Kojo speaks with "Speak No Evil" novelist and D.C. native Uzodinma Iweala about his second novel and how his local upbringing affects his storytelling.
Schools throughout the Washington region are taking steps to get healthier food into cafeterias. The effort coincides with the White House’s mission to combat childhood obesity. But the public health challenges of feeding school children are increasingly complex. We talk with a local chef and a local blogger and activist on the front lines of the healthy cafeteria movement.
- Ed Bruske Co-Founder, DC Urban Gardeners; Certified Master Gardener; Blogger, The Slow Cook
- Cathal Armstrong Owner and Chef, Restaurant Eve (Alexandria, VA)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. They are the lunchtime back-to-school treats that greeted so many of us when we were young -- sloppy joes, Salisbury steaks, tater tots. But school cafeterias around the Washington region are transforming, and the fatty foods of yesteryear, the breakfast quesadillas, curly French fries and the like, are falling off the menu.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILawmakers are teaming up with local chefs and activists to push healthy foods back onto the plate and into children's lifestyles. But feeding a school is complicated business, a business that involves large-scale vendors, unavoidable processed foods and brain-bending economics. And the ever important question, will kids want to eat this healthy stuff anyway? Joining us in studio to talk about this is Cathal Armstrong. He is the owner and chef at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. He's also a participant in the White House's Let's Move program to combat childhood obesity. Cathal, thank you for joining us.
MR. CATHAL ARMSTRONGThanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAlso joining with us is Ed Bruske. He blogs at The Slow Cook and is also the co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners. He's a certified master gardener. He's also a former Washington Post reporter. Ed, good to see you again.
MR. ED BRUSKEHi, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd the last time you and I talked, you'd just spent a week inside of a D.C. public school where you found kids drinking sugared milk and eating food that was advertised as fresh cooked, as in chemically processed and reheated to serve. But a new school year is upon us here in D.C. Where do you see things heading this year?
BRUSKEWell, there's been a lot of changes. I think you could call this the year of the big purge because school systems -- new Food Service Director Jeffrey Mills and his staff spent the summer tasting many, many different products and working with Chartwells, the hired food service management company for D.C. schools, to get rid of a lot of that stuff. They very quietly decided to discontinue flavored milks, which means a lot less sugar on the plate for breakfast. No more Pop-Tarts or Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, it looks like. And they are -- in response to the Healthy Schools Act that was passed here by the D.C. Council, they are introducing a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, locally grown.
BRUSKEAnd we are actually seeing some items made from scratch, like a lasagna that was on my -- the plate at my daughter's elementary school recently, and fresh cantaloupe and many other things of that sort are appearing suddenly on the menu without much fanfare from the D.C. schools. It really deserves some more recognition, I think.
NNAMDIYou did mention the Healthy Schools Act. The D.C. City Council, under the leadership of Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, passed that in May of this year. It mandates strict nutrition standards for school meals and provides schools with an extra 15 cents per meal to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables and local ingredients. Correct?
BRUSKERight. The way it works is 10 cents more for breakfast, 10 cents more for lunch, 5 cents more for every meal that contains a local component, plus the city picks up the bill for kids who were on reduced-price menus. They no longer have to pay anything. So the District has become one of the very few local jurisdictions in the country to actually step forward with more money to make school meals better.
NNAMDIAnd the White House has had some influence there. What concerns do you have about the food our children eat when they're at school? You can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there. Cathal, you were taking your culinary skills to this problem. You're working with White House Chef Sam Kass on starting a pilot at Tyler Elementary School in the District where parents and other volunteers would be put to work in the kitchen, and leftover money could be used to buy better food from local growers. What was your philosophy behind this approach? And when do you expect you'll be able to actually put it to work?
ARMSTRONGWell, we visited Tyler Elementary in November last year at the request of the White House, and we -- our role was to investigate lunch and report back to them. So the day we were there, the lunch was barbecue ribs, which was, you know, an interesting piece of mystery meat, (laugh) smothered in a syrupy sauce, with a brown roll with high-fructose corn syrup and a little salad that most of the kids didn't touch and a container of chocolate milk with high-fructose corn syrup and mono antiglycerins.
NNAMDIYou called it an outrage.
ARMSTRONGIt is an outrage. And you know, more investigating since we visited the facility in Montgomery County that caters to Montgomery County public schools and watched what they referred to as catering, which in fact is purchasing processed foods from large industrial manufacturers and repackaging and freezing and shipping it out to schools in the name of nutrition. And, you know, I think we've made a few mistakes in the name of, possibly, capitalism or maybe in the -- with the right intentions. And turned lunch into fuel or calorie counts which are far more significant than carbohydrates or sugars, which are not even are monitored or monitored but not regulated by the USDA.
