Wednesday, May 13, 2009

We Interrupt This Post To Watch Natalie Bang Her Head Against the Wall

I'd be curious as to what you think about this. . .Long story ahead.

Let's face it: School food sucks. It's gross. It's mostly chemicals, preservatives, articifial colors and flavors. In short, in the standard school lunch program, there's probably nothing that's good for our kids. (The National School Lunch Program has got to be one of the most corrupt systems I've ever heard about, but that's a whole 'nother story)

Back in Ohio, discussions about changing the school lunch program in our district were just getting underway. There was a local woman who had approached our school board about improving the food, but I didn't really get involved because we were getting ready to move. But the president of the school board basically told her that they shouldn't take away kids' choice. Choice? Choice to have chemicals vs. healthy food? Excuse me, we are the big people here.

When we arrived in Colorado, I was a little disturbed to find out that even at the elementary school level, junk food was available for sale to the kids. On top of the nasty lunch options. Ick. Hot Cheetos, Doritos, soda, ice cream, Gatorade, Fruit Roll Ups, cinnamon buns. For sale. To Kindergartners.

I was annoyed.

And I wasn't alone. Except that I found out that many parents weren't even aware their kids could buy this stuff.

Already in 2006, a friend of Tara's had been approaching the district's director of food service about improving the lunches and getting rid of the junk for several years. Then Tara got involved and was able to get most of the junk out of her school, but she had to do it all herself--all of the research, purchasing, stocking, reordering, etc. She even had to get the grant to pay for it all.

By this time, we had moved out here and I jumped on the bandwagon, too, and started taking part in what had become a committee of parents who wanted change things. Over the course of a year and a half or so, we have been able to change some of the snacks in the elementary schools. The crap in the junior and high schools still exists. Plus, there's still crap in the elementary schools, but it's better crap. The chips are baked (still filled with preservatives though). And there are only about 10 choices now instead of the 50 or so the kids had before. Some of the options are healthier like real fruit leather (instead of fruit roll ups), sunflower seeds, etc. But there are still push ups, ice cream, etc.

We were first working with the district's director of food service who is possibly the world's biggest road blocker I have ever seen. For every idea we have, there is a road block and a reason we can't accomplish something. Sure he'll change the school lunch program--if the parents find all the money and do all the work.

Last summer we got a new superintendent and we all had hope that with a new administration, change might be becoming.

After giving the new superintendent some time to settle in, our informal committee contacted her to get things rolling--to ask to be recognized as a formal committee, to have district representation at each meeting and to have this person have some sort of decision-making authority. We explained that our goal was to create a district Wellness Committee that would help the district implement and follow its Wellness Policy--which is a federally mandated document that was adopted by our district in 2006 and that we violate in many, many areas.

We sent our e-mail to the new superintendent and the president of the school board in the beginning of December and requested a meeting.

We received no reply.

We wrote again in February.

No reply.

I was, as Eamonn likes to say, gobsmacked. As a parent AND a taxpayer in this district, I was floored that no one could be bothered to even hit reply and say, "Sorry, this isn't of interest to us right now." Are you kidding me? If I'd treated a customer like that when I was employed, I wouldn't have had a job for very long. And if I behaved like that to my clients today, I wouldn't have a business.

In early April, I went with our little committee to a board meeting and we repeated our request for a formal committee with some decision-making capacity.

The next day I received an e-mail from the district that said, "Thank you for coming to the school board meeting. Good luck with your project." I must have lost consciousness for a minute because I don't remember what happened after that.

After quizzing a school board member about what that e-mail meant, we were then informed that the superintendent would be calling us to schedule a meeting. That was six weeks ago. Still nothing.

For the past year and a half, I have played "nice" with this whole ordeal because some of the people on our informal committee didn't want to piss off the powers that be. So we have played nice. But you know what? Playing nice has gotten us nowhere and now here we sit, another year on and no progress.

So tonight, a group of parents at our neighborhood elementary school showed the documentary, "Two Angry Moms," which follows the journey of two women who tried to change the lunch program at their school district. We had a small turnout, just 15 people, among whom was the district food service guy. I could barely contain myself listening to his rhetoric yet again about how he'd love to see change, but. . .roadblock, roadblock, roadblock.

Why do I care and why do I keep pursuing what seems like a futile effort? Why don't I just pack my kids' lunch all the time and be quiet?

Well, first, because that's just not me. And the first time I met the food service guy he sort of shook his head and said something to the effect of: "Yeah, every few years a group of parents shows up and wants to change to food and it never goes anywhere." And then he sort of sighed and sat down like he would endure talking to our group until we got bored with seeing no change and went away, too.

Nothing motivates me like a jackass.

