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Does 'Fed Up' Campaign Give School Lunches a Fair Shot?

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Let's talk lunch. To set the stage, let's open the velvet curtain on this recent tweet by lifestyle and culinary guru Martha Stewart, depicting one of her lunches.

 

Gross, right? Somehow the builder of a multimedia empire centered on making us all jealous of her cooking and decorating skills through carefully lit photos of perfectly arranged tables made what is probably a yummy lunch look like something I wouldn't give to my dog.

That tweet informs how I view the images on Fed Up, a clever website by DoSomething.org that asks kids around the country to submit photos of their school lunches and allow their peers to vote whether they would "Eat It" or "Toss It." The site includes an advocacy kit that teaches students about U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards and encourages them to advocate for locally grown foods, fresh produce instead of canned, and baked foods instead of fried. The site encourages students to organize and respectfully ask adults in their schools to make changes so that fewer plates will be classified as "Toss It" meals.

"Who else is upset about your school meals? Wait by the trash can at lunch to see who's tossing theirs."

I wonder what happens when you give kids a website that combines social media, the use of smart phone cameras, and a chance to complain. Well, this happens.

feduplunch.jpg

 Photo: Shepherd's Pie at J.T. Taravella High School in Taravella, Fla. Used with permission from Fedup.dosomething.org.

Yikes, right? I'm guessing even a professional food stylist couldn't make that look tasty. But I look at some of the other images with a more critical eye. If Martha Stewart can't make me jealous of her lunch, how will a teen with a scratched iPhone camera lens and fluorescent cafeteria lighting fare?

Bettina Elias Siegel at the TheLunchTray.com shares similar concerns and adds a few more: Some of the photos are actually of a la carte items, not the basic meals served to all students; school lunch programs aren't always adequately funded; not every district is capable of delivering the same results; and the demand for local produce is particularly challenging for some.

"My bottom line is this:  empowering kids to speak up about their food is a fantastic idea, and districts doing a legitimately bad job in preparing school meals certainly need to be taken to task.  But districts are still unconscionably underfunded when it comes to school food, and Big Food still plays too large of a lobbying role in shaping what appears on kids' trays.  So I'd love to take all the youthful energy stirred up by Fed Up and channel it where it might do the most good -- the United States Congress."

I would also add that healthier lunches and lunches that draw fewer complaints from kids may not be the same thing. Following the implementation of rules under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, districts around the country complained that kids who longed for the glory days of rectangular slices of pizza were tossing their kale and black beans straight into the trash. Still others defend the new policy, saying districts have to find the sweet spot where they are complying with new rules while also appealing to their students' palates.

So there aren't easy answers. But Fed Up does seem to have some admirable goals. It's made students more aware of what they are eating and why, and it has probably put some pressure on district-level school lunch program administrators who haven't thought outside of the box (or the can).

But I think of my favorite school lunch from my tiny Kansas district, a flat tan tray of meaty chili with a homemade yeast roll and a pickle spear. How would it look if Martha photographed that?

 

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