ARMSTRONGSo we need drastic change. We need a huge fundamental change. And I don't think that that's gonna happen quickly. It's something that's gonna have -- take time and in gradual steps. So we proposed to the DCPS, a pilot program at the school that we had coincidentally visited. I feel that this particular school offers a strong marketing power for us and a loud voice where we can show an example of something that can work.
NNAMDIWith what Ed Bruske -- we just heard Cathal talked about some of the things that caused him to be outraged when he looked at what the Chartwells was providing at Tyler. What are some of the typical things you find on a school menu that you disagree with?
BRUSKEWell, a lot of them aren't there anymore, I'm happy to say, in D.C., anyway. But I think if people watch the Jamie Oliver "Food Revolution" series, that is very similar to what we had in D.C. and what Cathal is describing in Montgomery County, all this processed industrial food. And what D.C. has done now is completely revamped the Chartwells menu. But where they're having -- where I think they have the biggest difficulty is right in the middle of the plate, what the restaurant tourists would refer to as that, you know, that protein item, which...
BRUSKE...very difficult to get away from processed food. Unless, like Cathal is proposing here, you're making food from scratch. In other words, you can only take this food-vendor idea, processed food, up to a certain point. I just wanted to also note a couple of things that I try to stress with this. One is the idea of standards. Standards may be the best cover for school food that was ever invented because almost anybody could go around and say, "Well, we're meeting all the standards."
BRUSKEIt turns out that you can meet the standards and still serve really awful food. That's the nature of processing. They can put almost anything in it. It really comes down to looking at what the food is that the kids actually receive on their plate or their cafeteria tray in the school, and that's what I've been doing.
NNAMDIIndeed, you raised a lot of eyebrows when you wrote in your "Tales from Inside of a D.C. School Kitchen." Cathal, you recently visited food production facilities in our region that create the food that ends up in local cafeterias. What did you find on that on that journey?
ARMSTRONGWe found a large industrial-type cafeteria, very, very clean. I will have to say, you know, beyond hospital standards of what cleanliness should be, and most of the equipment seemed to be unused. We went into the packaging station where about 30 employees were unloading boxes of chicken nuggets from Sysco that were clearly labeled with what really is the issue is chemicals and sugars that are added as preservatives to extend shelf life. Unpackaged from these frozen boxes, put into a plastic tray with a new vacuum seal put onto it and then moved into the freezer ready for distribution to the schools.
ARMSTRONGOne of the lengthy discussions we had there was about apples and why they weren't serving organic apples to the schools. And, you know, we see one of the issues with centralization and complete centralization of catering is that it limits your ability to buy small quantities from individual farmers. So they're buying 200 cases of apples every day, and they need a steady consistent source, and the consistent source usually ends up being China, instead of our local farms. So we feel that if we're able to take parts of the centralization process and distribute them back to the schools and allow them to each buy maybe one case of apples each, then we can look to small farms a lot more for our purchasing power.
NNAMDIIf you were to make a quesadilla at home or in one of your restaurants, you'd put it together with just a few ingredients, cheese, flour and the like. It's my understanding that you looked up the ingredients for the quesadillas they serve in Fairfax and that the list runs for two pages?
ARMSTRONGYes, absolutely. If you do a Google search for Fairfax County public school ingredient analysis, you can see the updated list of September 2010, which gives all of the ingredients in every dish that's served in Fairfax County and, indeed, pretty much every school district across the nation, with the exception of D.C. public schools now. And the quesadilla contains -- should contain water, flour, salt and cheese, but there are at least 80 ingredients in this quesadilla that they serve. The hamburger...
NNAMDIWhat are the other 66 ingredients?
ARMSTRONGWell, you've got mozzarella cheese-type flavor and then the ingredients that are in that, and then you've got artificial cheddar cheese flavor, which is --again got its list of ingredients, most of which are made in factories off the New Jersey Turnpike.
BRUSKEYou know, emulsifiers and preservatives and colorings and all different kinds of stuff like that.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, here now is Joe in New Market, Md. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEGood morning and thank you for having me on. I've been in the food industry for about 25 years, with over 20 years in the seafood industry. And for the past 15, I've really done a major focus on school food service. And I -- you know, I've listened to a lot of what your guests are saying, and they're right on the money about a number of things.
JOEAnd I guess, the paradigm shift that really needs to come out of this that's gonna get the buying and gonna get this whole thing to work for everyone is the food service directors have to come out of the stone age and understand that good food isn't cheap and cheap food isn't good. And they need to come together with this and understand this. And fortunately, some of the new dieticians and food service directors that are coming along get that, and they're willing to spend a little more.
