THE BLOG
10/17/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

We Are Hungry, Too: The Fuss About Healthy School Food

It didn't take long for a catchy, creative YouTube video named "We Are Hungry" to explode from a web meme to a mainstream headline. The protest clip, filmed by teens enrolled at a Kansas High School, has attracted nearly one million views and even earned a lengthy review by the New York Times. Healthy school food is a hot topic these days, and everyone seems to have an opinion, from surly 17-year-olds to Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who introduced legislation taking on these nutritious dishes, referring to them as "the nanny state personified."

As the CEO of DC Central Kitchen, I know something about children who are truly hungry. Of the 10,000 meals we dish out each day, half are delivered to area homeless shelters, front-line nonprofits, and after-school programs. And we serve the other half at 10 D.C. schools, where we provide healthy, scratch-cooked breakfasts, lunches, and suppers to more than 2,600 schoolchildren, all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals. We've been in the healthy school food business since 2008, developing a sustainable model that generates revenue for our growing nonprofit organization, creates jobs for formerly unemployed men and women we've trained in the culinary arts, and delivers quality nutrition to D.C. schoolchildren.

Some of the justifiable complaints concerning these changes are actually about the food being served. Dramatically altering menus without engaging students and parents tells these families that the meals they're used to -- both in school and at home -- aren't good enough, and it implies that parents are somehow falling short in their duties. The predictable backlash that ensues is preventable, and at DCCK, we've spent years working with students and families to integrate our meals into a larger framework of information gathering, nutrition education, and community outreach that makes them an important part of a process that's improving their schools and city.

But even this friendly neighborhood nonprofit organization took some heat when we tore out deep fat fryers and began serving meals cooked from scratch and packed with produce from local farms. One of our service sites, Kelly Miller Middle School, is a public school located in D.C.'s Ward 7, where a fifth of residents are unemployed and 40 percent are obese. When we took over Kelly Miller's food service in 2010, students balked, and participation plunged by almost 30 percent, to just 64 percent of enrolled students.

But we knew our approach -- serving quality meals while taking a balanced approach to working with students and families -- was sound, and we stuck it out. And our definition of quality doesn't require quinoa. We learned how to remake familiar foods in a healthy way -- cutting down, baking, and seasoning whole, local potatoes rather than opening up a frozen bag of fries and dumping them into a deep fryer; baking beans from scratch by soaking, cooking, and seasoning them, instead opening a can loaded with sodium and extra sugar; and serving tacos by using local beef, draining fat, and adding healthy sides.

Now, the Kelly Miller sixth graders we were serving in 2010 are in the eighth grade, and the younger students haven't known anything else. By 2011, participation rose to 78 percent. And sure enough, participation has spiked all the way back to 92 percent this school year.

Sometimes, kids complain. And sometimes, grown-ups have to be grown-ups. And being a grown-up means, in part, taking unpopular positions because they're in the best interest of the young people in your care. The pundits and politicians who think that denying daily access to nachos and cinnamon buns constitutes a violation of human freedom are wrong; and if this generation is the first in U.S. history that fails to outlive their parents, they'll be dead wrong.

Giving children equitable access to good food and the tools to lead healthy lives isn't a threat to their freedom. But condemning them to obesity and disease at an early age truly is. At DC Central Kitchen, we're empowering disadvantaged children in our community to fully realize what the rights and liberties America offers can mean to them. And we too, are hungry -- to bring that brighter, healthier future to every block of our city.