Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A letter to Michelle Obama about school food

Dear Mom-in-Chief, a letter encouraging Michelle Obama to make healthy food for kids a priority in her work as First Lady. Debra Eschmeyer, a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and the Marketing and Media Director of the National Farm to School Network, lays out the issues and the current opportunity for improving school meals for kids around the country. The letter, which posted on Civil Eats website, hits so many relevant points that I'm posting it in its entirety:

Dear Mom-In-Chief,

As First Lady you have the ability to set the table for what our nation’s children eat by adding a plank of food justice to your platform. Many ideas have already been sent your way, including starting an organic garden on the White House lawn and appointing a First Farmer. But where should you start?

I request that you make the health of our nation’s children your platform priority. Especially with two growing girls to nurture and nourish, you must understand that we will only be successful as a nation when all children in our country are healthy and well-fed.

You have the support of the 44th President. The Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, was quoted yesterday in the Washington Post explaining President Obama’s goals for the USDA, “The vision is, he wants more nutritious food in schools.” Vilsack went on to depict the role of local foods in that mission: “In a perfect world, everything that was sold, everything that was purchased and consumed would be local, so the economy would receive the benefit of that.”

You have a ripe opportunity to make great strides toward that vision with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which is the federal legislation that establishes the guidelines for our nation’s school meal programs and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Every four or five years, there’s an opening for all of those concerned with the health of our nation’s children to evaluate, defend, and improve the federal Child Nutrition Programs. That time is now as the current Child Nutrition Act expires in September 2009.

With at least 35 to 40 percent of children’s daily eating occurring during the school day, a reformed cafeteria could improve the health and increase the capacity to learn for the 30 million children that eat at school 180 days per year.

When you invited Chef Sam Kass into the White House Kitchen, your spokeswoman said “he happens to have a particular interest in healthy food and local food.” Mr. Kass has spoken out previously on the need to change the school lunch menu by decreasing the high levels of sugar and fat. He’s right.

Earlier this month the results of the latest school nutrition dietary assessment study by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association exposed that in the 2004-2005 school year, only 6% to 7% of schools met all nutrition standards. This is unacceptable.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 were overweight in 2007. In the late 1970s, that number was only 6.5%. The oft-quoted statistic that one in three children born in 2000 will be diabetic in their lifetime (make that one in two if the child is black or Hispanic) demonstrates we can’t wait a moment longer to act.

If you make the health of our nation’s children your priority, you could save countless lives and potentially save us billions of dollars.

Consider the economic stress of diet-induced diseases such as Type II Diabetes, now inflicting youth. The insulin, needles, test strips, blood sugar monitors, doctor’s appointments, etc. take a considerable chunk of change. The average annual expense for a person diagnosed with diabetes is $11,744, of which $6,649 is directly attributed to the disease. Those with diabetes have medical expenses that are 2.3 times higher than those with working pancreases.

Sasha and Malia are fortunate to be eating nutritious local, organic lunches at Sidwells Friends School. This is what your girls ate at lunch on Tuesday, February 10th:

    Organic Vegetarian Chili, Carrot Apple Soup, Roasted Local Beet Salad, Salad du Jour, All Natural Beef Chili, Brown Rice, Steamed Zucchini and Grapefruit Slices

The above shows the solution can be delicious. How wonderful that you and the President can provide local, fresh and healthy foods for the First Daughters, but what about kids in the rest of the country? From your previous neighborhood on the south side of Chicago to your new community in Washington, D.C. with the highest childhood obesity rates in the country, the nutritional divide that stymies the development and potential of youth is an open wound.

The average school cafeteria unfortunately operates on the lowest common denominator of cost, not quality. The USDA currently reimburses schools $2.57 for every free lunch it serves and lower amounts for reduced cost and full price meals. This leaves about one dollar to cover actual food costs, once labor and overhead costs are factored in. What do you expect food service directors to feed our kids with on a $1.00?

Thankfully, kids, parents, food service staff, teachers, farmers, school administration, and other community members have a taste for change and have been working to incorporate fresh, local product—no matter the perceived barriers—through what is called “farm to school” programs.

The farm to school movement has not waited for the federal government to make children a priority. There are over 2,000 known programs in 39 states as reported by the National Farm to School Network, a joint project of the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College and the Community Food Security Coalition.

Even though I promote from scratch cooking, you don’t have to start from scratch in your platform.

The Child Nutrition Forum, a collaboration of many groups, including, National Farm to School Network, School Nutrition Association, Food Research and Action Center and School Food FOCUS, has a statement of principles that outlines key issues to champion immediately.

From there you can delve into an extensive menu of ideas such as establishing a national farm to school grant program or strengthening nutrition standards for school meal programs.

On February 26, I invite you to attend one of two Congressional briefings on farm to school and hear directly from those working every day for a healthy America.

Fulfill your wish to be America’s Mom-in-Chief by making sure that every child has the nutrients necessary to carry our country forward—now that is a stimulus plan I can believe in.


Debra Eschmeyer

Debra Eschmeyer is a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and the Marketing and Media Director of the National Farm to School Network and the Center for Food and Justice. She works from her fifth-generation family farm in Ohio, where she continues her passion for organic farming raising fruits, vegetables, chickens, and pigs. Debra's previous non-profit work spans the globe in the humanitarian, conservation, sustainable agriculture, and food justice realms. Most recently, Debra was the Project Director at the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington, DC where she focused on U.S. agricultural policy and food sovereignty initiatives among grassroots domestic and international rural advocacy and social justice networks.

[Thanks to Kelly Horton for the heads-up!]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

New USDA Director Vilsack: Thoughts on School Food

From the Washington Post interview, the new director of USDA, Tom Vilsack, spoke with staff writer Jane Black. Here are the parts relating to school meals:
... There are ways we can go do a better job of educating young moms and dads about the vital role they have as the child's first teacher. I think there are ways in which we can partner with local school districts and states to do a better job to provide nutrition options at school. It's our responsibility to get this health-care crisis under control.
What specific ideas do you have about how to move forward to improve nutrition in school lunches?

Part of my responsibility is to find people who share my concern and have more expertise than I do. People we nominate will be people who understand this issue and have the desire to effect change. The specifics of how we can do this will come from the experts. My job is to listen to the president, who is the ultimate vision maker, articulate his vision to the people who work in this department and add my two cents' worth. The vision is, he wants more nutritious food in schools.

Will local foods play a part?

In a perfect world, everything that was sold, everything that was purchased and consumed would be local, so the economy would receive the benefit of that. But sometimes that stresses the capacity: the production capacity or the distribution capacity. Especially since we don't have yet a very sophisticated distribution system for locally grown food. One thing we can do is work on strategies to make that happen. It can be grant programs, loan programs, it can be technical assistance.