When I set out to make a documentary on school food several years ago, I was advised to steer clear of involvement in my own school district. Why? Because, my advisors advised, I would get so bogged down in local politics, that I would never have time to make the movie.
I heeded their counsel and stayed under the radar in my hometown, choosing instead to travel the country with my camera, weave a website and foment revolution on a national scale. After three arduous years of research, production, editing and promoting, Two Angry Moms is now available in living color for all to see.
Of course, I've been out-ed in my community. Cancelled at the 11th hour from a speaking engagement at the Intermediate School's PTO meeting two years ago, this year I spoke at a Middle School PTO meeting, and, in a daring maneuver, I was also invited to speak with the district's Wellness Committee.
Repercussions? Well, I haven't heard anything directly. In fact, some members of the wellness committee subsequently toured a nearby district that was used as an example in the movie. So, you may wonder why I sound paranoid, and you also may wonder why someone who chooses to name a movie Two Angry Moms should be surprised if her neighbors are a little leery.
I have to go back many years to explain myself. Like most members of my generation, I grew up on a typical American diet of soda, chips, pizza, Velveeta cheese, steak, chicken, potatoes and peas. Not nearly as much "fast food" as today's kids, but Burger King, Micky Dee's, KFC et al were a new cool phenomenon in the sixties and early seventies, and we ate our fair share. At school I recall referring to the meatloaf as "barf loaf", and looking forward to a dessert of frosted white cake about 1" square in size. Our simple school meals were cooked by lunch ladies in hairnets, most of who were related to someone in the lunch line.
Perhaps I was traumatized by school food early on. There was an incident where I dropped a lunch tray. As the milk carton splattered all over my legs and puddled the floor, a crowd of nascent soccer fans clapped and jeered at my embarrassment. Maybe I never got over it.
I grew up to be a highly sensitive person. Allergies to trees, grass, pollen, synthetic clothing and other chemicals were diagnosed. Looking back, I consider myself a closet hypochondriac, never wanting anyone to know how crappy I felt much of the time. Sinus infections, menstrual cramps, migraine headaches and fatigue were medicated with progressively stronger tablets and elixirs. This eccentric temperament caused me to believe that that I could never have a "normal" career, so I joined the ranks of the "self-employed" long before such status became fashionable. As a film / video editor and later producer, I was able to hide behind the scenes, creating an alternate reality that did not have to take place in real time, and thus I could work around my schedule of symptoms.
On this path, I met and married a fellow filmmaker who took me home to meet his family in France. On first impression, I was amazed and somewhat appalled by their apparent obsession with food and wine. Each extended visit would required hours around the table several times a day, an experience that made me long for sandwiches eaten over the kitchen sink with my dad when my mother wasn't home.
It wasn't quite an epiphany, but over time, I began to realize that I felt better when I ate my husband's French food. Curious, I researched the connection I observed between food and health. I learned about the politics of food in America. Eventually, my husband's "gourmet" obsession merged with my "sustainability" obsession. With a friend, we purchased a defunct dairy farm in Bovina, New York, and soon launched the first certified organic poultry and game bird operation on the East Coast.
For some twenty years, my "food" world and my "film" world intersected but never quite merged. I envisioned and even pitched shows about food, health and politics but was told the topic just wasn't sexy enough. Then, three years ago, Martha Stewart sent me to the exclusive Ross School in Easthampton, Long Island, to produce a segment about school food. At the Ross School I met Chef Ann Cooper, who had been hired away from a "white tablecloth" restaurant in Vermont to run the school's wellness program. Ann coined an acronym for the school's food: Regional, Organic, Seasonal and Sustainable.
At the same time the Ross School was striving to create a model of what school food could be, the American media began decrying a crisis in children's health. The Centers for Disease Control released statistics that showed 30% of our children were either overweight or obese, and predicted that this generation of American children will be the first in our nation's history to live shorter lives than those of their parents. Rates of "Adult" Type II Diabetes were soaring among children, as were prescriptions for treatment of chronic illness, psychiatric and behavioral disorders. Was it a non sequitur for me to connect this burgeoning child health crisis with what the kids were eating?
I decided to forgo an intended PhD program in psychology in order to study integrative nutrition. I spent a year researching the chemistry, sociology and politics of how food impacts not only obesity and diabetes, but learning and behavior as well. I learned how dramatically our food supply has changed in the past fifty years. The industrialization of food in America has resulted in abundance and affordability, but like the balloon squeezed at one end, there's an opposite impact at the other. American kids are often overfed, yet undernourished. Grains and produce grown in chemicalized, depleted soils and highly processed foods are filling children's bellies without feeding their bones, blood and brains. Recent studies prove that colorings and preservatives affect behavior, producing ADHD symptoms in otherwise normally behaving children. Though there's still controversy over the food and autism connection, major improvements are reported with children who strictly adhere to an organic, whole food diet. Research also shows that school kids will eat better food if its served, and the results are better test scores, attendance, and athletic performance.
School food is merely a reflection of America's food culture as a whole. I chose to focus on school food because schools are supposed to provide a healthy learning environment, and I figured if more parents knew what their kids were eating in school, we might be able to change the paradigm. Ann Cooper and the Ross school inspired me to channel my passion and my profession into a project that would become both a movie and a movement.
When I began filming, I started in my own community. Our school food was better than some, but left a lot to be desired. I discovered that despite sending our daughter to school with a lunchbox packed with food she liked from home, she was regularly purchasing junk food in the cafeteria. In neighboring towns, I met many moms who had valiantly tried and failed to get better food into their schools. Criticized as nutrition Nazis and food police, they were often ostracized, banished from school cafeterias and occasionally even run out of town. It was a greater effort to find successful models to document, but I was eventually led to many.
So is the subject of school food sexy enough for mainstream media? The movie, Two Angry Moms, just now being released, has already spawned a movement of "angry moms" (and dads) numbering in the thousands. The former Texas Secretary of Agriculture said it would take two million angry moms to change school food. It seems we are on our way. Two Angry Moms is, in fact, a minor media phenomenon. We have appeared on Good Morning America, Fox News Live, NPR, the cover of USA Today, the New York Times, Prevention Magazine and many others. We'll be touring the nation with the film in 2008. As a result of previews in the fall, we're already getting emails from parents across America reporting positive results and a demand for more screenings.
So, what will happen in my town? Will we get the hypocritical "healthy whole wheat pizza crust" and 100-calorie snack bags with our artificially sweetened low fat chocolate milk? Will we continue to serve "food products" in plastic bags and bottles with long, unpronounceable ingredient lists in tiny print? Or will we get a school food program that integrates food into the classroom and the curriculum as well as the cafeteria? Will we get elementary and middle school kids planting and growing a school garden, high schoolers learning media literacy and food politics, creating and testing recipes? Will our school food service director seek out and find local sources for fresh fruits and vegetables, hormone and antibiotic-free milk, pasture raised meats and poultry? Will our cafeteria be a place where meals are cooked from scratch, with smells that tempt not only the students, but also the staff to purchase breakfast and lunch there?
Why is school food so controversial, so political? I'm going to keep blogging about the developments in my town as a sequel to the movie. Hopefully the tide will turn, the point will tip, and a few of the 2 million angry moms will step up to the table here in my hometown in 2008.