Meatless Monday: Reforming School Lunches

08/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Remember school lunch? Mystery meatloaf? Slimy spaghetti? Vegetables so gray and overcooked it was impossible to imagine they started life fresh? Despite initiatives from everyone from Alice Waters to South Beach Diet Doctor Arthur Agatston,in most cases, it hasn't gotten better. It's hard to make magic happen in the kitchen when you don't have money.

This is the challenge the National School Lunch Program faces, though, trying to feed over 30 million children across the country when food prices have shot up and school budgets have been slashed. Often, that amounts to only a dollar per student. Even Alice Waters would be hard-pressed to dazzle at buck a head. What most schools can produce for that doesn't translate into the kind of nutrition our children deserve or the greenest choices for the environment.

That's why Slow Food USA has launched Time for Lunch, a grassroots campaign urging Congress to overhaul the Child Nutrition Act, which funds the school lunch program. Adding another dollar per student will give schools the resources they need to feed our kids a nourishing lunch of real food, not junk food. Real food is not elitist -- it should be available to every child in America.

The Obama administration vows to make real progress in health care, education and the environment -- feeding our kids better does it all at once. Time for Lunch wants to provide incentives for local producers. This means less money goes into fuel costs and packaging and more money goes to bolster our own communities and to feed our children fresh, sustainable, locally grown produce -- the kind that isn't school lunch room scary, the kind they'll actually want to eat. Nourished kids do better in class and in life.

Encouraging healthy eating habits is preventative health care. It's an important lesson we need to teach at home as well as in school. Home, though, is where we often suck wind. We have become a nation of kitchen cowards. Chin up -- nowhere is it written a great meal, meatless or otherwise, must involve hardship, lengthy prep time and numerous trips to various markets in search of arcane ingredients. Make time at your table to enjoy eating together and eating responsibly. You don't have to waste time mucking about in the kitchen.

This luscious Middle Eastern dish comes together in minutes and does so with the kind of economy our government could emulate. Bonus -- it's healthy. Swapping broccoli and beans for beef automatically lowers your cost and calories and ups your fiber. Health pros from the FDA to the Mayo Clinic tout fiber for lowering blood sugar and cholesterol, boosting metabolism and cardiovascular health and minimizing risk of cancer. Fiber is in all fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains (including quinoa, see below). Animal protein has zero.

To be part of Time for Lunch, sign the petition, make a donation or on Labor Day, September 7, host an eat-in, a potluck where you can get together, share a meal and talk about feeding our children the food they deserve, education, the environment, health care, all kinds of stuff. Reminisce about the past if you like, but work (and eat) to change the future. Let's ensure that really awful lunch food is strictly old school.

Broccoli and Chickpeas With Tahini and Yogurt

A ten-minute meatless main course with Middle Eastern origins, brimming with fiber, protein, calcium and iron.

1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup tahini, Middle Eastern sesame seed paste
1 cup plain Greek-style yogurt, preferably nonfat
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teapoon coriander
1/4 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 head broccoli, steamed or microwaved, chopped and good to go
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rich in protein and fiber, drained and rinsed to get rid of
excess sodium
3/4 cup quinoa
1-1/2 cups water or vegetable broth
kalamata olives, grape tomatoes and paprika for garnish

Pour quinoa into a sieve. Rinse well to remove saponins (quinoa's natural but mildly bitter coating) and drain.

Pour water or broth into a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Pour in quinoa, cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 25 minutes, until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is cooked and looks like tiny bubbles with fine white tendrils. Fluff with a fork then set aside.

Steam broccoli for 7 minutes or until bright green and just tender (alternately, microwave for 3 minutes). Drain and set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together minced garlic, tahini, yogurt, cumin, coriander, salt and red pepper flakes. The yogurt and tahini bond, creating a thick, blankety sauce. Add sea salt to taste.

Spread quinoa into a shallow serving bowl. Arrange chopped broccoli on top. Add chickpeas. Spoon sauce on top and garnish with tomatoes, olives and paprika. Serve at room temperature.

Serves 4.