Playing the “Blame Game”

Published in FSD Update

New documentary slams school lunch as bad for our children, but is it accurate? I don’t think so.

Last month, right before our MenuDirections conference, in Charlotte, N.C., I drove down to Greenville, S.C., to visit with Eileen Staples, the foodservice director for Greenville Public Schools. Along with Culinary Specialist Ron Jones, we toured two elementary schools and a middle school during lunchtime.

The basic menu on the day I visited was Thai Sweet Chili Chicken, stuffed shells in marinara sauce with a whole-wheat breadstick on the side, broccoli cheddar soup, tossed salad and diced peaches. I got a chance to watch kids go through the line and see what they were choosing, what they were eating and what they were throwing away. 

I also got a chance to speak with Ron about the Culinary Creations program he designed to make menu items more nutritious while still maintaining a decent level of acceptability. (For more information, see “Eileen Staples: Staying Ahead.”)

I was surprised at the number of children who chose the chicken dish and a little more surprised at the fact that many of those kids ate the whole thing. But, for the most part, I saw what I expected to see. Some kids ate, and some didn’t. I was impressed with the presentation of the foods, the professionalism of the staff and the genuine interest they showed toward their customers.

My trip to Greenville reinforced the impressions I have a school foodservice. Most school foodservice programs try very hard to meet two related goals: serving healthy foods that kids will choose to eat. That is not an easy task, because most kids don’t eat like adults. They are generally more fickle, and yet they are often more willing to try new foods.

It is not easy for adults to think like children, but that is really what it takes to craft menus that meet USDA guidelines and kids’ acceptability. But most school districts try their best, and we try to profile those operators who have done the best job of getting it right.
That’s why I became particularly annoyed when I read about the new documentary, “Lunch Hour.” The 90-minute film, according to the website, “examines America’s school lunch program, which exposes children to unhealthy but culturally acceptable foods at an early age.”

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter (THR), Director James Costa said his belief that school lunches are partly to blame for childhood obesity. “I asked myself, ‘do I walk away from it or do my little part and fix it?’ So, I’ll do a documentary,” Costa told THR.

Full disclosure: I have not seen the film, although I did watch the trailer. But from my vantage point, “Lunch Hour,” is just another below-the-belt shot at school foodservice as the sole villain in the obesity epidemic. It lays “blame,” but offers no viable solutions.

The film contains comments from Rachael Ray, Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York, radio talk show host Robin Quivers and a number of medical professionals. But, so far as I can tell, no school foodservice professionals were interviewed in the making of this documentary.

Costa says that he wants to “fix” school lunch. You don’t fix anything simply by telling everyone what you think is wrong with it. You fix a problem by coming up with solutions, and you come up with solutions by speaking with the people who are closest to the problem and learning what the challenges are and discovering what best practices are out there that can be shared and copied.

So far, no one outside of the industry who claims they want to “fix” school foodservice has done this. Instead, they either seek out the worst examples and hold them up to the public as the norm, as Costa seems to have done, or they barge into districts like Jamie Oliver has done and say, “This is how I think you should do it”—without having the first clue how school foodservice operates.

As far as I’m concerned, the first person to make a documentary that examines school foodservice through the eyes of the people who manage these programs and proposes workable solutions will be the first person who truly cares about making these programs better. And, in so doing, they might just discover what I and many people in the foodservice industry already believe: School foodservice isn’t the problem the outside world thinks it is. 

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