Celebrating Food Day 2014 with a Kid-Run Farmers Market

I’ve written many times on this blog about Recipe for Success, an innovative Houston-based, “seed-to-plate” educational program that brings gardens and cooking literacy to schools.  I used to be a classroom volunteer for the organization and it was inspiring to see kids tentatively try — and then enthusiastically gobble up — the fresh produce they’d grown themselves.

marKIDS handmade signToday I wanted to let you know that Recipe for Success is now offering comprehensive, free resources to help children around the country sell their school- or home-grown produce at a kid-run farmers market.

The 58-page, downloadable “farmers marKIDS” curriculum has five lesson plans which teach kids all about marketing, financial literacy and the value of locally-grown produce, as well as downloadable templates that can be used for signage, price lists and more.  It’s a remarkably complete guide that can be easily incorporated into your school’s existing curriculum.

The farmers marKIDS program had its debut in several locations in Houston last week in celebration of Food Day 2014, and although it can be used any time of year, it will be promoted nationally each year from October 20-26th to coincide with future Food Days.

Here are some photos from one of last week’s kid-run farmers markets:

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Children’s Book Review and Giveaway: “Eat It! Food Adventures with Marco Polo”

It feels like too long since we’ve had a book giveaway on The Lunch Tray!  Today I’m  pleased to give TLT readers a chance to win a free copy of a beautiful new children’s book designed to get young readers excited about cooking, eating and trying new fruits and vegetables.

eat it marco poloEat It!  Food Adventures with Marco Polo is the brainchild of Gracie Cavnar, founder of Recipe for Success.  As you may know from reading here about my experiences as a volunteer with that organization, Recipe for Success offers school kids a wonderful “seed to plate” curriculum that changes the way they understand, appreciate and eat their food.

Consistent with that mission, Gracie’s book follows Ottavio Fornero, a young member of Marco Polo’s expedition, as he discovers new foods through a journey  along the Silk Road.   Accompanying the story are 36 easy and healthy recipes for you to try with your child, as well as a medieval world map showing Polo’s actual expedition routes; glossaries of cooking terms, techniques, and utensils; an extensive illustrated history of the ingredients; modern adaptations; and historical trivia. It’s a gorgeously illustrated book I know you and your child will enjoy.

For a chance to win the free copy of Eat It! Adventures with Marco Polo, just leave a comment below by 6pm CST, tomorrow, March 7th,  to enter.   You can tell us all how you help encourage your child to try new foods, or you can just say hi.  I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing.   I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too.

Good luck!

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Some Good News from My Own Backyard

The Houston Chronicle had an article yesterday describing some promising children’s health/anti-obesity initiatives going on right here in Houston schools, including Recipe for Success, the “seed to plate” organization for which I volunteer monthly, along with HealthCorps and Activate for Kids.  While these innovative programs unfortunately can’t reach all the kids in our almost 300 schools, at least we can learn from them what works in leading kids to make more healthful choices.  [One notable omission from the Chron’s piece was the very worthy Marathon Kids program, also operating in some Houston schools.]

And speaking of Recipe for Success, I thought I’d share some photos from last week’s “Iron Chef” competition in which our fourth grade class divided into groups and had to prepare a dish — a quinoa salad we’d made previously – from memory. It was lots of fun, and gratifying to see how much the kids remembered from the year we spent together:


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Wasabina, Daikon and More! Cooking With the Kids from Recipe for Success

Last week I volunteered, as I do every month, with Recipe for Success – a comprehensive “seed to plate” instructional program that brings gardens, cooking, nutrition education and celebrity chefs into local schools.  I don’t always post about my experiences with R4S, but last week’s class was so fun I wanted to share.

Instead of meeting my assigned fourth grade class at its elementary school, as we usually do, we all gathered at t’afia, an innovative Houston restaurant which uses only local foods.  T’afia is the brainchild of Monica Pope, a much-lauded chef (James Beard nominee, Top Chef Masters contestant, etc.), R4S Board Member and classroom volunteer.  Our assignment was to make Monica’s Winter Vegetable Slaw which we would then enjoy along with a full meal prepared by the t’afia kitchen.

One of the things I like best about volunteering with R4S is sharing information with kids about food — exposing them to new produce and herbs, exploring new flavors and then talking about what they like and don’t like.  But this time around the kids weren’t the only ones learning:  I encountered a vegetable I’d never even heard of before,”wasabina,” a leafy, peppery green with a slight wasabi taste.  I also learned how to properly sprout my own grains and seeds, something I’ve been interested in trying.