JOEFrom a seafood perspective, I look at it -- I've been going and try to educate these schools, and I've done it in Los Angeles. I've got the L.A. Unified Schools onboard with my program doing fish tacos on a regular basis with a MSC certified Pollock and they're using commodity soft tortillas, commodity lettuce, commodity cheese, that they don't have to pay for to be able to buy a little bit better protein, to be able to put in there and seasoning it, you know, a little bit of lime, cilantro or whatever. And, boom, it's simple and easy, and they're getting a very, very nutritious product, which the leanest of all proteins being seafood.
JOEYou know, call me you know biased towards seafood, but it's what I've done for years. And I just -- I get frustrated over the fact that people look at fish and, you know, the first experience most kids have with seafood is in the hallway before they get to the cafeteria because they're buying crap that comes from under pallets because it's the cheapest thing that you can buy and put into the school.
NNAMDIJoe seems to feel we need a paradigm shift, Ed Bruske?
BRUSKEWell, yeah. Agreed. People have to remember where -- that most schools are still dealing with a dollar or less for their ingredients. That's out of the $2.68, now $2.72 that the government pays for -- $2.72 the government pays for a fully-subsidized meal. That went up four cents by cost of living adjustment automatically. And the Senate has agreed to spend an additional six cents. So that's barely more than what the schools get automatically on a year-to-year basis for cost of living adjustment. We have to wrap our heads around the fact this stuff, seafood, better food costs more money. And I think Chef Armstrong knows that only too well.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we will be talking with Cathal Armstrong. He is the owner and chef at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. and a participant in the White House's Let's Move program to combat childhood obesity. If you have already called, stay on the line. Joe, thank you very much for your call. We're also talking with Ed Bruske. He blogs at The Slow Cook. He is the co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners. He's a certified master gardener and a former Washington Post reporter. You can call us, 800-433-8850. Make a comment on our Facebook page or go to our website, kojoshow.org. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIBack to school food is our Food Wednesday conversation with Ed Bruske. He blogs at The Slow Cook and is co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners. And Cathal Armstrong is the owner and chef at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. who's also a participant in the White House's Let's Move program to combat childhood obesity. It would seem that it's one thing to get healthier food around the edges of school cafeteria plates -- fruits, vegetables, that kind of thing, but as it was mentioned earlier, it's another to get at what comes in the center of the plate, the protein that comes from meat. What ideas do you think are worth exploring as far as getting the protein that children are consuming in school? First, you Cathal.
ARMSTRONGWell, our idea with Tyler is to replace the existing menu with a similar menu with dishes that the kids are already familiar with. The difference that I see that we need to make immediately is to eliminate all the preservatives and chemicals that are added to make it taste good. So we'll replace the processed chicken nuggets with chicken tenders that come from chicken. There's nothing wrong with that. Kids love it. We'll replace the hamburger that has soybean flavor and all kinds of other things added to it to make it taste good with 100 percent ground beef. And we'll replace the processed part of the pizza with natural mozzarella cheese and fresh tomatoes and make our own tomato sauce. I think kids are familiar with eating this menu. They've eaten it for years. My kids eat the same thing when they're in school. And then we can gradually start to introduce new ingredients to them that they may not be familiar with. I think seafood is something that's missing. Most kids in school probably don't even know what fish looks like, you know, because they get this fish stick thing that my father would be horrified by.
NNAMDIGo ahead, Ed Bruske.
BRUSKEWell, I was just gonna say, as I mentioned before, you do sort of hit a speed bump if you're relying on a large food service company like Chartwells or Sodexho, AirMart and relying for your standard…
NNAMDIBut even most of us who buy meat at the grocery store are getting it from a large-scale factory farm. Not the kind of organic environments...
NNAMDI...held up by so many people in the healthy eating movement.
BRUSKEWell on that note, I would just mention that I spent -- after I was here the last time, I spent a week in the Berkeley central kitchen, California where Alice Waters had some influence in changing the menu from what we had here to a menu cooked from scratch with Ann Cooper, the famous renegade lunch lady who's now in Boulder. And they were using commodity U.S. beef. It came from factory farms, yes, but they were breaking it down there in their own kitchen and turning into fajitas and hamburgers and various things where they had control over what went into it. They were also serving hamburgers from a grass-fed -- hamburgers from scratch in California and grass-fed hotdogs. So you know you have to make an effort to work those things into your menu. It requires adjustments.
