From WPA to Michelle Obama's Let's Move, school lunch tackles child nutrition and obesity.

Feeding More Than Student Bodies

by Sofi Thanhauser

Feeding More Than Student Bodies

Elizabeth Cecil

Chilmark School students taste-test local organic carrots from Beetlebung Farm, conventional carrots from the store and wild carrots foraged near by.  

“Jackpot!” shouts Hunter Cleary, hands flying wildly over a cache of string beans he has discovered in the Edgartown school garden. Like a spark on dry tinder, his phrase catches on among the other children, morphing as it moves from one to the next.

“Jackpot! We’re gonna be rich!”

“We’re gonna be rich! We’re rich, we’re rich!”

“WE WIN!”

“They’re so funny,” says Gina DeBettencourt, the food service director at the Edgartown School, looking at me conspiratorially. It is one of the last gorgeous days of September, and she is leading a gardening class as part of the Edgartown School’s afterschool program.

She summons her charges over to the potato patch, and soon all heads are bowed towards the dark earth. As their fingers root expectantly in the soil and close around purple, brown and umber potatoes, Gina challenges them with a running stream of questions. “What are we also doing right now? Right—rotatilling. What do worms do?”

“Make the soil better” says Hunter. “Right.” A couple of shamefaced young gardeners approach, brandishing some uprooted parsley plants that they “thought were carrots.”

“Don’t worry,” says Gina, thinking fast. “I’ll chop it up and put it on the salad bar.” Their faces instantly brighten.

The gorgeous 18-raised-bed garden the children are working in was installed in spring 2009 and watered through thesummer by Gina and melinda DeFeo. DeFeo, the enrichment Coordinator for island Grown Schools, is an indefatigable educator and activist who works with teachers in the school not only to make the garden grow, but to implement curriculum. Her goal is not really to produce a generation of farmers, she says, but of smart consumers who know and care where their food comes from.

After the lesson outdoors, the children bob around Gina in the cafeteria kitchen as she washes dirt off the potatoes. it Is an uncanny scene of industrialized domesticity. the children’s small, soft bodies look menaced by the expanse of stainless steel, but are somehow kept from danger by the invisible tether of Ms. Debettencourt’s authority—one based on attraction, not coercion.

Gina has been feeding the children of the edgartown School for 22 years, ever since she graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, where she excelled in the culinary arts department. She knows their likes, their dislikes. She knows whom she can wheedle into trying a new kind of soup, and what types of persuasion work best on a doubter.

Behind the cafeteria is the small, crowded office where she plans her menus, clips coupons, runs price checks, and wheels and deals with the various food providers she buys from on the island—IFP, SYSCO, Stop & Shop. Working on an extremely tight budget, she applies matronly good sense to her institutional operations. She will buy up all the shrimp in Stop & Shop every time it is on sale, for example, store it in her freezer, and wait until there is enough so that she can put shrimp scampi on the menu.

“I’m going to make roast potatoes for you tomorrow,” she tells the children, gesturing towards the five-gallon bucket that houses the precious fruit of today’s labors. It surprises her, she says, the things the kids will eat if they know they come from their own garden. And they actually do look excited, to a degree that seems unlikely in six- and seven-year-olds, about the prospect of roast potatoes.

Chances are these potatoes, which enjoyed such a short and untroubled journey from garden to kitchen, will be joined tomorrow on the students’ lunch trays by foods that have made a much more harrowing journey. Gina is great at sourcing local—she now gets biweekly deliveries in the spring and fall from morning Glory Farm, just down the road—but just to make her lunch program run, she must accept the commodities offered to her free by the National School Lunches Program (NSLP).

Trucked thousands of miles, the movements of the chicken, rice, beans, grains, and other foods that come free as part of the NSLP are choreographed by a dizzying constellation of private and government agencies including, as unlikely as it might sound, the Department of Defense. The DOD contracts for produce with large agribusiness corporations to distribute to military installations, Federal prisons, and veteran’s hospitals. Since 1995, states or schools have been enabled to place orders with the Department of Defense directly for this produce.

This is a relatively recent development in the story of government action as an intermediary between farmers and schools. In 1946, the School Lunch Act was signed by President Harry Truman, providing for federal assistance to school lunches through cash and commodities donations. The Act was intended to accomplish two things at once: provide food to needy children and prop up food prices by absorbing farm surpluses.

The industrialization of agriculture that has taken place over the past half century in America has eliminated one set of problems and left us with another. When the School Lunch bill was signed in the 1940s ,malnutrition among school-aged children was a major concern. Today, our school children are obese. Obesity rates among children have doubled in the last 10 years and tripled for adolescents.

Processed foods that are nutrient poor, sugar and fat rich, are cheap and accessible as a result of our current methods of factory farming and farm subsidies. American children aren’t starving en masse, but they are suffering from the effects of eating from the industrial food system. Along with obesity has arrived a diabetes epidemic: one in three children born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes—one in two if the child is black or Hispanic, and thus more likely to live in urban poverty, cut off from access to local, fresh produce, and prone to have a diet filled with cheap, processed foods.

Type II diabetes, the most common form of American diabetes, does not exist in non-westernized parts of the world. Our industrial food system produces surpluses, which is something its proponents point to as evidence of its success. But the wide availability of the cheap, un-nutritive food it produces is contributing to a scary new phenomenon: today’s children, for the first time in 200 years, may actually have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

For students at the Edgartown school, learning about where food comes from has less to do with lamenting the deficiencies of American agriculture than it does with simply having fun—experiencing the joys of farming when it’s done on the proper scale: the human one.

As the children leave the Edgartown school cafeteria for the day, there are strange appendages hanging over each one of them. Carrot tops, in all their wild, asymmetric glory, sway above the tops of their backpacks. Gina has sent her students home with carrots from the school garden—three each. “It’s gonna be vegetable soup at my house tonight!” announces Hunter proudly.

“Vegetable soup!” somebody echoes.