Back in their elementary school kitchen, the kids use plastic serrated knives for chopping.  At this class, though, they were given real ceramic blades to cut up all the root vegetables and between being a former lawyer (just think of the liability!) and a nervous Jewish mother, I was not happy about this situation one bit.  (I kept urging the kids, “Use your bear claw!”  “Tuck your fingers!”  I’m sure they thought I was crazy.)  But with the help of R4S Chef Alyssa Dole, my group did beautifully and no digits were lost in the process.

The slaw was delicious, as was the rest of the meal — gourmet sliders on soft rolls and Monica’s signature chickpea fries with spicy ketchup.  And, as always, I was amazed at how receptive the kids were to trying all sorts of unfamiliar foods, even strongly flavored vegetables like the wasabina and daikon radishes, along with sprouts of all types.

Of course, not all kids are fortunate enough to have programs like Recipe for Success in their own schools, but such programs do demonstrate that giving children hands-on experience in the growing and cooking of food is invaluable.  They become more open to trying new things, they acquire sorely needed nutrition education and they’re exposed to a wealth of information and experiences they would otherwise miss out on.

I’m so glad to have the chance to volunteer with this program – it’s as enjoyable for me as it is for the kids.  Stay tuned for future Recipe for Success photo montages — here’s the one from last week:

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My Son Learns to Cook, But Who Is Teaching the Rest of Our Kids?

Lately my nine-year-old son has shown some interest in helping me out in the kitchen, so I recently enrolled him in a five-day cooking class.  On the first day he was reluctant to go but when I picked him up a two hours later he was positively brimming with excitement, eager to tell me (and later my husband) every detail about what he’d cooked that morning.

I assumed his enthusiasm would wane when the class ended, but that hasn’t been the case at all.  Here are just a few of the dishes he’s prepared for us (mostly or entirely by himself) in recent days:

(L-R: brown rice sushi; scratch-cooked tomato soup with homemade croutons; stir-fried chicken with cashews; summer fruit ripple; orange-scented iced cookies)

Meanwhile, while my son has been busily cooking away, a lot has been going on in the blogosphere that has me thinking about the issue of cooking literacy and kids.

When I commented last week on Mark Bittman’s proposal to tax junk food and subsidize healthy foods, I noted that the presence of cheap rice and beans and vegetables in every local convenience store, while great in the abstract, is no guarantee that Americans — long accustomed to fast food and convenience food  — will have the knowledge or desire to prepare those foods. Then, coincidentally, the next day I reported on a new study indicating that kids are getting more of their calories than ever from food cooked outside the home.  I also shared the news that Americans rank dead last among twenty nations surveyed in terms of time spent cooking (a factoid that Mark Bittman retweeted and which got shared all over Twitter that day).  Meanwhile, inspired by my Bittman post, Bri of Red, Round or Green wrote a great post on the decline of home cooking, and then a few days later Andrew Wilder of Eating Rules (one of my new fave blogs) also wrote an excellent piece urging his readers to eat out less and cook more.

It’s not like I’m just waking the importance of home cooking, of course — that’s been a regular topic on The Lunch Tray since its inception.  But the question of cooking illiteracy among America’s kids is really troubling to me.  For those kids not lucky enough to learn cooking by osmosis at home (unlike the kids of most Lunch Tray readers, I’m guessing), who is going to teach them?

Home economics classes have generally gone by the wayside.  And while there are many wonderful organizations around the country giving kids hands-on cooking experience (Purple Asparagus, featured here last week, and Recipe for Success, with which I regularly volunteer here in Houston, are just two), I’m enough of a realist to acknowledge that even these laudable, private efforts can’t possibly reach every child in the country who needs them.

In the winning essay I wrote for Slate’s anti-childhood-obesity Hive, I laid the responsibility for basic cooking instruction at the doorstep of public schools.  I wrote:

. . .  while we’re working to restrain harmful messages from corporate America, we also need a complimentary, wholesale effort to provide every school child in America with a basic course in food literacy.  Just as schools have stepped in to teach hygiene, sex education and driving skills (all “extracurricular” topics once taught only by parents), they can also provide bare-bones information on nutrition and cooking, arming kids with critical information about the effects of their own food choices and how to eat healthfully for life.

