San Francisco Chronicle
(10-09) 04:00 PST Washington-- Childhood obesity in America "is something we can change," a Baltimore schools chef told a congressional panel Thursday, describing a school garden where students "plant a seed, pick a tomato ... and taste the flavor explode in their mouth."
The experience "forever changes the way a kid looks at food," said chef Anthony Geraci.
As Congress prepares to overhaul school nutrition programs, it is drawing on food guru Alice Waters' radical school-garden experiment in Berkeley in 1995 that has caught fire nationwide. The aim is to change the relationship between children and food to help blunt a public health catastrophe.
The federal government feeds breakfasts and lunches to 32 million schoolchildren at a cost of about $14 billion a year. At the same time, obesity and the chronic diseases that accompany it cost nearly $150 billion a year in added health care spending and kill more than 100,000 Americans each year.
Epidemic childhood obesity has public health officials in a state of near panic. About one-fourth of all children from 2 to 5 years old are overweight or obese before they enter kindergarten.
California led the nation with a law that took effect in 2007 to raise nutrition standards in schools, but most of the effort has focused on getting rid of unhealthy food rather than introducing fresh food, said Juliet Sims, program director at the Prevention Institute, which addresses health and social issues, in Oakland.
Children get anywhere from a third to half their calories at school, Sims said, and rewriting the major school food laws provides "a real opportunity to lay groundwork for getting kids to practice good nutrition."
In renewing the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act, House Education and Labor Committee chairman George Miller, D-Martinez, wants to expand school food programs while increasing use of fresh produce, including farm-to-school programs. The National Institutes of Medicine this month will recommend new school nutrition requirements for the first time in 15 years.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, has introduced a bill that would restrict sodas and salty, fatty and sugary snacks sold in vending machines and other school outlets.
Schools lack kitchens
Meanwhile, many school cafeterias no longer have working kitchens to make meals from scratch. Processed bulk food is shipped to schools that reassemble and reheat it into meals.
Baltimore eighth-grader Alice Sheehan told a House Education and Labor subcommittee Thursday that students at her school were so unhappy with the food that the student council took samples of their "pre-plated" lunches to the city school board to see if members would eat it. They refused.
But the students' efforts led to the firing of the school district's food director and her replacement with chef Geraci, who is revolutionizing food in the city's public schools.
School gardens can be "the single most important tool to reconnect kids to their food," Geraci told the committee. Many children, especially poor ones, have lost any notion of what real food is, he said. "In one generation, fruit is a flavor," Geraci said. "It's not food. 'Fruity flavor,' that's what it is."
Returning working kitchens to schools can save money and improve children's health, he said.
Taste of a peach
"I fed peaches to kids that have never eaten a peach before," he said, recalling a sitting with three second-graders in a Baltimore school. One rubbed the peach on his face, another smelled it, another bit in as the juice ran down his arm and "this wave of emotion comes over his face," Geraci said. "That's what a peach tastes like. That is profound. That is something we can no longer ignore."
Those peaches from a Maryland farm cost the school 8 cents each. "I could have purchased USDA commodity peaches packed in a can of corn syrup that traveled 2,200 miles to get there for 14 cents," Geraci said. "Why would you do that?"
Since their inception in the 1960s, school food programs have been as much about getting rid of surplus farm commodities as they have been about feeding children. They are administered by the Department of Agriculture, and federal rules stipulate that 12 percent of federal food aid to schools be spent on USDA commodities.
Farms consolidated, processed foods took over grocery shelves, and parents stopped cooking. So did schools. Many schools now get free commodities such as chicken and beef. But without working kitchens, about half of these are shipped to giant meat processors who turn them into "nuggets" or "beef crumble" at a cost to the school of several dollars a pound, and then ship it back to the school to reheat.
Geraci said he has been insulin-free for nearly two years after getting Type II diabetes after an accident and a long hospital stay.
"I stuck a needle in my stomach six times a day," he said. "I sat with an 11-year-old diabetic kid, and we wept together. His hands were so sore from testing his blood he couldn't hold a pencil anymore. We're doing this to our kids. This we can fix."