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2011 School Meals Challenge

A few years ago I listed to an interview with U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan about his experience tackling the 2007 Congressional Food Stamp Challenge. He and four other representatives pledged to eat for a week on $21, the average ‘food stamp’ budget at the time. They did – and in the process they drew a lot of media coverage; some of the discourse was critical, but mostly it succeeded in raising awareness around issues of hunger, poverty, and social exclusion. Since then, taking the ‘food stamp challenge’ has turned trendy for activists, pantries, religious groups, thrifties, and college kids; the national Food Research Action Center (FRAC) even offers a ‘toolkit‘. Everybody’s doin’ it.

That four-year-old interview came to mind as I was googling ‘school lunch’ images; in the one I linked to here, for example, the author remembers her ‘best’ and ‘worst’ school food memories, both the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ to me indistinguishable from disastrous fast food classics (though I imagine there were no Disney prizes that came alongside the nachos). This gave me an idea: I hereby call on Congressional Representatives to take up the 2011 School Meal Challenge. Not Ann Cooper’s School Food Challenge – she challenges herself to provide students with fresh, local, healthy food every day; this challenge is about understanding what public dollars and public policy actually put on the plates of millions of American children every day.

Here’s how it will work for each participating Congressperson:

  • Since a Congressperson’s job is to represent everyone in his district, including those ‘least of his brothers and sisters’, he’ll partner with the high school in his district that provides the worst school meal service to its students. (We’ll figure out which one it is …). If he’s in Washington, DC, he’ll partner with DC’s worst-meal high school.
  • The school will provide a standard grab-and-go breakfast and cafeteria-style lunch each day for a week; volunteers will deliver them to the Congressperson’s normal place of lunch.
  • If the Congressperson doesn’t have a ‘working lunch’ or business meeting scheduled, he will be restricted to a 25-minute lunch period. If he does have a business meeting scheduled, he can take as much time as necessary – but no ‘trading sandwiches’ with his colleagues!
  • The Congressperson will use the standard plateware and cutlery used by students (for example, styrofoam tray and plastic fork and knife).
  • Finally, to understand the context in which real school lunches occur – the noises, smells, drug sales, bullies, and fights of a standard high school cafeteria – the Congressperson is encouraged, if at all possible, to visit, wait in the lunch line, and eat lunch in his ‘provider’ high school.

That’s it. That’s how it works. And then maybe we can get on to the real School Meal Challenge: giving every kid, everywhere, a ‘good, clean, fair’ school lunch.

I guess all there is to do now is sit back and wait for all the Congresspeople to sign up …

(*** Although I like to consider myself a global citizen in a world of peace, love, happiness, and general goodwill, in actuality I have a US passport, and there’s lots of nonsense getting in the way of all that peace and love. That’s why I’ve addressed this to the US context, but I think that every representative in every country that dis-serves its children with bad school meals – or no school meals at all – should participate. ***)

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Avatar of Leah M. Ashe

About Leah M. Ashe

I'm very excited to be on the Purefood project. I'll be based in Cardiff and working on project 3.1 in public procurement. My background is quite varied - a bit of engineering, university administration, translation, and finally food research (primarily anthropology/sociology) has brought me to this point - and I'm eager to work alongside all of you in building a strong multidisciplinary research and action network in food sustainability. You can also follow me on Twitter or email me at lashend@gmail.com.

3 Responses to “2011 School Meals Challenge”

  1. Avatar of Gina Villarreal
    Gina August 1, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    This is such a great idea! I’m sure that this experience would really bring things into perspective for all involved in policy making related to school lunches in the US.

    In Mexico, for example, schools don’t serve lunch. Normally kids take food with them from home but there is always the option to buy lunch at school (in case your parents are too busy to prepare anything for you and give you money instead, a trend that has unfortunately increased in the last decades with more women joining the work force). A small concession store would offer all sorts of things like pastries, corn/potato chips and other snacks, candy, crudités, soft drinks, juices, sandwiches and maybe some warm dish, but this last one is not very common. Most kids, even if they had lunch with them would probably buy a treat in this store, that is why their offer was rather focus on snacks and candy.

    I don’t know if congressmen did any challenge such as the one you proposed but they were certainly put in the spot when it was announced that Mexico ranks highest in childhood obesity in the world, a problem that developed quite rapidly over the last two decades. Sadly, kids have a serious problem, 3 out of 10 kids (ages 5 to 11) are overweight and fingers are pointing to schools…the availability of junk food (specially soft drinks (1)) and lack of exercise.

    Fortunately, the law against junk food was recently passed and now this type of food is banned from over 200,000 schools (public and private) which means that now during lunch time 25 million students will have the option to buy light version of chips (baked instead of fried and in very small portions), beans, veggies, chicken and low-fat milk and pure fruit juices instead of soft drinks and sugar-filled beverages . Additionally there will be an increase in activity as kids will be moving from one sports session a week to daily classes.

    This is all very recent so it will be rather interesting and important to measure results after a year or so. Still it looks like a great step in the right direction. Not sure about the regulatory framework in the US and I know that serving lunches is a whole other deal with budgets and the locus of responsibility laying directly on the schools but hopefully a challenge like this would prompt the very needed systemic response the kids need and deserve.

    (1) Mexico is the highest consumer of Coca-Cola, 675 8oz bottles per capita in 2010.

  2. Avatar of Leah M. Ashe
    Leah M. Ashe August 1, 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    I didn’t know about Mexico’s reforms last year – I’d heard about the skyrocketing obesity rates, but I didn’t know about any concrete actions. Thanks for bringing me up to speed. Here’s an article I just found on it, with a few specifics: http://education-portal.com/articles/New_Food_Rules_for_Mexicos_Students.html

    I think we see a lot similar reforms in the US and UK: restrictions on vending machine sales, healthi-er formulations of hamburgers, and so on. And I’m glad to see these changes: they’re a lot better than nothing. But they’re just not enough. I say: Just get rid of the vending machines, provide good, healthy lunches, and be done with it.

    But here’s the thing: I think that no one who isn’t intimately familiar with the real awfulness of many school lunch programs will think these half-measures and marginal improvements are just the trick. For one of my old jobs, I visited a lot of high schools, and let me tell you, just walking through the cafeterias every day was a sickening experience for the smells and noises and fights and etc. going on … if I’d been constrained to eat the food they provided for an entire week, let me tell you, I’d have become a campaigner for school meal reform right then and there.

    Which is exactly why those politicians should ‘get to know their constituents’ experience’ a bit more closely. You know the old saying, ‘you can never tell a man’s troubles until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes’? I’m re-turning the phrase: ‘you can never tell a kid’s woes until you’ve eaten his lunch for a week’.


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    […] about here a few times, those who ‘live below line‘ or do daily combat with the ‘food stamp challenge‘ must spend considerably less than those sums on their weekly food […]

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