But in another context (criticizing Jamie Oliver, not responding to my Slate essay), school food reformer Dana Woldow once left this comment on TLT:

. . . if the people of this country want nutrition education taught in schools, then it needs to be one of the tested subjects, because education in this country has devolved to the point where the ONLY material that gets covered is that which will be on the standardized tests. . . .

I am all for nutrition education; I truly believe we will get nowhere with getting kids to eat better in school just by changing the food – kids need to have some skin in the game, and the best way for them to get it (and JO does do this quite well) is through nutrition education. But seriously, pretending that it is the fault of the schools that the current teach-to-the-test mania doesn’t allow time for frills like nutrition ed, is beyond ridiculous.

As a public school parent of two, I can’t deny the truth of what Dana says here.  With drastic cuts to education budgets and with the current, relentless focus on test scores, asking for widespread cooking education in schools right now seems hopelessly naive.  And putting aside the question of limited time during the instructional day, many schools lack the facilities to even cook their own school meals, let alone teach cooking to students.

So what do you think about all this?  How do we teach kids from non-cooking homes to be able to cook for themselves as adults?  Is it fair to turn to the schools to meet this need?  Are private groups the answer?  Would a public health campaign make any difference?

Whatever your thoughts, it seems to me that the ability to cook our own food is critical to taking responsibility for our health.  When we completely cede the cooking to processed food manufacturers, restaurants and take-out shops, we may get convenience and delicious flavors (read: heavy on the salt, sugar and fat), but the price — as evidenced by our declining national health — is just too high.




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TLT Watch Party: Episode 3 of Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution”

After a hiatus of several weeks, the third of four episodes of this season’s Jamie Oliver “Food Revolution” aired last Friday night.  As with the first two episodes (links below), I’ll provide a quick recap and my take on the show and then you let me know your thoughts and impressions.

The show opened with Deno, the owner of a burger joint whom J.O. has been imploring to offer healthier fare.  In this episode, J.O. offers Deno $30-40,000 worth of new restaurant equipment and a promotional push on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show (Seacrest is an executive producer of Food Revolution) if he will change the meat in his patties from the product he now uses (of unknown origins and possibly pink-slime-containing) to meat that Jamie procures from one of “LA’s best butchers.”  The cost of the change, we learn, will be thirty cents more per burger and the hope is that if Deno makes the switch, other fast food places will follow suit.

Deno’s resistance to this change struck me as a little trumped up — he moans and groans about it for half the show but then he asks his fry cook to try the new meat (which, by the way, already proved really popular in Episode 2) and when the fry cook likes it, he says that’s all he needed to know before agreeing to Jamie’s deal.  So if that’s true, why did he wait so long to do the taste test, and is he also forgetting that everyone loved the taste in Episode 2?   Whatever.

Next we return to West Adams High School where J.O. has been banned from the school kitchens (and from even talking with students about school food) but he is allowed to work with a team of ten culinary students.  (BTW, at the end of the last episode we were told ominously that JO had been banned by the LA school board from even filming in West Adams, yet here we are again with cameras, so not sure what’s up with that.)  Jamie has his students cook a meal for 150 West Adams students, with the supposed goal of eventually getting this little band of ten inexperienced cooks to prepare meals for “one thousand” students.  (Really?)

The meal they prepare looks delicious and wholesome – chicken drumsticks, whole grain macaroni and cheese, a green salad and a fruit salad.  J.O. makes no mention of the cost of this meal but one student later alludes to the fact that it’s made “at the same price” as the school meal.  I would LOVE more info on that claim, and would point out the rather obvious fact that even if the food does cost the same as the LAUSD school meal, all that fresh food is being prepared for free, by unpaid student labor.  Try asking LAUSD workers to forego their paycheck while preparing labor-intensive meals from scratch ingredients and see what happens.

J.O. seems to be under the impression that he can serve this food to West Adams students in or near their cafeteria, since he says something along the lines of, “I want them to see what we’ve got and what they’ve got.”  When some LAUSD official instead directs Jamie and his culinary team to the back of the school, Jamie claims to be shocked and devastated, calling the development a “bombshell.”

Now this is one of those instances where I can’t help but feel that viewers are being manipulated.  Maybe Jamie really is surprised here, and his later tears at a parent meeting about this development do seem genuine.  But a quick Google search yielded this California state regulation which indicates that foods offered by students during the school day need to be pre-approved by the governing board and cannot be food prepared on the school premises, as was the case with this lunch.  (I’m going to ask Dana Woldow, San Francisco school food reformer, for her take here in case I’m reading this incorrectly.)

