New White House Chef Supports Healthy School Lunches

January 30, 2009

By Lindsay Muscato, HSC Writer/Communications Specialist

Healthy school lunches have a new champion in Washington now that the Obamas' new chef, Sam Kass, reigns over the White House kitchen. A New York Times blog post spotlights Kass, a longtime chef and Chicagoan, and excerpts a talk last spring when he voiced strong support for reforming school lunches.

Kass also gave a shout-out to Healthy Schools Campaign that day: HSC School Wellness Director Jean Saunders spoke at the same event, and Kass said HSC was “doing groundbreaking work in creating a healthy learning environment of which food is a central component.”

An excerpt from Kass's talk in May at “Rethinking Soup,” a community panel discussion at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum:

Providing our children healthy food at school, it is easy to say but a monumental challenge to realize. I will quickly give a lay of the School Lunch landscape as it stands, and then let's hear from our guests.

Malnutrition stemming from the Great Depression had disqualified many potential soldiers from being eligible to fight in World War II; this legacy was still vivid in the minds of our leaders as the U.S. began preparing for the next fight against the Soviet Union. In response, the government launched the National School Lunch Act as a means to boost overall health and nutrition of the population in 1946. Today the program serves about 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools feeding 28 million children a day.

The National School Lunch program also serves another vital role in our agricultural system. The government subsidizes various agricultural industries, creating overproduction in commodities such as beef, pork and dairy. This overproduction depresses prices, endangering the vitality of producers. The U.S. government purchases the overproduction it has stimulated and then disposes of the excess by giving it to schools. In return for the government donation, the schools have to ensure that the lunches reach basic nutritional requirements as set by the government.

In 2003, U.S.D.A. spent $939.5 million dollars buying surplus commodities for School Lunch. Two-thirds of that bought meat and dairy, with little more than one quarter going to vegetables that were mostly frozen; and we should not forget that potatoes are the top selling vegetable in our country. The problem that arose is that between 80 and 85 percent of schools fail the basic government standards for the percentage of fat in the lunches due to the food it supplies schools.

There are a couple major repercussions of this program felt by our children. The first is their ability to learn. There is overwhelming evidence that confirms that additives of colors and preservatives common in lunchroom food hinder a child's ability to learn. In addition, the abundance of high fructose corn syrup in lunches and snacks has been shown to have a direct link to the attention deficit disorder epidemic.

The second is physical health. According to the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine and the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, by 2010 nearly half of the children in North America will be overweight or obese.

Type 2 diabetes is the new name for adult onset diabetes; the name was changed due to the fact that children are now suffering from this form of diet-induced diabetes. Indeed, the youngest generation might very well live substantially shorter lives than their parents due to diseases related to obesity.

So it is in this context that the speakers who have joined us today spend their lives working. With us is Josephine Lauer from the Organic School Project, which is now working in six schools trying to cook fresh healthy food for students in Chicago; Jean Saunders from the Healthy Schools Campaign, which is doing groundbreaking work in creating a healthy learning environment of which food is a central component; Stephen Menyhart, the brilliant chef of Perspectives-Calumet Charter School; and Angela Mason, coordinator of school and community gardens for the Chicago Botanic Garden.

HSC looks forward to working with the Obama administration to ensure that every child has access to fresh, healthy school meals and a learning environment that promotes wellness.

Learn more: