Opinion: Why review the school lunch program in Fairfield?

I offer my sincerest thanks to the editor of the Fairfield Citizen for the support and coverage of the Fuel for Learning Partnership petition. In response to the editorial dated April 30, I am compelled to clear up some misperceptions about school lunches, primarily pertaining to choice, cost and control.

First, regarding choice, the issue at hand is not about choosing chef salad or yogurt over pizza or hamburgers as your editorial and accompanying cartoon imply. Rather, it is the choice between pizza or hamburger made from whole food ingredients versus heavily processed versions of the same. The choice is for foods that have recognizable ingredients, vs. those filled with chemical additives and little nutritional value. The choice is for meat that hasn't been treated with ammonia, and that comes from animals that haven't been given heavy doses of antibiotics or artificial growth hormones. The choice is for a nutritionally dense meal that fuels students for learning rather than the high fat/sugar/sodium combination that will cause them to crash an hour later.

Now, however, there is no choice. The school lunch entrees primarily consist of processed foods and that is generally not evident by simply looking at the menu. Better indicators of healthy choices are the food labels that list ingredients as well as nutritional information and they are available for parents to view through the Food and Nutrition Services Department website www.edline.net/pages/Fairfield_School_District/BOE_Departments/Departments/foodservice.

Second, in concerning cost, our petition requests a review of the school lunch program in order to determine the costs of moving away from processed foods to preparing foods on site. As consumers, we know that cooking at home is significantly cheaper than eating or buying prepared foods. This is true on a large scale as well. Additionally, school districts have the buying power to reduce the cost of fresh foods by buying in bulk. Looking at the costs of grocery store organics isn't an applicable comparison. Also, by preparing foods from scratch, the food service department has the flexibility to take advantage of seasonal bumper crops, temporary drops in price of certain foods, etc., and tailor their menus accordingly. The bottom line is there are many options to cutting costs and it is an unfair assumption without further investigation that phasing out processed food will be more expensive.

Finally, the editorial raises the question of how much we can actually control. You suggest that the best we can do is lobby our government officials to improve what we eat. We have to wait for Washington to decide whether or not to undertake a food revolution here in our schools. Of course, we should let our officials know what we want but unlike so many large-scale issues that are seemingly out of our reach, what we all eat everyday is absolutely within our control.

As author Michael Pollan writes, we vote with our forks every meal we eat. Just by putting down the box of Twinkies and opting for a pound of apples at the grocery store, we've cast a vote. Every time we buy produce from one of the many farms up the road, we've subsidized small, local farming. Every time we prepare a meal at home rather than grabbing McDonalds, we've supported the food revolution. In changing our school lunch, we as a community would be casting thousands of votes at once.

The good news is that change is possible. There are school districts that are successfully shifting away from reheating processed foods and moving toward food cooked fresh on site. New Haven and New Canaan School Districts and The Unquowa School here in Fairfield are just three neighboring examples and there are more across the nation. Imagine what we could accomplish if we supported change in our school lunches and enabled our Food and Nutrition Services Department to prepare food from scratch and embrace a new way of feeding our students. Imagine the message we'd be sending our students if all of the lunch choices offered were healthy in the most fundamental sense so it actually correlates to the curriculum that is currently taught in their Health or Family and Consumer Science classes.

With a review, we can truly know where we are, where we need to be, and how we can get there. Let's stop imagining about something that is within our reach. Let's instead create a working vision for feeding our children better and create a roadmap to make it happen.

Michelle McCabe is the chairman of the Fuel for Learning Partnership, a Fairfield PTA Council standing committee.

Editor's note: The part in the April 30 editorial about contacting legislators was only in reference to giving more financial support to produce and dairy farmers.