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Bad Food Is Making Our Kids Sick (and How to Take Charge)

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I never imagined myself cooking for kids. I spent most of my first three decades as a chef, not knowing or caring what kids ate, and not really wanting to feed them. In fact, as a restaurant chef, my worst nightmare was the host coming into the kitchen on a Saturday night, saying, "Chef, there's a screaming kid on table 19. What do I do?"

My response: "Tell them to leave. Why did they bring kids here on a Saturday night, anyway?"

What a difference a decade makes. Today all of my work surrounds feeding kids healthy food, teaching them how to eat well, and working nationally to assure that all kids have access to delicious, nutritious food in school every single day.

Getting healthy food onto our kids' plates (or trays) couldn't be more important. In between commercials for fast food and over-processed junk stamped with a nutrition label, we hear news reports that conditions like obesity and diabetes are skyrocketing across America. But what we conveniently overlook is that our kids are often the ones suffering the most.

According to the CDC, over 30% of all children in this country (and 72% of Americans as a whole) are now overweight or obese. Of children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African Americans and Hispanics will have diabetes in their lifetimes. Those same children will be the first generation in the history of the United States to die at a younger age than their parents.

No children or parents deserve such a terrible fate. We clearly need a lunch line makeover.

From designing gourmet meals in white-linen restaurants to serving on the lunch line, my route has been anything but traditional. After culinary school, I cooked for round-the-world cruises, hotels, restaurants, and catering parties of 20,000 at film and music festivals. As you can imagine, there weren't many kids to cook for backstage at a Grateful Dead concert.

It wasn't until many years later that I started really thinking about sustainable, healthy, local food. As I was writing my first book, A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen, I met women chefs who were pioneers of the organic-local food movement -- Alice Waters, Nora Poullion, Odessa Piper and so many more who inspired and educated me on the importance of organic, local, and sustainable. Gradually my eyes opened to Joan Gussow's teachings and Michael Pollan's words, all while I was told by sheep farmers in Vermont why I couldn't buy lamb racks (where does the rest of the lamb go?).

And then, while I was researching my second book, it hit me: bad food is making us and our kids sick. Our food supplies are privately owned by giant corporations, with the profits taking precedence over the very health of our children.

My life as a Lunch Lady began in 1999, when I was asked to become the Executive Chef and Director of Wellness and Nutrition for the Ross School in New York. But apparently, I wasn't supposed to be just any old Lunch Lady -- someone in the press quipped that I was the Renegade Lunch Lady, a moniker that stuck. Imagine that: being a Renegade for wanting to feed kids fresh broccoli!

The well-funded, amazing meal program at the Ross School taught me how important school food is and that kids really will eat healthy food. After going on to work with Alice Waters at the Chez Panisse Foundation and as Director of Nutrition Services for the Berkeley Unified School District, I'm now a fixture in the school cafeteria trenches in Boulder, Colorado. We're working from the ground up to implement healthy cooked-from-scratch meals in schools throughout the district. After tremendous success in Berkeley, we're hungry to make a big difference in kids' lunches and lives in Colorado.

As I've chatted with cafeteria workers, school administrators and yes, kids themselves over the years, it's become obvious that schools need help. If we're going to change children's relationship to food and segue schools from highly processed food to fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, whole grains and healthy protein, schools and districts need tools.

With that goal in mind, I founded the Food Family Farming Foundation in 2009. We know that schools face challenges -- strict budgets, bureaucracy, and finicky kids -- and we're here to help.

Our major projects, The Lunch Box: Healthy Tools for Healthy Schools and Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools, work towards the goal of getting healthy food into every school in America. The Lunch Box is a comprehensive web portal that has recipes, menus, financial tools, resources, technical tools, and educational videos. Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools is a platform that enables us to fundraise for and donate salad bars to schools all across the country. So far we've donated over 600.

As I said, what a difference a decade makes. When I began this work almost no-one talked about school food, and President Regan had just made ketchup a vegetable. Today I am so optimistic. We have a President that talks about children, food, and health in the same sentence, and a First Lady who has made children's health her mission with her Let's Move Initiative. Today we have a Secretary of Agriculture and a Secretary of Education who are working together to close the achievement gap by closing the nutrition gap, as well as advocates and foundations all across the country who are trying to support their work.

Perhaps the best news, however, comes from parents, many of whom are seeing their kids excited about healthy food for the first time. As one parent told me about our "Eat the Rainbow" program, her son "came home talking about his 'rainbow,' requested and ate plain lettuce with his dinner, and when he was still hungry...made himself another 'rainbow' with lettuce, grapes and strawberries. His 4-year old sister copied him."

I am so fortunate to be working as an advocate for better school food and to be working with chefs, advocates, administrators, nutrition services directors, students, parents, and food service workers all across the country who are striving for delicious and nutritious food for all of our children. I'm truly honored to receive a Growing Green Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council, not only for the honor bestowed, but in honor of all of the hard work of the thousands and thousands of people across the country who are working toward the same goal.

This award showcases the fact that healthy school food is becoming mainstream and that, finally, my days as a renegade are coming to an end.

Meet the other 2011 Growing Green Award winners at www.nrdc.org/growinggreen.

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