ARMSTRONGThere are hundreds of local farms that have food that they're desperate to sell, from chicken to beef, to pork, I mean, there is just everything that you could possibly imagine within arms reach of our nation's capital. And there are certainly issues with distribution but those can be easily surmounted. The problem is not with the supply. The problem is with the demand currently.
BRUSKEYou know, I talked to Jeff Mills, the food service director, last night. He was at a parents' meeting. And we haven't seen much beef on plates so far this year on D.C.'s school, and that's partly for ethical reasons. There's sort of a move away from beef...
BRUSKE...in schools. But he sees also looking for a supplier for grass-fed beefs that, you know, fits within the confines of the school budget. So...
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Marcy calling from Los Angeles, Ca. Marcy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARCYHello. Thank you for taking my call. I'm calling from Whole Foods Market, and I just wanted to call in because this is so topical. As a company in a private sector, we’ve taken a stand to try and make a difference in school food service and helping serve healthy lunches. And last year, we partnered with Chef Anne to help build an amazing free portal, where school food service directors could go and have these free resources for learning how to cook from scratch and offer, you know, different kinds of options for students. And then this year, we really took it to a tactical level and wanted to create a way for our schools to get salad bars, so that they could have some really healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables as options during their school day.
MARCYAnd so we're in the middle of the fundraising program, and actually today is the first day that the grand application for the salad bars go live. And that's on saladbarproject.org or at wholefoodsmarket.com/backtoschool. So -- and just we've -- we're two weeks into this program and just to know -- and this is national for Whole Foods Market in a local D.C. area. We already had about 20,000 in fundraising and a salad bar is about $2,500. So that's eight salad bars right there for D.C.
NNAMDIHow do you get children to transition into eating healthy foods like at a salad bar? We got this tweet from Taylor. "Do you guys know that Tony Geraci" -- I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. "What Tony Geraci is doing in Baltimore Schools with a school-owned farm and kids working the soil?"
BRUSKEWell, I would just interject at that point, because the things that adults would most like to see kids eat more of -- vegetables and whole grains, things that we consider healthy -- are the things that kids like least. So I get once again back to the issue of what we imagine is a perfect cafeteria, as opposed to what actually appears on the tray and what the kids actually eat. Getting kids to eat vegetables in a cafeteria setting is really difficult. And there's so many...
NNAMDIUnless those kids happen to be working on a farm part of a day of the week...
NNAMDI...and planting some of their own themselves.
BRUSKEMaybe. But there's some thinking that, you know, kids, as opposed to the cooked-to-death broccoli, which we still see in D.C., they may prefer, you know, raw or only lightly blanched vegetables or a salad bar. And my understanding...
BRUSKE...is that D.C.'s going to start installing some salad bars in October. So they're still a little bit ahead of the curve, it seems to me.
ARMSTRONGThere are lots of aspects to that, you know. And it -- if their pendulum swung all the way to one side, and now we're trying to swing it all back to the other side, there -- in Montgomery County, they determine how an item goes on the menu by solicitations from large food producers. The board sits around and tastes it. If they like it, they'll put it into a test school. If the kids buy it in the test school, it goes on the menu. If they don't buy it, it doesn’t go on the menu. So now, you're allowing 4 or 5, 6-year-old children determine what they're going to eat. So we went one way with letting the children be the deciders, and now we have to be careful not to go back entirely the other way and that the adults only be the deciders. I think we need a middle ground. And a huge part of the success of any program will be helping the kids to participate in food.
ARMSTRONGYou know, we had an interesting discussion that -- at a showing of a movie that's coming out soon called, "About Soil." And the discussion came down to -- economists tell us that economics don't work with this food thing because, you know, good food, organic food is so expensive and processed food is so inexpensive. And the ultimate point is, when did we ever determine that food is a set of economic values? We shifted away from being culture and history and changed that into solely being a fuel item for -- to make kids bigger and fatter. And I think we need to get back into that middle ground a little bit with some balance.
NNAMDIYou grew up in Dublin. Your parents have their own fruit and vegetable garden at home. How did the food that was being served in your house compare to the food that you, your friends and your school mates were eating elsewhere?
ARMSTRONGWe had a tiny garden and my father had a successful business when we were kids, and with a government change, his business went under. And we went from being affluent to being not so affluent almost overnight and we were a family of eight. On Sunday, for special occasions, we would have chicken, one chicken between the eight of us, and then vegetables that came out of the garden. You know, one person got a chicken leg and one person got a wing. And now because food has become so cheap with industrial food, it has become so inexpensive we -- two chickens in my household with only four people.
ARMSTRONGYou know -- and that is a good example of part of the issue with food nowadays is that we've just focused so much on eating so much protein, and there isn’t enough focus on eating fruits and vegetables. I think a big part of our responsibility as parents, as teachers, as cafeteria food producers is to reduce the size of protein a portion -- protein and look more towards the vegetables.
