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Lunch Wars: Food For Thought

September 27, 2011

Lunch Wars
Amy Kalafa
Tarcher/Penguin
Reviewed for BlogHer Book Club

I knew that reading Lunch Wars was going to make me think, whether I was reminiscing about my own school lunches, or getting anxious and troubled about the perplexing business of food politics.

Reading about the Gordian knots of school food regulations, financing, food politics, and questions about nutrition and chemicals is a fascinating, and sobering look at some giant questions about food.  Amy Kalafa wrote Lunch Wars as an extension and a companion to a documentary she filmed, questioning the “school food environment.” Not just the nutrition of the food being served in schools, but also the lessons about food and nutrition.

Kalafa’s research and activism began on the personal level, reacting to what her daughter and friends were eating for lunch. But, Kalafa’s outrage and activism got larger, expanding to take on her school district, and travel to other schools and towns. Ultimately, the book is a guide for other activists wanting to take on school food and nutrition. Kalafa gives sample templates for school wellness plans, press releases to get the word out, making this a useful and informative guide.

I read Lunch Wars as an e-book. Because of how much I underlined, how many pages I “marked,” with the click of a button and a cunning little depiction of a dog-eared corner, I wish I’d read it as a paper book. I think underlined something on almost every page, writing notes like really? Yikes! Would that work in New York? I believe it! Do parents have time to do that? Would real kids go for that? I don’t believe it! Wow, I envy the food these kids are getting! Salad bars and fresh vegetables!

The research and anecdotes she’s assembled might shock you. It’s basically common sense that it’s a good idea to eat healthy food, especially for growing, learning kids. And, it’s becoming common knowledge that there are chemicals everywhere, in everything we eat, more so than ever. Scary, but common knowledge, about factory farms, pesticides, hormones, disease. It’s almost too much to take in, the idea that, even if you eat healthy meals of vegetables and grain and fruit and meat… there’s still the danger of stealthy chemicals undoing all your efforts to stay healthy.

And it’s pretty common knowledge that money is tight: for school districts and parent. One strategy schools have used is to get corporate sponsorship- so kids are having McDonald’s for lunch, or Pizza Hut. And the branded junk food even gets into the lesson plan! It shocked me to find out that actual school worksheets have brand tie-ins. Math word problems counting Skittles! I didn’t know what a Skittle was til junior high. (See above re: health conscious  mother!).

To some degree, Kalafa pays attention to the financial facts and figures of transforming school lunch programs to healthier, locavore alternatives. I read much of the book, just waiting to see how New York city public schools could be worked into the transformation, economically. I’m not sure I’m sold on the feasibility of her argument for every single school or even every single household. Being active  enough in your child’s school lunch program and school board to effect change seems like a full-time job, however worthwhile and necessary that change might be. What about hardworking parents who have to work one or two full-time jobs to provide for their kids? While Kalafa made good points about the urgent need for change, and even set up some good advice about systematic approaches, privilege gets into her logic.

I received the e-galley of this book from BlogHer for the BlogHer Book Club. I am being compensated for my honest review, regardless of my opinion.

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