But if there really are state rules (or union rules, which were also alluded to) that prevented Jamie from distributing his food, shouldn’t an advance person in his production team have thought to investigate a little before filming?  Anyone with even basic knowledge about school food would know that most states have rules regarding competitive food sales on campus, and, indeed, here in Texas, Jamie would definitely not have been able to bring his food into or near the cafeteria.  Had he done so, the school could lose its entire federal NSLP reimbursement for the day.

Then we get to the part of the show I liked least.   Jamie decides to introduce Deno to Sofia, the young West Adams student we met in Episode 2, whose entire family has been devastated by diabetes.  Jamie claims he is introducing Sofia to Deno to show “what inspires him to get up every morning,” but in reality, he is putting Deno in an extraordinarily uncomfortable position (I was literally squirming while watching this segment) and is implicitly blaming Deno and his ilk for Sofia’s family’s poor health.

Now, readers of TLT know I’m not above a little governmental regulation to improve public health, but like my more politically conservative readers who commented in the GOP kerfuffle last week, I found myself screaming (in my head – my kids were asleep), um, hello?  What about personal responsibility?  Why is no one talking to Sofia’s parents, who by Sofia’s own account last episode, continue to serve fried food in the home at least twice a week, despite the fact that their youngest daughter developed diabetes at age ten? No doubt that practice stems from ignorance and/or poverty, not malice, but let’s go ahead and address those problems, not make Deno seem like an evil monster.  Moreover, I readily acknowledging that our fast food culture (replete with restaurants like Deno’s) does play a role in our nation’s obesity problem, but I fail to see how improving the quality of Deno’s meat and making a few other seemingly minor changes to his menu will do the trick.  More on this below.

Jamie then exposes the shocking lack of food knowledge among West Adams high schoolers by asking them to identify the source of their food.  I was willing to give the kids a pass when a few of them thought butter came from corn (they probably eat margarine at home, which many refer to as “butter,” and which often has a corn logo on the tub), but even I was shocked when they thought honey came from bears and chocolate came from a chocolate lake.  Wow.

To educate them about processed food, Jamie creates an ice cream sundae to graphically illustrate the origins of certain food additives.  For example, to illustrate where L.-cystine comes from, he tosses human hair and feathers into the bowl.  For the shellac on the shiny candies, he tosses live beetles into the bowl.  The kids are suitably grossed out.

TLT readers may recall that an almost identical lesson (replete with feathers and hair) is used by Recipe for Success here in Houston to teach kids about what is in a Hot Pocket (“Deconstructing a Hot Pocket to Teach Kids About Nutrition.”) When I described that lesson on TLT, it was criticized by two readers, one of whom wrote:

I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of harmful “crap” in our processed foods–we most certainly do and I commend the chef for wanting to point that out to the kids. What I do find fault with is equating something that’s IN lipstick to lipstick itself and more or less drawing the conclusion for the kids that their food is filled with lipstick and duck feathers. That’s not teaching the truth–that’s using scare tactics.

I suppose the same could be said of Jamie’s lesson, although I think no one can disagree with the overarching instruction he gave to the students, which was, if you don’t know what something is in the ingredient list, put the food back on the shelf.  That simple instruction, if followed, will set students on a path of much healthier eating.

Next we see the grand re-opening of Deno’s, now selling Revolution Burgers, regular burgers with improved meat, and french fries that have been spun in a new device called the Spinfresh. (For the curious, I did a little research.  According to the Spinfresh site, this centrifuge/fryer reduces fat content in fried food up to 38%, although the reduction can be lower, e.g., 15% for fried fish or 16% for chicken wings.)

Of course, I’d much rather eat at the new and improved Deno’s than the old one, but I still wondered how much of a Big Picture improvement this is.  In other words, if Sofia’s family replaced their current fast food with Deno’s new fast food, would they really see a huge difference in their health?  (Any RD’s out there – please let me know what you think.) Wouldn’t the real solution be for Sofia’s family to just eat less fast food — even healthier fast food — altogether?

The episode ends with a local nurse telling Deno how appreciative she is of his new menu.  Deno is touched by the nurse’s gratitude and there’s a moving moment when Deno describes how generous and caring his late father was, implying that his father would approve of the new menu changes.

