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Hoagies & Grinders

Lunch-lady-land cafeterias in the U.S. public school system conjure dreams of Early Cuising Education.

It’s early in the morning the day after a very busy Valentine’s weekend in the restaurant. I’m grumpy and sore and cleaning out the walk-in refrigerator while feeding a nasty NPR jones I’ve been contending with for a couple decades – just gotta have my Morning Edition alongside my shade-grown fair-trade organic ultra-correct mug of joe (see: StuffWhitePeopleLike.com). The streaming audio is louder than most people would tolerate so that I can hear it over the compressors and exhaust hoods that are the everyday background hum of a restaurant.

School lunchSometimes Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep blend into that background as well – they become a comforting ambiance that I hear but don’t always listen to. On this particular day though, in a segment they call “Reporter’s Notebook,” Eleanor Beardsley grabbed my attention with a four-minute piece called “In Paris, Culinary Education Starts In Day Care.

As a group, Americans detest being told that any other country does any little thing better than we do here in the good ol’ U. S. of A. Not surprisingly, it is that very attitude that sometimes keeps us from being able to follow a good example, let alone set one. Beardsley’s segment detailed the quality of the food in the public daycare facilities in Paris, where she is stationed. It may come as no surprise, but it is considerably better in every respect than the food served in American schools.

Here is what you would never hear someone say when describing the kitchen in an American school: “A giant pot of apples and clementines simmers away on the stovetop, and cauliflower au gratin bakes in the oven. While [chef] Morel cuts up garlic and onions to season the braised lamb in fresh rosemary, [chef] Belot peels tomato skins to fashion decorative roses for the pasta-salad appetizer.”

Not least among the reasons you won’t hear that description is that most of our public schools don’t have kitchens. Food is heated (as opposed to cooked) in central commissaries and trucked to the various satellite schools in each district, sometimes spending as much as 4 hours languishing in insulated hotboxes. Meanwhile in Paris, food is cooked from scratch in the kitchens inside each and every one of their 270 public daycare facilities. The ingredients, Beardsley tells us, “are more often fresh than frozen, and the chefs try to use organic products when they can.”

When he signed the School Lunch Act in 1946, President Harry Truman said, “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers.” This statement is no doubt true, but it lent a false air to the act, which purported to be a nutrition program for the coming baby boom but instead became a boondoggle that helped to create the agro-industrial complex. The system became the dumpster in which large companies could dispose of their lowest quality and excess commodities.

There are two ways to solve this problem here. On an individual level we can simply brown-bag it as I did for my children from Kindergarten through Grade 12. It can be time consuming, but not as much as you’d think. Granted I can cook, and today many parents can’t, but that too is a result of the same failed food system where children no longer learn to cook at their parents’ and grandparents’ apron strings. However lunch for my two children rarely if ever took me more than 15 minutes in the morning. That’s a quarter-hour that’s easy to come by simply by retiring and awakening that much earlier, or by Tivo-ing or blowing off that episode of the Colbert Report.

The better way though would be for us to acknowledge that while these are tough times, and we are constantly busy, and we juggle a thousand different priorities, there can be nothing more important than our children. I defy anyone, even those without kids, to name one thing that is more important. Yet our current food system, dictated to us every five years by the Food & Farm Bill, forces them through a food service system that is more like a meat grinder than dining room. Two things you don’t want people to know how you make them: laws and sausages.

To solve the problem, a good first step would be to remove the school lunch program from the maintenance side of a school’s daily operation and into the curriculum side, so that we are not hypocritically teaching the kids one thing in health class and quite another in the cafeteria. We don’t have cigarette vending machines in our schools, why do we have soda machines?

Another simple step, spend more on the food. This goes back to my priorities point – what do you have to spend money on that is more important than your children? That cup of coffee I had while listening to Ms. Beardsley cost more than the average American public school lunch. And the price of the delicious-sounding meal at her toddler’s Paris daycare? About two bucks. The cost argument is a red herring.

President Obama and Congress could move swiftly and easily on this by simply removing the program from the auspices of the U.S.D.A., which simply uses it as a dumping ground for excess commodities, and making it a joint program of the Department of Education and Health and Human Services. Thus our schools could use lunchtime as the teachable moment it truly is, and our healthier kids will learn better in the bargain.

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