I was thoroughly blown away by this post by Tom Colicchio on Bravo’s Top Chef blog. In two pages he pretty much covers all the barriers to improving school lunch, and even touches on one of my hot-button issues: making sure we don’t demonize fat kids or their parents for their “poor choices,” but rather working to improve nutrition (and recess and gym, and I’d add safe play spaces) for ALL kids.

Colicchio mentions that his mom ran a school lunch program for 20 years. Rock on, Mrs Colicchio. I’ve been really impressed by the school lunch folks my kids’ school’s wellness committee has been working with in the last year. Our reps at the DoE have been receptive to our adding more beans, tofu and veggie meals to the menu. They’ve welcomed the tastings we’ve done with kids and taken the kids’ suggestions to heart.  Our school chef does her level best to offer great food despite seemingly insurmountable restrictions, such as the fact that the school kitchen doesn’t have a working stovetop. The building dates from the 19th century, and the city can’t afford to do the ductwork needed to bring it up to modern-day fire codes. So she’s figured out how to do tons of dishes with only an oven. A couple of our school families own restaurants, and have educated us about induction systems, so we’re looking into getting one, but we still haven’t gotten an answer from the DoE about its feasibility.

Another issue: The school building houses two different schools (as is common in NYC) so any changes we make have to work for both communities. My kids’ school is 40% free lunch; the other school is 80% free lunch. Because of the incredible diversity of the kids who share the lunchroom, the food has to satisfy a lot of different tastes. As Tom’s mom pointed out to him, for some kids, the food they eat in school may be the only real meals they eat all day.

We’re essentially handcuffed in terms of big, meaningful change. Thanks to the Department of Education’s contracts with vendors who can provide food most cheaply, we’re limited in the ingredients we can use. Wealthier schools buy their own supplies, but we don’t have that option. We can’t ask for much help from our PTAs; our parents are already paying for art and music education, teacher trainings and basic classroom supplies! But the US Government’s standards for the meat that gets fed to our children are much lower than the standards of McDonald’s or KFC. Our kids get “spent hens” – the very phrase makes me shudder — old icky birds the Colonel would turn up his nose at. We aren’t allowed to call our vegetarian days “Meatless Monday,” despite that being an international movement, because it might irk the meat lobby; we have to call them “Magic Monday.” Our kids get metric tons of hamburger and ground chicken because it’s cheap, and because there’s no big powerful bean lobby. The winning dish on last night’s Top Chef was a healthy-sounding pork carnitas thing, but NYC doesn’t use pork in school lunches — I presume because of the city’s sizeable Muslim and Jewish populations. We don’t have olive oil, chick pea flour or quinoa on the approved ingredients list. Our wheat bread is white bread with caramel coloring — it’s not whole wheat. We’ve been trying for years to get chocolate milk taken off the menu (it’s all corn syrup). But the bread and milk issues seem intractable. I presume those contracts are long-running.

I’m so tired of reductive and unhelpful judgment from people who aren’t in the trenches. Let’s stop demonizing the fat kids and their parents, and let’s urge our leadership to make fruits and veggies, healthy oils, beans and legumes and whole lean meats available to ALL our kids.

Colicchio’s wife, Lori Silverbush, is co-directing what sounds like a very smart documentary called Hunger in America, about why nearly 38 million Americans – including 14 million children – go hungry in one of the richest nations on earth. I think I love her even more now than when she added her 2 cents to an interview her husband was giving at the James Beard awards in 2008:

So do shaved heads make you a better chef?
Men with shaved heads are always better. Just ask my wife. [To wife Lori Silverbush] Aren’t shaved heads great?
Silverbush: Much easier on the thighs.
Colicchio: [blushing and laughing hysterically] That was off the record!

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