OK, that’s a wrap.   Now tell me what you thought.  (And if you missed the episode, you can watch the full video here.)

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Making Veggie Pizza with the Kids From “Recipe for Success”

Last week I volunteered (as I do every month) with Recipe for Success, a wonderful “seed to plate” organization that brings school gardens and chefs to schools.

Along with celebrity chef Monica Pope, RFS Director of Operations Molly Graham and two other volunteers, our fourth-grade class made veggie pizza using ingredients from the school garden.  In lieu of tomato sauce, we made a pesto that included fresh thyme and oregano, and the toppings included kale, peppers, green onions, yellow squash and tomatoes.

One volunteer heard a little push-back when it was time to sample the finished product — too many vegetables! — but it seemed to me when I looked around the table that most, if not all, kids were eating enthusiastically.

For me, the most memorable aspect of this class was when Chef Molly asked my group to identify the fresh oregano.  These children come from an underprivileged population and most educated adults probably couldn’t identify fresh oregano on sight, but it was dismaying to hear my kids shout out answers like “broccoli” and “spinach,” showing a pretty high level of food illiteracy.

Another reason why programs like Recipe for Success are so critical.

I’ll report back after my next volunteer session in April.

Deconstructing a “Hot Pocket” To Teach Kids About Nutrition

Last week I volunteered, as I do every month, with a group of fourth grade students at an economically disadvantaged elementary school participating in Houston’s Recipe for Success program.

For this lesson, celebrity chef Monica Pope demonstrated for the class in a graphic way some of the ingredients in a processed Hot Pocket.  

For example, Hot Pockets contain L-cysteine, which is commonly derived from human hair or duck feathers, so into a bowl went a handful of feathers.  Another ingredient is BHT, used also in cosmetics and jet fuel, so a bit of lipstick was added to the bowl.  You can imagine what the bowl looked like at the end of the demonstration.

Afterwards, the kids made their own “hot pockets” consisting of a pita triangle filled with sauteed kale and diced tomatoes, parmesan cheese, and shredded turkey and arugula tossed in a vinaigrette.  The kids prepared all the ingredients, including the vinaigrette, and both the kale and arugula came from the school’s own garden.

Virtually every child dove right into their creation with enthusiasm, undeterred by the strongly flavored (and maybe unfamiliar) greens and vinaigrette.  (One of the children in my group did surreptitiously flick the kale out of his hot pocket before sitting down at the table, but he was the exception.)  This, of course, is what school garden advocates have been saying all along – if the kids can grow it and prepare it, they’re far more likely to eat it.  And if even a few of these children think twice about eating processed junk like a Hot Pocket (and maybe even share that message with whoever shops for their families), then I consider the session a success.

More on my experiences with Recipe for Success next month.

On a related note, in preparing this post I stumbled upon this artist’s poster, which depicts a Hot Pocket’s ingredients in graphic form.  Stylish, but still scary:

copyright Justin Perricone

[Ed Note:  I’ve learned that Chef Garth Blackburn was the original creator of this lesson plan for Recipe for Success. Want to give credit where it’s due!]

Cooking in the Classroom with Recipe for Success

I mentioned in September that I’d signed up to volunteer with the Recipe for Success Foundation, a seed-to-plate educational program that is the largest of its kind in the country.  (Gracie Cavnar, the founder of the organization, guest blogged here a few weeks ago.)

Late last month, I had my second chance to cook with fourth graders from a local elementary school, along with celebrity chef Monica Pope; RFS Director of Operations, chef Molly Graham; and two other parent volunteers.  We prepared a “1-2-3 Salad” (originally created by Monica) that contained quinoa, feta, nuts, and dried cranberries, all atop a mix of lettuces and dressed with a vinaigrette mixed by the children.

Had I served this salad to my own children, I’m fairly certain that neither would have touched it (both are currently anti-salad, although I can see glimmers of hope for the future.)  Yet the children in my cooking group — all black and Hispanic, most from economically disadvantaged homes, and most having never before heard of quinoa, feta or vinaigrette — dove in and ate their salads with gusto.

What are the long term benefits of such an experience?  Will eating that salad improve their food choices outside the classroom?  Will mixing a vinaigrette make them more likely to want to cook at home, and therefore eat fewer processed and fast foods in the long run?  Recipe for Success would say “yes” to these questions, and I sincerely hope that’s the case.

