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. ***)