When I think back on lunchtime during my public school days, I recall a lot of fried chicken, pizza, and hamburgers—not exactly the nutrition-packed fuel food parents want for their children. And while there have been several school food improvement programs since my elementary school years, there is still much to be done.
This issue is the focus of Cafeteria Man, a new public television documentary that follows school food chef Tony Geraci on his journey to provide affordable, healthy, and local food choices to school districts in Baltimore and Memphis. In the film, which premieres July 17, Geraci replaces mystery meat with fresh, healthy meals; creates themes like "Try Something New Tuesdays" to raise excitement; and starts a 33-acre student-run farm to teach kids about the source of food and to give them a hand in growing it.
Although I'm not being served mystery meat anymore, I don't have to look far to see the concern about school food. My mother, a first grade teacher in suburban New Jersey, frequently calls me with horror stories of the lunch room. During her summer school program — which is just three hours long — she says her students are served pancakes with syrup, sausages, and chocolate milk for breakfast; Doritos as a snack; and choices like pizza, bagels, tacos, and chicken nuggets for lunch!
"They do have fruit there, but these are the kids that are making the choices," she says. "If they're given the choice between chocolate milk and regular milk, what do you think they're going to choose?"
She adds that school food has a three-pronged problem: the lack of healthy meals offered, the fact that the students are drawn to the less-healthy options, and some parents' lack of nutrition knowledge. (She has needed to inform parents that no, Fruit Roll-Ups are not healthy.)
"A parent's responsibility doesn't end by giving their child $1.50 for lunch and assuming their job is done. They need to think about what their kids are really eating."