BRUSKEKojo, I just say that.
BRUSKEWhat we're talking about here really captures the kind of push-pull aspect of school food, which is that because of the way it's structured, food service directors really feel that they have to offer kids what they like. Because if the kids don't participate in lunch, don't buy the lunch, then they don’t have the money they need to keep the program going. That's the way it's structured. But we've also -- and Michelle Obama with her White House garden, I think, is illustrating this. We've reached a kind of teachable moment in schools, where we have a very different idea of what constitutes good food. And what we've been serving in the past is grossly out of sync with that. So we also wanna teach kids what real food is and the kind of foods that they should be eating.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Marcy. Here now is Nancy in Silver Spring, Md. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYOh, thank you very much for allowing me to make a comment. I have had experience with school food, some years ago, in Montgomery County. And I couldn't understand why every Friday, or when I allowed my children to buy their lunch actually, they were throwing up, and because they didn't usually ever throw up. And I went to a meeting and sort of wandered back into the kitchen and found that they were -- had big tureens of soup that were being left out over night. They were not being refrigerated. And so, obviously, they were spoiling. And so that was the trick of -- that was a problem. And so, therefore, I'm saying that you can present the best foods in the cafeterias that you can find, but they have to be handled properly by the food handlers that worked there.
NNAMDIIs that one of the paradigm shift changes that Jeff Mills faces in the D.C.'s school system?
ARMSTRONGOne of the changes he faces is that, over the years, so many skilled kitchen people had been let go in favor of reheat, processed foods. So they're now trying to train the kitchen personnel once again to do things even as simple as how to break down the cantaloupe and turn it into chunks that they can put it on the cafeteria trays.
NNAMDIThey have to teach people that?
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Nancy. Here's Renata in Greenbelt, Md. Renata, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RENATAYes. Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I have a question that -- about working with farmers, area farmers, -- to not only work with them to be your distributors of food but contracting with them to work with the teachers and the students to create their own gardens. Because I think that if kids not only see where their food is coming from but are actively involved in the process and eat their own food, that if you make a garden, theoretically, if you make -- can make old garden that's large enough that you could not only have fresh fruit available for students but you could also lower the per student cost of producing and giving the food to the students. So I was -- I'll take my -- I just have -- curious about your response to that and I'll take it off the air.
NNAMDICathal, it's obvious that nobody wants to oppose anything like that. But there are those who would say you're really dreaming at this point. You're creating a pie-in-the-sky public school world that simply can't exist to that.
ARMSTRONGI don't see why, to a certain extent, anything and everything we wanna try can't exist. I know -- I have relationships with many, many farmers and I know that every one of them would love the opportunity to go to a school and talk to kids about food. I also know that every one of them would absolutely adore the notion that instead of going to the zoo for this year's school field trip, that we're gonna go visit a farm and see it at work. So certainly, every farmer that I know is only too thrilled to talk about what excites them and what they live for every day.
ARMSTRONGSo, you know, the great thing about food is that it offers so many opportunities with teaching kids about culture, about economics, about history and, you know, I mean, one of the things that I'm really looking forward to when we get in to school, hopefully right after Christmas, will be in the Cinco de Mayo celebration and all of the Mexican foods that we can do this to show that off. The Saint Patrick's Day celebration and also Irish foods, we can do to show that often and how we start to teach about history and culture and food as a unit.
NNAMDICome to think of it, Ed Bruske, it shouldn't be that difficult.
BRUSKEWell, I just gonna say we are -- on the subject of Montgomery County, Montgomery County Schools have banned food gardening at schools because of so-called pest issues which has raised some heckles in certain neighborhoods and among certain gardeners. But food gardening in the schools is really more about a demonstration project. And I think it is kind of an educational tool to get the kids connected to where their food comes from, not so much to actually raise food for the school lunch program.
NNAMDIHere is Loren in Gettysburg, Md. Loren, your turn. Go ahead, please.
LORENYou literally just answered my question. Either question regarding the utilization of the community gardening concept at the school level -- doesn't seem like a hard deal to plant for an apple tree at every school or walnut tree or plant a garden of tomatoes.
BRUSKEIt came last night at this meeting I was describing where Jeffrey Mills, the Food Service director, was attending. And our local D.C. Farm to School Network coordinator, Andrea Northup, mentioned a USDA memo that is going out recently saying that the food grown in school gardens can be used if it's treated carefully in the school lunch. And that seemed to take some people by surprise, but in fact, you can. You just have to take certain precautions.