I come from a long line of educators. In fact, I'm about the only female on my mom's side of the family who is not a teacher. There are a lot of teachers amongst the cousins on my dad's side, too. So it's not like I don't care or understand about what's going on in the schools. They're overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. I know this. I've lived it in my own house growing up. BUT, as a taxpayer and a parent and someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time researching nutrition, I also know that all of the money I'm paying as a taxpayer and fundraising for as a member of the PTA to raise money for various educational programs doesn't mean squat if we aren't giving kids what they need from a nutritional standpoint so that they can sit in a classroom ready to learn.

For example, research shows us that very common preservatives in soda and chips, which are available to kids at lunch, cause an ADD-like reaction in kids 20 minute to one hour after consumption. So, they consume the chemicals, go outside for recess, and then right when we want them to come back inside and learn, these chemicals are hitting their systems. Are we asking them to do the impossible and then labeling them as discipline problems? But again, why do I care if I don't let my kids eat that stuff anyway. Because the kids that do consume that stuff affect the whole class. And as a taxpayer am I throwing good money away on these great educational programs that aren't getting used to their fullest potential?

But parents need to be taking care of nutrition at home, right? This is the parents' responsibility! Yes, I agree. Good nutrition needs to take place at home, too, but one-third of a kid's meals are consumed at school, whether it's in a packed lunch or a purchased lunch. But let's face it, this isn't 1955 and the days of June Cleaver packing a perfectly balanced lunch just aren't realistic. That paradigm doesn't exist in 2009. I wish it weren't true, but it is, and that lunch may be the only square meal a kids gets in a day. So shouldn't it be something that's nutritionally sound and not chicken nuggets that don't actually contain chicken (I'm not kidding).

I don't know. I don't have all the answers. But research does also show that when you remove these chemicals and stuff, test scores improve and discipline problems go down.

I also know that school districts are struggling financially and that these junk foods make money. Lots of it. There are so many factors.

I do know that I'm motivated by "Two Angry Moms" (www.angrymoms.org) and that maybe, just maybe, this is the start of something. And maybe all of this headbanging will be for something.

I'm going to rest my head now. In Chicago.


Kristie said...

What gets me are the day I have lunch with my kids at the school, and I see a child bring a lunch from home, open it up, and inside are a bag of chips, fruit roll ups, candy bar, and a soda. No kidding.

M said...

4 words:

Cate said...

Amen and amen! As an adult with ADD anyway, I can't imagine what my school days would have been like if I'd had the junk food option.

Stick to your guns! By the way, I'm stealing your "Nothing motivates me like a jackass." So true.

in a world surrounded by men said...

Natalie, I laughed out loud at the jackass comment.

Keep it up girl. Be strong!

Hennifer said...

Thanks for posting this. I have been more and more concerned with this same topic as I've spent more and more time at my son's school (he's now in the 2nd grade)

Just the other day I learned the school is doing away with juice during lunch because it is less nutritional than milk and they already serve fruit at lunch. I know arguments could go either way in regards to juice but what gets me is why is it ok then to serve juice with breakfast where offerings are sugary yogurt, bread and jam, coffee cake, waffles with syrup, etc....

I'm really wanting to get involved/starting a movement like this in our district here in Oregon. I'd love any tips and hope to check out that documentary.

Lauren said...

Just so you know, I have your blog saved at the top of my page. You, my husband, Kristie, and Ree. Evidently though, it means there is just enough space when I click to see if you've updated for me to read:
We Interrupt This Post To Watch Natalie Bang

I was startled to say the least. Glad the topic was school lunches.



1dreamr said...

First of all, I have a new favorite quote:

Nothing motivates me like a jackass. ~Natalie Rooney

I couldn't agree more. Keep fighting the good fight ~ I have no doubt that you can (and will) help create this very necessary change.

You go GIRL! (Enjoy Chicago, too.)

Jennifer Freeman said...

Natalie - thanks for the added worry about when my kids go to school. They don't eat crap at home and so I won't be happy if they eat it there. We (the kids) practice good eating habits mainly because of the history of diabetes (along with they need to be healthy). At the elementary level kids are not equipped to make rational food descions. GREAT! I was worried about the teenage years, now I have to worry about FOOD in the young years!

PS- At the mall playground this 7 yr old boy was hyper as all get out. His mom yelling at him repeatedly for his behavior. Then she says to him "Come here and have a drink of your SODA." WTH... no wonder he bouncing of the walls.

Anonymous said...

I've here via a suggestion from my blog friend, Laurie S! I just blogged about school lunch today - my oldest will be starting first grade next year, and the whole nasty school lunch thing has me freaking out a tad.

I LOVE that you're such an activist about this! Since I'm new to the school, I don't know what kinds of things have happened in the past about the lunch, but I'm curious to find out.

Like you, there are tons of educators in my own family and my husband's, and I did professional development for elem. teachers for four years before being a SAHM. So I totally get the issues. But there has GOT to be a better way.

I'll be back to visit your blog!