Mom and documentary filmmaker Amy Kalafa is passionate about what your children eat. And what they’re not eating.
Her documentary Two Angry Moms describes the alarming decline in American nutrition — particularly in America’s public schools — and offers help for parents who want to do something about it.
After the movie was released, she fielded similar emails over and over: How can I improve nutrition in my own child’s school? How can I get involved?
Those constant requests pushed her to write a book, Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health, which was released last month.
The book describes failures in school nutrition programs and startling statistics about the health of U.S. children — and then offers grass-roots solutions.
Kalafa will sign copies of the book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at A Real Bookstore, 113 Prairie Road, Fairview. I spoke with her by phone in advance of her visit; here are excerpts.
You call yourself an “Angry Mom.” What makes you angry?
It started with frustration. I started speaking with a lot of parents. They all said they are angry. These were parents who wanted to take an active part in this issue.
You think, “Why don’t I just go to the school and help them?” Then we run into The System. Then we find out it’s not so easy. The more you learn about the system, the angrier you get.
I realized that the school was undermining the work I was doing at home. They were teaching my child that it was OK to make a lunch out of Rice Krispies treats and a bag of chips. Then you start finding out about marketing forces controlling what goes in the cafeteria, you get angrier. It’s more like the ballpark or state fair than a healthy food environment.
What has made The System so difficult?
A lot can be traced to how the school lunch program started in America, at the end of World War II. The federal government had been subsidizing farmers for a hungry Army. The war ended, and we kept subsidizing farmers and put food in schools. It is very successful in reaching almost every schoolchild in America.
Over the years, the government has cut back on regulations, and school districts have to break even or make money on lunches.
The food aspect of public education has fallen prey to business people who say they know how to do this better, cheaper. The healthy part fell away.
Now we’re a nation where children’s health is imperiled. This is the first generation in our nation’s history that is predicted to live shorter lives than their parents.We have to look at how we look at food.
What are some simple steps that parents can take right away?
Go to the school cafeteria and have lunch with your child. Organize with some friends. Go in a group. Let the food service director know you’re coming.
While you’re there, ask to see a list of ingredients of anything that is processed, packaged, not made from scratch — which in most schools is everything. When you see artificial flavorings, colorings, sweeteners, speak to the food service director. Ask about finding better replacements for those things.
There are fun things to help raise the food IQ of every child. You can start a school garden. Volunteer in the cafeteria and guide kids in their choices. Set up a table and experiment making smoothies with different fresh fruits.
Have chefs volunteer in the classroom. Have kids look at a vegetable, taste it. Connect local farmers with the school.
How much of a child’s nutrition is the family’s responsibility vs. the school system’s responsibility?
Food businesses and school superintendents will say it’s up to the parents. The USDA will say it’s the parents’ role.
It’s absolutely the parents’ role first and foremost about food and choices on the budget available. It’s certainly not the school’s role to undermine parents or teach them lessons that really contradict the work parents are doing.
Like “Eat whatever you want. Throw away food. Eat in 10 minutes. A giant cookie is fine for lunch.”
Then parents have to be vocal on their own lessons, correct?
There are things parents can do to affect policy. Showing you care helps. You can give detailed specifications of what we want in the food and what we don’t want in the food.
What should the whole school food environment be like? What are kids eating on field trips, athletic events?
We want to have our choices and education echoed by the community we live in. It’s about each community making it a priority. Just like parents get involved in bullying and guns in school. You say, “My child is in danger here. What’s going on here?”
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.