Before I get started, let's take a look at school lunches in our area in the 1930s (newly-settled, just prior to Great Depression, at the edge of what then was total wilderness) and today (affluent, semi-rural bedroom community for Microsoft and Seattle tech boom):
1936 (excerpt from "Food of a Younger Land," by Mark Kurlansky)
"In School District #6, Snohomish County (Mukilteo), the custom was instituted in 1930 of having the families take turns in supplying a hot dish for the entire school. The Parent Teachers Association purchased kettles and small electric hot plates to be used for the school lunch purpose and the hot dish generally consisted of one of the following: boiled beans, macaroni and cheese, various kinds of soups, spaghetti and tomatoes, or hot cocoa. No attempt was made at a balanced diet, the main object being to supply undernourished children with at least one hot dish per day."
I have a great relationship with the school district's food manager and respect her deeply. A great deal of this is out of her hands until parents and administrators give approval for her to source more local produce. While the school district complies with new USDA standards that mandate more whole grains and access to fresh vegetables at the salad bar, the most popular items (for the elementary school) this month include:
Little Slugger Chicken Drumstick
French Toast Sticks
Peanut Butter Jammers
To my mother's post-Depression generation, this abundance of "ready-to-eat" food would be a symptom of the nation's progress, not of a public health problem. I get that. But I now disagree with it because of my own experiences as a health insurance analyst, a pharmaceutical marketer, a cardiac patient at age 35, and now a farm worker.
For more than a year, I have been working alongside vegetable farmers in the Snoqualmie Valley to try to implement a "Harvest of the Month" lunch program in our school district. I've been representing our small, natural dairy, a seat that is usually occupied by large milk conglomerates during purchasing meetings across the country. Several local school districts, especially progressive and well-funded schools in Seattle and Portland, have had luck sourcing beyond the usual food service monopolies. The health food/whole food trend certainly gave them a bump. Every morning I ask myself, "what can I do today to share nourishing food with everyone in my community?" When it comes to the schools, it's my priority but also a thorny quagmire of politics, personalities, and purchasing power.
Surely, all of you have heard the drum-beat for healthier lunches in our schools. Jamie Oliver, Michele Obama, Alice Waters, the list of prominent activists goes on. While some choose to politicize or hashtag the hell out of the issue, I truly feel that access to healthy food is an issue of justice and public health, and therefore directly impacts the well-being of our citizens, young and old. Access to nutrient-dense food may not be a right for taxpaying citizens, but they certainly feel the brunt of poor nutrition among children. Look at the toll unhealthy, salt-laden, processed foods have played in driving up health premiums, hospital visits among the uninsured, and influencing poor student behavior and concentration. If I focused on these many layers I would just hide at the dairy and wish everyone the best, but we're pushing forward. To the farmers of the Snoqualmie Valley, it is an honor and a mandate to teach and share our produce with neighbors. Especially the youngest and most vulnerable. However, it's all but impossible for small farms to compete with government subsidy prices, but we are finding a way, even if we have to start incrementally, once a month, with a "Harvest of the Month," a featured local produce item, and time sitting at lunch, in person, with the kids, talking about our cows and how our cheese is made. I've written about this before and encourage you to read more about how this project began in our hometown of Duvall.
Next week, I will cube and bag wheel after wheel of our grass-fed, aged cheese for the kids of Riverview School District. Pretty cool for the kids, huh? Although they won't know any better. They just know me around town as "Anne the Cheese Lady," making deliveries in my ugly dairy whites or waving hi to the buses on their way to Cherry Valley Elementary. I like to think of this cheese as our "Riverview Reserve," a noble counterpart to our national award-winning "Dairy Reserve"! The kids will eat the very same cheese that judges, chefs and world food experts enjoyed at the American Cheese Society expos in 2013 and 2014. It's a small step but I am proud of that, and for the leadership shown in our school district. We will start where we are and move forward!
Kids love food, just like us. It's harder for them to make choices, so let's make it fun and help them out, so they can own this and have fun. And make it affordable even if it takes time. We are learning and un-learning a lot as we get more data, both from doctors and from budgets.
One pea, carrot, and cube of cheese at a time. As my farmer colleague and sister at arms, Sarah from Oxbow Farm, would say, "Lettuce do this!" If I have to dress up as a damned cow and breakdance with my cheese, I will.