All I know is, I left the class impressed by what I’d seen and looking forward to our next session.  We’ll be taking a field trip to Monica’s restaurant, t’afia, and doing some cooking there as well.  I’ll report back here.

TLT Guest Blogger Gracie Cavnar Calls for a Boycott of School Lunch

[Ed. Note:  It’s National School Lunch Week (I’m sure you had that on your calendar), yet we find ourselves with the child nutrition act stalled in Congress and underfunded even if it eventually passes.   To send a message to lawmakers, Recipe for Success founder Gracie Cavnar is calling for a national boycott of the school lunch program. Gracie’s guest post appears here, and tomorrow I’ll post my own thoughts about boycotts versus participation in the school lunch program: is it better to starve the beast, or feed it?  Gracie and I may not be in perfect agreement on all points, but we both clearly support the same end:  better school food, the elimination of junk food on school campuses, and healthier American school children.]

Celebrate National School Lunch Week with a Boycott!

Let Your Voice Be Heard

We can no longer sit by and watch our children’s health go down the drain for want of effective nutritional guidelines and quality execution of the school lunch program.  Let the power of the marketplace speak for itself.  I am calling on all parents to send a strong message to administrators and lawmakers by using the National School Lunch Week to boycott school lunches.

Childhood obesity is on the rise, lunch is an important part of a child’s daily nutrition, and National School Lunch Week is October 11-15, yet First Lady Michelle Obama’s child nutrition bill has stalled in Congress leaving school lunches underfunded and missing the mark on good nourishment. We have every right to expect the providers of our children’s school lunches to strive for health, but most fall dreadfully short.  What we get are dismal, monochrome  servings of salty, high-fat, processed food, without an appealing fresh fruit or vegetable in sight.  On top of that, our kids have to run the gamut through an overwhelming array of sweets and junk food that line the checkout isle. Citing funding issues and cost cutting measures, districts poor mouth us and point every way but to themselves.  In the meantime, companies like Revolution Foods are proving that delivering a high quality handmade school lunch with zero processed food is well within the economic reach of most.

Until school lunches get healthier and competing a-la-carte and vending machine junk foods are removed from the school cafeteria, I am urging parents to send a healthy lunch from home.

The RFS culinary team has provided suggestions for a week’s worth of healthy, fun and fresh 
lunches as part of the launch of our “Talking Seed-to-Plate” blog.  These options are affordable, colorful and tasty enough to tempt even the most finicky child.

Please join in the conversation and share your own tips and frustrations at http://www.recipe4success.org/seedtoplate/, where our team of professional chefs and educators will answer questions, and continue to post new menus and ideas for or engaging children in their own well being through activities in the kitchen and garden.

And if you live in Houston, plan to attendLunch Line,” a documentary presented by our friends at  www.thelunchtray.com in conjunction with Applegate Farms.

We must get control of this situation and save our children’s lives.  NOW.

The Lunch Tray Presents a New Documentary: Lunch Line!

I’m thrilled to announce that on Thursday, October 28th, The Lunch Tray, along with Applegate Farms, will be co-sponsoring an exclusive, one-night Houston showing of a new documentary film about the school lunch program — Lunch Line.

Here’s a trailer of the film and a recent review from The Atlantic Monthly.  The film makers, Uji Films, give this synopsis:

Lunch Line reframes the school lunch debate through an examination of the program’s surprising past, uncertain present, and possible future. In the film, six kids from one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago set out to fix school lunch and end up at the White House.  Their unlikely journey parallels the dramatic transformation of school lunch from a weak patchwork of local anti-hunger efforts to a robust national feeding program. The film tracks key moments in school food and child nutrition from 1940s, 1960s, and 1980s to the present – revealing political twists, surprising alliances, and more common ground than people realize.

The event will be held at The Health Museum and will begin at 6:30pm with a reception featuring local and organic refreshments.  Immediately following the screening of the film, I’ll be introducing a panel discussion featuring the film makers along with celebrity chef Monica Pope (Bravo Top Chef Masters and a Food & Wine Best New Chef); Recipe for Success‘s Director of Operations, chef Molly Graham; and Brian Giles, General Manager of Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services.  Lisa Brooks, a writer, teacher and public school parent, will moderate.

Admission and parking are free.   You just have to be one of the first people to RSVP to secure a seat in the theater.  For more information and to RSVP, click here.

Can’t wait to meet some Houston TLT readers in person on Thursday, October 28th!