NNAMDIOn, then, to Milton in Takoma Park, MD. Loren, thank you for your call. Here's Milton. Go ahead, please.
MILTONThank you, Kojo. I'm a food service provider. I guess here in the Montgomery County area -- and as a private contractor, I supply vegetarian foods to each of these schools. I made the fatal flaw last year of listening to the parents on what the parents wanted their children to eat.
MILTONThe problem was, is that the parents didn't necessarily back up what they wanted or have any control over what their children chose to eat at school. The teachers weren't going to force the children to eat. So in past years, I gave them arguably what I determined to be healthier options in the vegetarian realm by giving them veggie burgers, chipotle style burritos, fast food-esque type food. Last year, I went to hot plated foods, brown rice, tofu, plenty of vegetables. Most of it ended up in the trash can because the children did not want to eat it. When I switched back to fast food, I made a lot of money. My food isn't subsidized by the government. The parents pay. If Johnny goes back home and tells mommy, I didn't like lunch, mommy wasn't inclined to buy it again in spite of the fact it was exactly what mommy wanted the child to eat.
BRUSKEThat goes back to...
MILTONI think that, you know, when making a plate colorful, making it healthy and so forth, if the training isn't at home and the child isn't used to eating that way at home, all the fresh fruits and vegetables in the world will not change that paradigm because the children won't eat it anyway.
BRUSKEYeah. There's important thing to note there, the way the lunch program is structured. And that is, is that most schools now offer five items, and that will be an entree, milk and other things that conform with the standards. But the kids only have to pick three, okay? So they may not even choose any of the vegetables while they're in the food line, and there's nobody standing over them saying, you have to eat that, when they get their locally grown salad with the fresh homemade dressing on it.
NNAMDIHow do you steer kids in that direction? Here's this e-mail we got from John in the District. "Doesn't a lot depend on what the kids are eating at home? My son goes to Stuart-Hobson Middle School and raved about a chicken Caesar salad he had at the cafeteria last week and spinach lasagna yesterday. He generally took his lunch in elementary school because he's used to eating real food at home and preferred that for lunch. We are thrilled to see that the cafeteria food in middle school appears to have more fresh vegetables and fruit. That's what he enjoys because that's what served at home. Vice versa if kids eat poorly at home, of course, they're going to want or expect the same at school." How do you guide kids?
ARMSTRONGWell, absolutely. It's -- there are two sides of that coin. There are kids that eat good food at home and then they won't eat what's served in the cafeteria.
NNAMDIThey want to crave -- they crave junk in the cafeteria.
ARMSTRONGExactly. And then vice versa. I think it's a team effort here and something that we have to expect to change slowly rather than overnight. I think if we -- the more parents we can get involved in teaching their kids more about what natural healthy fresh food is as opposed to health food. I don't know any kid that wants to eat health food, granola bars and, you know, that's not what they want to eat and...
BRUSKEUnless there's lots of sugar in it.
ARMSTRONGRight. And I don't think that's a direction we should go in. What we need is a healthy, natural option of foods that kids are accustomed to eating. And then, from there, we can gradually start to educate them. If we put our hands back on to the system where we've been completely hands off for about 10 years now, and start to use the garden as an education tool, use after school program cooking classes as education about food and get parents, teachers, kids and individuals like myself and Mr. Bruske to put our hands back on to the system and take control of it again, I think we can make some great changes very quickly.
BRUSKEI think people are also looking for a kind of overarching nutrition education plan or approach in the school, which isn't there right now. Teachers sort of have an option to use their curricula to teach nutrition and health issues and whatnot. But there's nothing overlaying the system that would get these messages across in an organized fashion.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. We're gonna come back and continue this conversation. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing back to school food with Ed Bruske. He blogs at The Slow Cook. He's the co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners, and a certified master gardener. And he's also a former Washington Post reporter. Cathal Armstrong is the owner chef at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. and a participant in the White House's Let's Move program to combat childhood obesity. We got this Facebook comment from Lauren. "Get the parents at school to learn how to cook good-for-you delicious food. My little ones don't like pizza but love hummus." How do you get parents involved?
BRUSKEWell, it just so happens that we have a parents' group now here in the District of Columbia. It's called Parents for Better D.C. School Food. We have about 90 people in our Google group to talk behind the scenes about where we should take this. We have a Facebook page with almost 400 fans on it. And we have a blog called Better D.C. School Food that -- where we post photographs of the meals that are being served in D.C. schools multiple times each day and analyze them and talk about school food issues. So if you just Google Better D.C. School Food, you'll get to that blog and it'll give you links to the other places you can go.
