Lunch Wars Author Amy Kalafa Talks to BlogHer

BlogHer Original Post

We're reading and discussing Amy Kalafa's book, Lunch Wars this month in BlogHer Book Club. I wasn't even halfway through the book before I was calling my second-grader's school nutritionist. Karen and I talked to Amy about her journey and she gave us, well, some food for thought.

school lunch

Credit Image: Ben + Sam on Flickr

BlogHer: You traveled quite a bit while making your documentary and writing the book. What were your biggest challenges getting access to the schools and getting accepted by these communities with your message?

Amy Kalafa: I didn't need to go to very many schools to find out what's wrong with school food. The problems are universal and are echoed by community members everywhere I go.

While the movie and the book both depict what's wrong with school food, for the most part, I went where I was welcome. I was welcome in places that either had a program they were proud to share with me, or they were actively engaged in improving the school food environment and wanted all the help they could get!

When I started filming the movie, food service directors were wary of my presence, but that has really changed over time. Now most of the food service directors I meet welcome interest and support from their community. There have been food service directors and school cooks at every book signing in every place I've been, and they are eager to share their challenges and learn strategies from successful programs in other districts. While I still meet many advocates who tell me that they are finding resistance in their communities, hosting educational events (a Two Angry Moms screening?!) is a great first step to raise awareness and get an organization started.

BlogHer: Which food were you most appalled by that you found on school lunch menus? The sweets or the processed foods –- was there a biggest offender?

Amy Kalafa: Much of the food in schools is low-quality, highly processed, full of sugar, bad fats, artificial flavors, colors, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. Corn dogs, chips, fries, nuggets ... Even many of the foods sold as "healthy choices" are loaded with junky ingredients: Nutrigrain bars, low fat yogurt, salad dressings, etc. It's important to ask for a list of ingredients for every item sold in the cafeteria.

BlogHer: What are the easiest vegetables to grow in a school garden and why?

Amy Kalafa: What you plant will vary depending upon your region and the season, but you can't go wrong with staples like beans, peas, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, squash, cherry tomatoes, spinach, chard, collards and kale. Culinary herbs like basil, thyme, rosemary, parsley and sage are fun for kids to smell and taste. A couple of popular themes: a pizza garden - tomatoes, oregano, basil and garlic, or an Indian Garden -- called the Three Sisters - corn, beans and squash.

BlogHer: You gave some advice about presentation of new food in school cafeterias in Lunch Wars. What are some tips for presenting healthy foods at home on a plate?

Amy Kalafa: Make it fun. Ask your kids to help you design a plate of real food that has at least four colors one day, and a plate of four different whole foods that are all the same color another day. Compare the two meals and talk about the different tastes and smells. Make a "real food" version of their favorite fast food. Watch a cooking show or read a cookbook together and prepare a recipe with your kids. Get them involved in menu planning, shopping and preparation. Even very young kids can help in the kitchen and they will be more likely to eat the meal if they've played a part in it. My youngest daughter loved slicing mushrooms with a plastic knife when she was two years old!

BlogHer: Our community has been talking to our kids’ nutrition counselors since reading this book. One suggested an all-or-nothing limitation on an elementary student’s a la carte account. However, there are healthy options as well as unhealthy options on the a la carte menu. What’s your advice in that sort of situation?

Amy Kalafa: In my school district, parents can now actually specify which items their kids are allowed to purchase, but not every district has such sophisticated computer software. Many districts don't allow any competitive foods in elementary schools, although most do have an a la carte menu in middle and high school. We don't expect elementary school kids to choose between math and recess; why should we offer them junk food at all? Districts that are examining their school food environment are creating wellness policies that call for only healthy options on the a la carte menu as well as the subsidized meals. Your district wellness committee and nutrition counselors may want to audit the cafeteria and publish a report so that other parents learn what is being offered to their kids. Most parents aren't really paying attention to the school food environment and they may be surprised by a report about it. Your committee could also propose some better alternatives in the report.

Thanks to Amy for taking the time to answer our questions. Please join the conversation of Lunch Wars in BlogHer Book Club!

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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