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Gino Campagna

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School Lunches: LAUSD Doing Its Job

Posted: 04/19/11 05:49 PM ET

I was visiting my sister Barbara a couple of months ago in Reggio Emilia Italy. As I was explaining her how my work in America's schools involves trying to expose children to different foods and ingredients, she pointed to a small page posted on her refrigerator. It was my niece Sara's school menu for the month. I took it with me back home and I now finally posted on my blog (chefgino.net). Here's a sample of what they eat there for lunch.

- Monday, 1st week of the month: Spaghetti al pomodoro, Frittata di zucchine, green beans and Arab bread.

- Thursday, 3rd week of the month: Risotto Campagnolo with Mushroom and zucchini, chickpea and cauliflower Polpette with Tuscan bread

- Friday, 4th week of the month: Seafood spaghetti, Caciotta cheese and salad, multigrain bread

Every day of every week it's a different menu (more or less). They have Giornate Speciali (special days) once a month where they promote local foods or food from different cultures. Their portions are the right size, the flavors are great, the ingredients are fresh. The kids sit and eat all together, in communal areas with plates and silverwares. The food is not prepared in the school (like it was when I was growing up) but in centralize stations that also provide distribution. My sister and my niece confirmed that the food is great and very tasty (and you know how demanding Italians can be when it comes to food...). It's all organized by CIR.
I checked out their webpage (cir-food.it).

They serve 200,000 meals (just like the ones I described) every day across Italy. Their philosophy is that they want the food to be tasty, pleasant and healthy, using local ingredients yet open to foreign influences. It's a beautiful equation, lunches that are portion controlled, tasty, healthy and at the same time experimental. CIR works close to the schools, they publish guidelines for cooking at home, books encouraging families to cook together, pamphlets explaining the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables. They encourage and promote school programs aimed to create better menus and new recipes. Here's a extract from a statement you can find written in their brochure by Ivan Lusetti, CIR's president: "There is no better investment for our children's health than to teach them how to correctly feed themselves... Eating, apart from being a pleasure and a matter of health, identify who we are: we are what we eat ..... A correct diet is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle." I couldn't have said it better myself.

But let's talk about the US now. Last week I went to watch the first episode of the second season of Food Revolution at a special event organized by Jamie Oliver's people at the California Endowment in Downtown LA.

After a little Gumbo and wine we sat down in an auditorium and watched live the first episode of the second season.

At the beginning of the show we see Jamie being denied access to LAUSD schools cafeterias and his frustration with the cold shoulder. Soon afterwards parents show up in his Westwood Village's kitchen and bring items from their kids' school lunches for him to see.

Not a pretty picture: it's like eating the worst airplane food everyday. At the end of the screening Jamie's right hand opened a Q&A, a woman stood up. She was a teacher from LAUSD and bravely she defended the school system because (as she said) they serve around half a million lunches a day and "Believe me" it's not easy and, she continued, the food is better than what Jamie wants us to believe.

That was a brave move by the teacher since she was in a room full of food revolutionaries that immediately took turns at dismantling her bold statement. A statement by the way, reconfirmed by a Fox News clip that aired last week showing the facility where this half a million meals a day are prepared. The clip showed a huge warehouse where a bunch of workers with plastic gloves and hats were pouring handfuls of I don't know what in plastic containers that were quickly sealed in more plastic under the ever watchful eye of a chef (he must have been a chef because he had the tallest white hat I've ever seen) who with supreme confidence declared in front of the camera that "We got great food, we stand by that food and we believe in that food 100%".

I work in schools, I see what kids eat and mostly don't eat every lunch. Soggy pizza slices, tasteless pancakes patties, rubbery chicken nuggets. Everything is wrapped in plastic, even the fresh fruit and salads so that the grapes are fermented by the time they reach the kids, the salad is wilted. I see the left over on the tables, kids walking around just munching on chips leaving behind the "Seasonal fruit" serving: a green, unripe banana.

I do understand that feeding that many kids is a big effort, but just doing the job is clearly not enough. We are one of the richest country in the world and children are our future: we owe to them to do better, to strive for excellence. I would love to build a functioning cafeteria in every school, hire fresh produce suppliers, dietitians deciding the menu with real chefs but if that's too far out from where we are right now let's learn from other countries' experiences, like the Italian one I described.

Let's decentralize the effort to produce such a huge amount of food and start pushing different foods, fresher ingredients, tastier and more appealing menus. Is it too late already or this generation of kids? They've been bombarded everyday by advertising of fatty food, and everywhere they go (restaurants, fast foods, schools and often at home) they are always offered that same 5, 6 recipes. I don't want to believe that it's too late but even if it is we have to start now to be prepared for the next generation of children. We owe them to try and do better because, contrary to what LAUSD wants us to believe, a job done is not necessarily a good job.