Recipe for Success: “Seed to Plate” Education

Lunch Tray readers may have noticed occasional mentions of “Recipe for Success” on this site, but I’ve never given a full explanation of what this innovative program is all about.

Based in Houston, Recipe for Success is the largest “seed-to-plate” educational program in the country.  Founded in 2005 by Gracie Cavnar, the foundation has five core initiatives:  (1) identifying and training “Team Nutrition Leaders” at schools to help establish a culture of health on the campus; (2) a program called “Chefs in Schools,” in which prominent local chefs teach 4th graders how to cook foods grown in their own school gardens; (3) designing and building “Recipe Gardens” at local schools, and helping to weave food gardening into the school curriculum; (4) after-school gardening and cooking classes; and (5) gardening and cooking summer camps.

I’ve thought about volunteering for Recipe for Success for a long time, and last week I finally got myself to a volunteer orientation. Starting later this month, I’m going to visit an elementary school on a monthly basis to help chef Monica Pope and other parents teach students how to cook the food grown in their own garden.  I can’t wait to talk to the kids and see how this program is affecting their views about food — its origins, their willingness to try new vegetables, their desire to cook at home and more.  I’ll report back here on what I learn.

I’ve also asked RFS founder Gracie Cavnar to guest blog on The Lunch Tray about some exciting plans the foundation has for its expansion, so look for that in the coming weeks.

Confessions of a Sideline-Sitter

If you’re a reader of this blog you might understandably assume that I’ve been at this rabble-rousing thing a long time, that I’m the type who regularly shows up at school board meetings with a raised fist and a loud voice.

But nothing could be further from the truth.   Until I was asked only a few months ago to put my name up for nomination for our district’s food services Parent Advisory Committee (which I did with great reluctance  — seriously, who needs another volunteer commitment?) — I was perfectly content to just sit on the sidelines and grouse about things I didn’t like (chips and ice cream in the cafeteria, treats in the classroom).  I always assumed that they (the rabble-rousing parents) must be out there somewhere doing whatever needed to be done on my behalf.

Then I met Mary Lawton, a human dynamo (and great cartoonist) who’s been working for six long years to improve school food in my district.   (If you live in Houston and you’re glad that your child can no longer make his/her lunch out of Little Debbie snack cakes, you owe Mary a personal “thank you.”)  And what Mary told me completely shocked me — all that time, while she and a small group of other parents were trying to raise awareness about the food in their own elementary school, the district-wide food services meetings they’d been attending had been virtually empty.   Since it was too hard for this small group to locate and organize other interested parents in the district, they simply did what they could within their own feeder pattern.

All that time, they’d been wondering where we were.

Last week, my talented writer and performer friend Christa Forster left, as she often does, an eloquent and thoughtful comment on this site.  I’ll excerpt here her thoughts about getting involved:

My suggestion — as a parent of public school children and as a former public and private school teacher — is that we individuals who are “outside” school culture (i.e. not administrators or teachers) become invested in whatever ways we can. In order to effect change, the first task is to take the initiative to pull together of sphere of people who are interested and concerned in the same things, and to then start conversing with the schools or feeder patterns in your community about how to help them improve in the areas of your concern. There are some groups already established, like Recipe for Success, where people can get involved in a pre-existing cause. If there is not a group for your issue of concern: FORM ONE. Once you are well-versed on the school needs and culture, take your arguments to the state level and let the representatives know what you want. The more tax-payers “outside” school culture demand changes, the more those decision-makers elected by the tax payers will have to listen. Unfortunately, tax-payers “inside” school culture (teachers and administrators) are not listened to with the same ethos as parents are. Insiders are considered biased, and they also are usually too busy with the work inside their of schools to have time to think about changing the larger culture.

Speaking from personal experience, the simple act of getting off my rear end and joining the PAC  helped me find my voice in ways I couldn’t have imagined only a few months ago, this blog being the most notable example.  So if something is bugging you about kids and food — whether it’s the unnecessary “refueling” with Oreos at the 10 am soccer match, the prevalence of highly processed food on your child’s lunch tray, or the Sunday school teacher who hands out candy for good behavior — speak up and get involved.

The rabble-rousing “they” out there can’t do all the work for you.   It’s only when we join them that real change can happen.

I’ll end with a thank you to every reader who takes a moment to leave a comment on this site.  I don’t always have the time to respond to them individually, but I read every one of them and they often become, as Christa’s did today, a springboard for future posts.

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