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The Great Cafeteria Takeover: "Rethinking" the Approach to School Food Reform

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This week New Orleanians previewed "The Great Cafeteria Takeover," the first in a three-part series of films to air on HBO May 14th to 16th. The films are all part of The Weight of the Nation, a multi-platform documentary series that spotlights the facts and myths about America's obesity epidemic.

"The Great Cafeteria Takeover" will no doubt make a big splash in Louisiana -- a state that struggles with staggering rates of diet-related disease -- because of its focus on an amazing group of local students called The Rethinkers. The Rethinkers are 5th to 8th graders who have worked diligently since the summer of 2008 to transform their school food and cafeterias. They've attracted national attention for becoming the first K-12th graders in the United States to create their own policy goals for school food, called the Rethink 12 Recommendations for School Food and Cafeterias. Their recommendations are simultaneously visionary and practical, and range from requests to improve the quality of their school food (Recommendation #3: Buy fresh food from local farmers, fisherman and shrimpers) to requests that afford them more dignity while eating (Recommendation #1: No more sporks!).

Since presenting their recommendations to their superintendent in the summer of 2008, the Rethinkers have gone on to create an annual Rethink School Food Report, which grades how well their school system and school food providers are doing at following-up on their commitments. The report is an incredible piece of research conducted by young adults with support from academic partners at The Prevention Research Center at Tulane University.

I have had the honor to work with these young adults since they decided to "rethink" what they called unidentifiable school food in 2008. The film captures their insight, dedication and integrity clearly, allowing the viewer to understand how they have been able to push through system-wide changes in New Orleans.

The Weight of the Nation series -- and its hyper focus on obesity -- has been earning some important criticism, including this thoughtful blogpost by Michele Simon. "The Great Cafeteria Takeover" stands in stark contrast to the trailer for the series because it is not a story of young adults suffering from diet-related disease. It is a portrayal a group of young adults who are leaders in the school food reform movement. These young people, while at the mercy of the school food system, are not victims waiting for the obesity epidemic to wash them away, and they are motivated less by scary statistics about obesity and diet-related disease than by their vision for a school system that nourishes its pupils with delicious food served in a dignified manner. Their vision, and the way they have learned to share it, is what has motivated countless adult allies from the Recovery School District and their school food provider, ARAMARK, to make great changes happen.

To see the Rethinkers in action, tune in to HBO on Wednesday, May 16th at 6 p.m. CST.