NNAMDIWe posted a link to that blog on our website. Cathal, when we talk about the business of serving school food, we can't forget that it's also a business. You mentioned capitalism early. Vendors recreate their offerings to include healthier options, but what do you think school systems need to do to make sure that healthy options remain the priority rather than profits?
ARMSTRONGWell, I think a mistake that we made was allowing corporations to profit tremendously at the expense of the health of our children. And, you know, to some horrifying possible futures, we have -- we're basically creating the sickest generation that the human race has ever seen, and, you know, a generation that will die younger than we do. When you and I retire, the people that are coming behind us to support us in our retirement are gonna be sicker than we'll be. And we have to make a difference to that now.
ARMSTRONGAnd think of the notion that DCPS spent $30 million with Chartwells last year, and Chartwells made a handsome profit out of that, serving what is essentially malnutritious food to these kids. We just have to change that perspective. About $7 a day is what you get to feed each kid in the public school system. So between breakfast, lunch and after school snack, it amounts to $6.98 or so.
ARMSTRONGCurrently, about a dollar out of the $2.72 that goes towards lunch is actually spent on food. The rest is spent on administration, profits, staffing, whatever. The more of that money that we can spend on food and the less we spend on administration, the better off we're gonna be, you know. And in the economies of scale, when you're feeding 55,000 kids like we have in the D.C. public school system, those numbers work. In the small scale, and the pilot program that we're about to embark on, with 300 kids at six bucks or so a day, we're -- there is no way we're gonna be able to afford it. We're gonna have a shortfall of probably about $100,000 in the first year.
NNAMDIBut we have to see the fact that D.C. ranks ninth in the obesity rate among children as a significant health issue that has to be addressed. And if it's gonna cost money to address it, then so be it.
BRUSKECathal and I were talking before the show. Both agreed -- didn't know this before, but we both agreed that the one single most important item that needs to go from school meals is sugar. And ironically, it's the one item, out of everything else, that is not regulated to any degree by the fools that -- the rules that govern the federal meals program.
NNAMDITalk about your Freudian slips.
BRUSKEFreudian slip there. So what do we do about that? The -- part of the issue is the program is administered by the agricultural department, which is good for schools because the Agricultural Department provides political cover. It's a huge, extremely popular agency. But on the other hand, the Agriculture Department is designed to promote the business of agriculture and food. So over the years, they've done -- implemented many rules and changes that have pushed school food into this area that Cathal is talking about here towards processing, rewarding big food companies and giving them greater and greater access to the plates of kids at school.
ARMSTRONGOne way we can help solve the economic issue, too, is when we take away the $160 billion a year that we spend on health care costs to deal with obesity and diabetes and put that towards food that doesn't cause obesity and diabetes. And, you know, that will go a long way towards solving our problems.
NNAMDIHere's Lisa in Washington, D.C. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAThank you for taking my call. My name is Lisa Dobbs (sp?). Hi, Ed.
LISAI can't believe you haven't told them about my program, Ed. This is terrible.
NNAMDIHe knew who was calling.
BRUSKEI thought that was the...
LISAI'm one of the few people in the District of Columbia -- well, anywhere in the nation, really. There are a few here in D.C. I don't -- you know, I can't imagine there are very many doing freshly prepared on-site, mostly -- well, high degree of local produce in a D.C. school for 400 children for breakfast, for lunch and for supper.
LISAAnd, for instance, today -- yeah.
BRUSKETell him the name of your charter school, Lisa.
LISAWas -- we had teriyaki chicken. So the chicken was marinated overnight in soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, you know, garlic and ginger, and then grilled on a barbecue and then sliced up and put over brown rice. Today, we did a salad of melon and tomato and Thai basil and balsamic vinegar for the vegetable. But, you know, there is -- there are any number of components that go into this whole question of cooking fresh for kids. You know, I would welcome all the chefs in the world to come into these places and -- to these schools to help and put these programs together. But, you know, you're not gonna go into the Montgomery-type public school system and say, I'm here. I'm a chef. I'm really good at what I do. My food is really good. Move over. I'm gonna help you out. Because they're looking at you -- you know, they're dieticians. They're "registered dieticians." They've been to university for this. They've got the whole thing...
NNAMDILisa, allow me to interrupt, and hold on for a second because I'm glad you got Montgomery County schools because we have on another line Marla in Montgomery County, Md. who is the director of nutrition services for the county, I think. Marla, you're on the air. Are you who I think you are?
NNAMDIYes, Marla, could you tell us a little bit about your contribution to this?
