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What’s for lunch?

Posted: 2:15PM March 22nd, 2012 | Comments

Last month, at the Green Schools National Conference in Denver Colorado, I attended a lunch hour program called the School Lunch Lottery. It was put on by the Renegade Lunch Lady herself, Ann Cooper. Upon entering the room, attendees were given a small red or green slip of paper. That small slip of paper was our meal ticket, the different colors corresponding to different meal options. Attendees with the red ticket would eat a typical lunch served everyday in school cafeterias across the U.S. Those with a green ticket would be able to eat a re-envisioned lunch, intended to improve the health of students and our environment and support the local economy.

I got a red ticket. For my lunch I was offered chicken nuggets, tater tots, canned fruit cocktail, mini-carrots and chocolate milk. I ate 3 greasy tater tots, a spoonful of fruit cocktail and a lot of baby carrots (as a vegetarian I opted out of eating the chicken nuggets.) The people with green tickets got grilled chicken, roasted potatoes, a trip to a salad bar, a slice of multi-grain bread and organic white milk.

As I sat there, stomach growling, I thought about how I could grab something at the cafe before the next session. And then it dawned on me. Today and everyday, I have a choice of what to eat. If I don't like what is in front of me, if I find it unsavory or unhealthy, I can get something else.

Many students however do not have that choice. Oh sure, some of them can bring a sack lunch from home. However, according to the New York Times, 21 million children qualified for subsidized lunches last year. That means there are 21 million children around the country who depend on school meals for their sustanence. In MMSD, 40% of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Those students in general rely on the meals they eat in the school cafeteria to provide the nutrition they need to grow healthy minds and healthy bodies.

In contrast to the typical school lunch, a "re-envisioned lunch" provides locally produced foods rich in vitamins and minerals and lower in fats, sugars and salt. In addition to promoting sudent health, it also supports the health of the local economy and environment. When schools purchase locally, they stregthen the local economy through supporting local farmers. Buying foods produced closer to home also reduces the greenhouse gases emitted during storage and transportation. Furthermore, organically grown fruits and vegetables have been found to be higher in nutrients. And organic agricultural practices decrease the amount of synthetic chemicals introduced into our bodies and environment, thus protecting our air, water and soil.

The Madison Metropolitan School District alone serves the equivalent of 19,000 meals per day during the school year. They are one of the largest institutional food buyers in Madison. It is clear that the choices we make regarding the foods our schools serve our children not only affect the short and long term health of our children, they also affect the health of our economy and environment.

Stay in touch with what MMSD is doing to improve their school lunches by visiting their Food Service website. And, check out Madisonians United for Childhood Health and Nutrition (MUNCH) if you are interested in joining a local movement advocating for school lunch reform.


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