When I was in high school, my daily lunch consisted of a pack of peanut butter crackers and a carton of chocolate milk. My public high school was so large that there just wasn’t enough time to eat. By the time I reached the cafeteria (from another building that seemed a half a mile away) and waited in line with my tray to enter the kitchen, the bell would ring and it was time to go back to class. So, instead, I went to the vending machine and the shorter line for milk. And I can assure you that the offerings from the vending machine looked a whole lot better than the offerings in the cafeteria.
Sadly, this isn’t too surprising. My high school, it turns out, wasn’t that much different from others in America that serve processed and fried foods with little fresh fruits and vegetables—turning out meals that don’t seem fit for children. After years of putting up with poor lunch offerings for their children—two fed-up moms decided to do something.
Susan P. Rubin, a mom of three and dentist turned nutritionist from Bedford, New York, catapulted her frustration and anger into action, and formed a grass-roots advocacy group: Better School Food. In the past two years, the Better School Food movement has grown to a thousand members—catching the eye of filmmaker and holistic nutritionist, Amy Kalafa. Amy, who has made films and TV specials on topics ranging from health care to cooking to criminals—understood Susan’s plight. As a mom of two teens, she felt compelled to focus on Susan’s movement. For a year, Amy filmed Susan during her many activities: testifying in Washington, DC, visiting various school cafeterias across the nation, and meeting with education officials. This resulted in Two Angry Moms, a ninety-minute documentary directed and narrated by Amy and co-produced with her husband, Alex Gunuey.
As one might expect, the documentary digs into the reality of lunchtime at schools across the nation—showing the children, like I did, who opt for the vending machines, now chock full of chips, candy, and soda. It also examines the food being prepared and served—often consisting of high fat, high salt, and processed or fried options with little fresh fruits or vegetables.
Last week I chatted with both Amy and Susan via phone to discuss what they encountered when making this film and what they hope the film can accomplish.
“We found the kind of food that doesn’t support a good health system and a lot of fat,” Susan says.
“When a kid is on that kind of diet, they can’t think clearly. You need to think about what fuel you’re putting into the tank,” she reiterated.
Amy says she had a personal “epiphany” about food and health when visiting in-laws in France in the 1980s—inspiring her to champion Susan’s cause. She said she followed her mother-in-law in the markets every day where she picked fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats for each daily meal. The idea of freshly prepared foods and meals cooked from scratch is not terribly American—but the benefits far outweigh the time constraints.
“I lived with migraines for years before that trip … In France, good food is part of the curriculum at home and at school—as opposed to a fast-food free-for-all,” Amy says.
While most Americans may not be able to live as the French do,—which includes two hour, leisurely lunches, typically buying only for the current day at local farmers’ markets and cooking from scratch—Amy and Susan both show in their film how schools can and should make healthier choices.
The film highlights various schools that have implemented changes (See Clips)—like one in New Hampshire that has replaced fried foods with baked items and now has a salad bar in the cafeteria. Other schools have created gardens—a little step that Amy and Susan insist makes a huge difference.
“Schools can have gardens—even in the inner city, you can have a garden anywhere with Earth boxes. … One school began to grow their own vegetables and held a farmers’ market at the school on Saturdays turning a profit,” Amy says.
So What Can I Do?
If you are reading this and thinking, well, I’m doomed to fix my children’s lunches until they graduate, take heart. Amy and Susan outline steps that anyone can take to tackle the bad food choices in their children’s schools.
“We didn’t want to make a movie that people would watch and be moved by when they left and then not do anything later. We have a lot of answers. Go to the Two Angry Moms Web site and read more,” Amy urged.
There are also steps on Better School Food that parents can take, including joining the movement and then partaking in issues, such as completing an online letter to congress to support changes in the farm bill, promoting fresh fruits and vegetables at schools.
I know I’m motivated after reading their research and watching the film clips. How about you?