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Friday BlogHer Book Review: Amy Kalafa’s Lunch Wars

September 30th, 2011

Oh, yeah, I’m tagging this one six ways ’til Sunday. Because when it comes to food? There’s a war on in this world. (This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own, by the by.)

I just finished reading Amy Kalafa’s book, “Lunch Wars” (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2011, 370 pages, $17.95). Kalafa is producer/director of “Two Angry Moms,” a documentary about kids and school lunches. Kalafa is also a holistic health and nutrition counselor and a Lyme disease consultant.

I like the way she set up the book. It’s a handbook and how-to guide, thus the book’s subtitle: “How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health.” She wrote the book in response to the questions she was asked as follow-up to the documentary, which was a joint effort with Susan P. Rubin, mom and activist, as well as director of A Better Way Holistic Health, a private health counseling practice in New York. Kalafa lays out the numbers, the descriptions, the basic facts, the stats and everything else you need to know to be convinced that our kids are having health problems in this nation, and that some of that stems to their diet. (If you weren’t convinced of that already.)

She also addresses food and poverty, health problems and lack of exercise, PTA wars, school gardens, and pretty much everything under the sun. She’s good, and I found this book to be useful and well-written. She casts a wide net, but she also gets really specific about the issues. She brings up pretty much everyone involved in food politics — from Jamie Oliver to Martha Stewart to Eric Schlosser to Michael Pollan. (Yes, Martha is a political person. She might not be out lobbying, but every time she discusses gardening and talks about organic food, yes, that’s political.) Kalafa sprinkles profiles with other food activists and notables throughout the book — it was a nice touch and makes the book even more credible than it already was.

What I can’t get around is this: You can slap down an Uncrustables sandwich on the counter, wet, soggy, stale and grim, in its crinkly plastic wrapping. Next to it, how about a fresh loaf of whole wheat bread, a jar of peanut butter and the jam jar? You can make a sandwich — a lovely, fresh sandwich, perhaps even one that includes organic peanut butter, jam and bread — and you can ask your guest, “Which looks better?”

The just-made one, of course.

“This is crap” (pointing to the Uncrustables); “This is not crap” (pointing to the fresh sandwich). “Do we really want the kids eating crap?” No, of course not. But you know who’s in bed with the school districts and their money? Smucker’s (Uncrustables), Tyson (crappy chicken pieces). the dairy industry. Then everyone shrugs.

Those of us who have been fighting this battle for years are feeling, right now, empowered and helpless at the same time.

School food = big money for companies. Oh, the dairy industry? Why am I going after them? Because of the chocolate and strawberry milk, that’s why. Rot those teeth, kids, we’re not paying the bills. Whoops! Your parents lost their job(s) and dental insurance? No dentist for you, baby. Maybe if you work rilly rilly hard, and are smart like Tyson and Smucker’s, you can afford insurance! Maybe you should start saving for dentures, though, just in case.

My posts are always too long, my apologies, but here are some fast thoughts:

1) Why can’t kids get water during lunch? (I mean pitchers and cups on the table, not a shared drinking fountain across the room, that, by the way, is broken)
2) Is it that much trouble to offer more vegetarian food? It’s cheaper, and healthier…
3) Why not let the kids get seconds instead of tossing the leftovers in the dumpster?
4) When I see someone using a dirty rag to wipe down a table, then wiping the floor with it, then wiping another table, it makes me want to hurt that person. Gah.
5) We have enough food in this world to go around. So why are so many people going hungry?
6) I still hate war. Food, not bombs. Books, not bombs. Love, not killing…
7) When my daughter was a newborn, the first thing another mom said to me was, Once she’s in school, you won’t want her to eat school lunch. (My thought, “What am I getting into here?”)
8) Growing up, the schools I attended were considered middle-range for poverty, probably. Lots of families with no money, lots of kids eating free or reduced lunch. We had the best cafeteria ladies ever, and everything was homemade and delicious. The parents used to eat with us all the time cuz the food was so good. So when I would read in books about the “horrible” school lunches, Tuna Surprise or Mystery Meat or whatever, it always baffled me.

Why aren’t more people making calls about this? Sending e-mails? Having lunch with their kids, if possible? (Brown bagging, obviously.) Telling the school districts and the USDA that the food lunch program, as it exists now, is unacceptable, especially for kids who are in poverty? For many kids, school breakfasts and lunches comprise most of what they subside on. If you are what you eat, then they are a sausage biscuit, chased with chicken nuggets, tater tots, and as much ketchup, ranch dressing and chocolate milk as they can wolf down and guzzle. There are also a whole lot of kids in the world who can’t digest milk, are allergic to peanuts and/or tree nuts, who are vegetarian, or celiac, who just plain don’t like milk and would prefer water, who don’t need the sugar from juice… on and on.

They are not being served.

It doesn’t take much to offer beans and brown rice instead of a peanut butter sandwich (I’m thinking of kids with allergies). And beans and rice instead of chicken nuggets? Always a good idea. The costs are lower, too. In the cafeterias, they’re giving our kids meat that is not even acceptable animal feed, the grade and quality are that abysmal. I could just throw something right now. How about a box of stale, nasty, frozen pizzas?

I’m remembering an evening many years ago. A friend had dropped by, and brought a friend with her. I didn’t know this person. She started interrogating me about my baby’s diet, Well, we’re vegetarians. If she wants to eat meat when she’s older, she can, but this is how we cook (beans and rice, whole grains, greens, vegetables and fruit. She didn’t like cow’s milk, once we were done nursing — at age 2 — so she drank soy milk, fortified with calcium and iron).

This woman, who was in my space, in my kitchen, started screaming at me that I had to give my daughter meat (we tried, actually, on a number of occasions — neither of my kids has ever cared for meat. But the woman never heard this, because she just kept screaming at me). “You could give her a hot dog! You could give her a hamburger!”

Oh, my Lord. It was awful. I had to stop her, so she would leave. My friend? She just stood there, silent.

I was a new mom — I used to second-guess myself constantly. So I finally came up with, “Why is it OK to take a kid to Jack in the Box, expose them to e coli and they can die from it, but there’s something wrong with what I’m doing?”

She left.

All these years later, it still pisses me off.

Ah, the Lunch Wars and the Food Wars. I’ll keep fighting until you lose.

– wm

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