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Fixing School Lunches

The bell rings, and a herd of famished students eagerly flock toward their gritty feeding ground. The school cafeteria: a raucous haven from the classroom, breeding area for youth entrepreneurship with insider “candy trading” policies, and now, combat zone against obesity?

One of the front-line soldiers in the battle is Chef Timothy Cipriano, the executive director of food services for New Haven, Conn., Public Schools, Cipriano has created a variety of programs to educate New Haven students on the benefits of fresh and healthy eating.

Cipriano worked with the First Lady and the White House on the Let’s Move campaign. In April of 2010, he was selected by President Barack Obama as one of two school nutrition chefs to attend the Childhood Obesity Summit.

Oft-referred to as “The Local Food Dude,” Cipriano’s one-sentence food philosophy is “Be a vocal local, buy locally grown; support the local economy.”

Tackling ‘typical’ desserts’

Cipriano’s nickname lauds his successful introduction of local produce into the school lunch program. In the New Haven school district where Cipriano works, the cafeteria does not serve what he calls “typical desserts” and opts for fresh, local, fruit and produce as delicious and healthy palette-cleansers. Somewhat sheepishly, Cipriano acknowledges that the cafeteria did stray from its healthy-food agenda during the Christmas holiday meal, when it served sugar cookies. But generally high-sugar, high-fat foods — even if made from local produce — are not on the menu. The point isn’t just to eat locally, it’s to make healthy decisions about local food.

He also introduced the Cooking Matters program “to educate people on how to not only shop via food stamps for the healthier, more nutritional alternatives but also to educate them on how to cook the same food.” Ultimately, Cipriano’s goal is “to end childhood hunger by opening up access to more food programs, and creating a model that is sustainable.”

A sustainable model for healthy school lunches will require more than the initiative of local food advocates, according to author Janet Poppendieck. Her book “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America” reviews school lunches and the policy that shapes them in the United States.

She is opposed to the current policy that she accuses of aiming $1.5 billion in food advertising at school-age children.

Ending stigma of free lunches

This “fundamental structure that makes children consumers” is largely problematic because it forces food service directors to provide children with the most “appealing” food that, as customers, they are most likely to buy. More often than not, this sort of food is junk food.

She also asserts in that a majority of the students who truly need school lunches for financial reasons do not participate in the program because of embarrassment.

In a Washington Post article, Poppendieck writes that “there is a stigma attached to free meals, which deters some families from applying and discourages some students from eating the meals for which they qualify.” Many students then choose to forgo waiting in the stigmatized free lunch line and instead opt toward the cheapest, often unhealthiest alternative sold in the cafeteria.

The current school lunch system, based on family income, is destructive, according to Poppendeick. Instead, she advocates for federally financed free meals for all children, regardless of family income. She acknowledges that this would cost close to $12 billion a year. In our era of budget-tackling policy reforms and tax cuts to public schools in many states, this option seems very unlikely.

Many Americans might balk at the suggestion to subsidize lunch for students, arguing that parents should provide for their own children. However, Poppendieck finds this explanation faulty. “We say: ‘Parents are responsible for feeding their own kids.’ We need to rethink that because many parents can’t feed their children nutritionally. The family structure has changed so drastically that we need to rethink the whole notion that this is the parent’s responsibility. The kids are in school at lunchtime. The school should nurture them.”

Alice Waters, in her essay “Slow Food, Slow Schools: Transforming Education Through a School Lunch Curriculum,” maintains that “our system of public education operates in the same strange, no-context zone of hollow fast-food values” as a museum cafeteria, and “what we are calling for is a revolution in public education — a real delicious revolution.”

Erica Hellerstein is a Berkeley, Calif., native and recent Johns Hopkins University graduate. She lives in New York City, where she is an intern for The Nation.

Photo credit: Lauri Patterson /