Talking "Lunch Tray" Reform

"How healthy is the food schools are serving kids?" One blogger and concerned parent has taken on the debate of food in schools and made it her mission to educate others and help raise a generation of healthy kids.
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September is around the corner and before you know it, it will be time to send kids back to school. With the prevalence of childhood obesity and high incidences of what used to be adult diseases -- such as Type 2 Diabetes -- among kids in the U.S., parents are now wondering, "How healthy is the food schools are serving kids?" One blogger and concerned parent has taken on the school food debate, and has made it her mission to educate others and help raise a generation of healthy kids.

Here's my conversation with Bettina Siegal, author of The Lunch Tray blog.

1. To put it quite simply, you blog about kids and school lunch. Why is it that what children are being served at school has become such a hot topic?

I think school food has become a "hot topic" for a variety of reasons, ranging from our growing national awareness of childhood obesity and related diseases, to having a first lady in the White House who has made school food a key issue and the attention of a celebrity chef like Jamie Oliver. But of course, there have been people toiling in the school food reform movement for years and years before it was the "topic du jour," and any progress that's being made now rests on their efforts.

2. What is the most unsettling thing you have encountered, not only as an advocate for school lunch reform, but as a mom?

Well, when people ask me what prompted me to start The Lunch Tray I always think of one particular meeting I attended with my district's Food Services department, right when I first got involved in this area. The dietician was explaining why the district had to serve animal crackers in the school breakfast program -- they were including them in the menu for the fortified iron they contain. I was so baffled by a system that would support the use of cookies for breakfast that I really began to delve in to the National School Lunch Program, first by reading Janet Poppendieck's excellent "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America." I then understood the bizarre rationale for the cookies (it has to do with what's called the "nutrient standard" method of figuring out what to serve kids, a scheme that fortunately is going by the wayside for the most part) -- and that experience launched me on the path of blogging about school food.

3. In teaching children how to make healthy food choices are you ever worried that they will misinterpret the message and develop body image issues?

Absolutely. I've been fortunate that I've always been able to maintain a stable weight and never had eating disorders as a teen, but I'm always aware that in trying to teach children about food, a parent could unintentionally send harmful messages that could lead to eating issues. This is something I've written about on TLT but definitely want to explore more.

4. If schools promised to change one thing when it came to the food they served what would you choose?

Wow. That's a hard question to answer. There are so many things I'd like to see, like more fresh produce being used and less highly processed food. I'd also like to see less reliance on the usual array of pizza, burgers, nachos and other forms of what I call "doctored junk food." But on the other hand, I know that if kids see unfamiliar entrees at school they often won't participate in the program, which drains if of the funds needed to improve the food. It's a real Catch 22.

5. How are you using your writing to change the world of school lunches?

I hope that, at the very least, I'm providing a forum for people to learn and talk about school food reform (as well as any other issue relating to kids and food) and to provide them with resources to take action in their own districts and schools if they'd like to do so.

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