske (who is featured in Amy's book, by the way). See some of his articles here (in the center column). 

I also would like to ask that you think twice before calling parents who care about this stuff "the food police."  I know these people and that is the last thing they want to be.  They may just want their children to be able to go to school (as mandated) without increasing their risk for disease or having them be the one left out constantly because of their allergies (there are an average of two children with allergies in every classroom today) or other diagnosis, or their family's commitment to healthy eating.  They may also be concerned about the social justice reality that 60% of children nationwide (almost 30% in my school cluster) receive free or reduced lunch and that stuff is killing them, or the societal cost on both our health care system and our national security (an increasing number of young people are unfit to serve in the military).  Or they may just be moms who identify with this beautiful quote from a writer named Caitlin Moran:

It’s the silliness—the profligacy, and the silliness--- that’s so dizzying: a seven-year-old will run downstairs, kiss you hard, and then run back upstairs again; all in less than 30 seconds. It’s as urgent an item on their daily agenda as eating or singing. It’s like being mugged by Cu"pid.  You, in turn, observe yourself from a distance, simply astonished by the quantities of love you manufacture. It is endless. Your adoration may grow weary but it will never end: it becomes the fuel of your head, your body and your heart. It powers you through the pouring rain, delivering forgotten raincoats for lunch-time play; works overtime, paying for shoes and puppets; keeps you up all night, easing cough, fever and pain – like lust used to, but much, much stronger. And the ultimate simplicity of it is awe-inspiring. All you ever want to know – the only question that really matters – is: are the children all right? Are they happy? Are they safe? And so long as the answer is ‘Yes’, nothing, ultimately, matters."
   In general, the kids are not all right.
Amy's daughter, the one who bought the junk food, is, however.  Amy told me I could share with you that her daughter (who was in middle school when Amy got involved with school lunch) just started college, at a school that hasn't yet revamped its food system to reflect best practices of colleges nationwide.  She has purchased a hot plate and has been riding her bike three miles to the farmers market.  She asked Amy to send olive oil, garlic, almonds and honey.  She is doing what she can to be true to her values.  She is going to get involved and try to change things.  One voice, one choice, at a time.
And I invite you to do so as well.

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