MARLAAbsolutely. Our program actually, as you said before, is under the U.S. Department of the Agriculture. That's a great supporter of us. We have guidelines to follow. I heard the comments earlier about too much protein. We're required to serve 2 ounces of meat or meat alternative each day. That's not too much protein, but it is a requirement. Our fresh fruit and vegetables are available every day in all of our cafeterias. So we recognize the importance of fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. Our milk is fat-free or 1 percent. Many of our products -- we use whole grains. Our dinner roll is whole grain. Our pizza that we serve on Friday has a whole grain crust. Our pancakes that are served to children at breakfast are whole grain.
MARLAWe're -- you know, I applaud Mrs. Obama for her efforts. We've been ahead of that in Montgomery County for many, many years. And that doesn't just speak to the meals that are served. It speaks to the snack items that are available to students. We created a wellness policy and regulation for our snacks way before -- we're way ahead. And so I guess the obesity problem, studies have shown that students who eat school meals are not the ones that are obese. We try, in Montgomery County, to trickle into families because we need to teach families how to eat properly. We work with young children. So we're really trying to do all that in our county.
MARLAI heard the comment about the soup that was left overnight. Our secondary schools all have managers that are certified in sanitation. That doesn't happen in Montgomery County.
NNAMDIOkay. Marla, thank you very much for your call, but we're running out of time. And I got to get back to Lisa who was, I think, making a critique of Montgomery County. Lisa, you're back on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAOkay. Right, Marla is right about that. They do a lot of these whole grain things. The problem is not that they don't have their hearts in the right place or that their -- but, you know, these are industrial products. They're made in the factory. I had a distributor come in here one day and say, we've got the best whole grain pancakes. You're gonna just love them. And I said, right. Let's see the ingredients. And, of course, the list was about two pages long. And these are the kinds of toxins we're giving kids, which the chef from Eve just mentioned, are gonna kill our kids. I mean, and, you know, I said -- so I said to him, no, I'm gonna make my own. And his eyes got really wide and he said, oh, you want a mix?
NNAMDIWhat -- Lisa, what's the name of your charter school?
LISAIt's -- the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School.
NNAMDILisa, thank you very much for your call. Ed Bruske, some people are calling the new Healthy Schools Act in D.C. an unfunded mandate for charter schools because a lot of those charter schools don't have the same large-scale cafeterias in their building.
BRUSKEYeah, it calls for an explanation. There are about 45,000 kids enrolled in D.C. public schools. And then another 28,000, I think was the last figure, enrolled in the charter school system, which are also public schools...
NNAMDII was about to say that part of...
BRUSKE...but they're totally different. They're run totally independently. And so the D.C. public schools have a central meal service arrangement. The charter schools all act independently, most of them have small caterers that they look to provide their meals. Lisa just happens to work in a charter school that decided to start cooking from scratch and got some grant money for kitchen equipment and has Lisa, who is a phenomenal person and chef, to make the meals.
NNAMDIWell, Cathal, we talked with Spike Mendelsohn in a few weeks ago who's also involved with the Chefs Move Program. He's teaching cooking classes to parents and students. What are crucial things that need to happen for parents to have more knowledge about food?
ARMSTRONGGenerally speaking, I think, parents fall into three categories, and this is a broad generalization. There are parents that can't participate for, you know, single parents that have economic restraints, and there are parents that don't want to participate and don't care to participate. And then there's the third group of parents that are completely interested in participating, but don't really know how to. I think a big part of what we need to do is help to educate those parents that are interested in participating more in a better and a more organized leadership manner. The schools that my kids go to, they ask for volunteers every year, but we don't really know how to do it. What people need to -- need is to be told on this day, at this time, we need you to come and do this thing. And they'll do it and they'll participate.
NNAMDIThat makes absolute sense.
ARMSTRONGYou know, it's interesting both of the previous callers talked about pancakes, pancakes, pancakes. The fundamental issue there is pancakes are carbs and sugar. And for us growing up, we had pancakes on pancake Tuesday. And aside from that, there were no pancakes the rest of the year. And that's part of what our issue is, is carbs and sugar are not regulated.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. We're gonna be broadcasting as sure in the next few weeks about the liquid calories that all of us take in on a daily basis and how sports drinks, fruit juices and coffee treats can contain explosive amounts of excess calories. And, obviously, those are some of the concerns we have about kids in schools also. Don't have enough time to talk about it right now. Ed Bruske, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIEd blogs at The Slow Cook. He is the co-founder of the group D.C. Urban Gardeners and a certified Master Gardener. Cathal Armstrong, thank you for joining us.
ARMSTRONGThanks. It was a pleasure.
NNAMDICathal is the owner and chef at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va. and a participant in the White House's Let's Move program to combat childhood obesity. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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