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What's Wrong With School Lunch?

Everything, say reformers like local caterer Greg Christian.But to change it is to fight the government, agribusiness, and the kids themselves.


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On the first day Greg Christian served lunch at Louisa May Alcott, a public elementary school in Lincoln Park, a student looked at his options and was appalled. "He said, 'Ew, the peas are green,'" Christian says. "The teacher had to explain that's the color they're supposed to be. And a half hour later, another kid walked in and said the same thing. People who think this is going to be a quick fix are in la-la land."

Christian runs the nonprofit Organic School Project, which took over the Alcott kitchen in April. Despite the grand-sounding name, it's basically just him and a couple staffers. A professional chef with his own catering business and a line of frozen organic foods in the offing, Christian has devoted half his time and half his salary over the last three years to a seemingly uncomplicated mission: getting Chicago students to eat better. By this fall, as part of a Chicago Public Schools pilot program, the OSP will prepare breakfast and lunch at Hammond Elementary in Little Village as well as Alcott, and in January it will add McCorkle Elementary in Bronzeville. The group will build teaching gardens at each school and bring in students from Loyola's School of Nursing to lead monthly nutrition classes. The OSP's plan is to work in each school for a few years, then move on to others, leaving its menus and programs in the hands of administrators.

The kitchen at Alcott has changed a lot since the OSP came in. The fridge is filled with frisee, radicchio, cherry tomatoes, and roasted rosemary potatoes. Fruit salad used to come out of a can; now it's chopped fresh. Most everything is organic: produce comes from Goodness Greenness, a local distributor, and a lot of the frozen stuff is Cascadian Farm, a General Mills-owned brand. The pantry is stocked with products from Nature's Path, Annie's Homegrown, and Healthy Handfuls, a local snack-food company. A few industrial-size cans of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli, relics from the recent past, languish on a shelf in the corner.

Most of the food the OSP serves at Alcott is cooked on-site from scratch, which is rare at CPS schools. Chartwells-Thompson, a subsidiary of the Compass Group, the world's largest food-service company, writes the menus and supplies the food (much of it canned or frozen) for every CPS school with a kitchen. Schools that don't have a kitchen--and there are 191 of them, nearly a third of the district--serve reheated frozen meals provided by a different vendor, Preferred Meals Systems. The menu the OSP has introduced at Alcott has been an adjustment for staff and students alike. One morning's breakfast included broccoli-and-cheese quiche. "We never did anything like that before," says cafeteria manager Carmen Crespo. "The students didn't like it--they went straight for the cereal. They're picky. They like pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, ravioli, macaroni and cheese."

"There are a few kids who come through the line and say, 'Is this organic? Is this organic?'" says Josephine Lauer, the OSP's director of logistics. "They have an aversion to it. They somehow associate 'organic' with 'healthy'--and 'healthy' having a negative connotation is very bizarre to me." Christian says the trick is to make subtle adjustments to the students' favorite foods over time: "We'll start with what they eat now: cheese pizza," only it'll be from his own organic version. Within a year, he hopes, they'll be ready to try pizza with wild mushrooms.

Christian and Lauer are part of an international movement that believes the best way to combat growing health concerns--in America, obesity and diabetes in particular--is to improve the quality of food served in school cafeterias. "We're experiencing an obesity epidemic," says Linda Van Horn, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern who works on nutrition issues. "And there's no question that children are vulnerable to overeating and excessive calories." According to a University of Wisconsin study released last year, a third of American children and teens are overweight or obese, the highest percentage ever. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control estimate that more than a third of those born in 2000 will develop diabetes (6 percent of the population currently has the disease). For nonwhites the estimates are even more dire: for Latinos, approximately one-half; for African-Americans, just under that.

Reformers argue that nutrition is a subject as fundamentally important as math: teach kids to eat right and many of the health problems they might face in the future could be kept at bay. The root of the problem, they say, is the federal system that's managed school lunch for the last 60 years. But changing that system is infinitely more complicated than getting kids at a school or three to eat their peas.

Christian, 46, didn't set out to become a chef, much less a school-lunch reformer. A math and science geek, he dropped out of Northwestern during his sophomore year to take a job at the Midwest Stock Exchange. On the weekends, just for fun, he started making omelets at Nielsen's, a Scandinavian restaurant in Elmwood Park. "I was into it," he says, and the chef, observing his enthusiasm, suggested he go to culinary school. "I ended up at the CIA," Christian says, referring to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York. "I had no idea that world existed."

After he graduated, in 1983, Christian came back to Chicago for a job at the legendary Gordon, where he worked under chef John Terczak, a progenitor of New American cooking who became his mentor. Christian followed Terczak to New York and stayed there for five years, working at Terczak's Cafe Marimba and Safari Grill. He returned to Chicago to open his own restaurant but never got the necessary backing. "Most chef-owned restaurants, the first one is family money," he says. "And I didn't know that." He cooked for a while at the late Star Top Cafe and in 1992 launched Greg Christian Catering, which has been his bread and butter ever since. In April, just as he was getting his feet wet at Alcott, he flew to Georgia to cater the Masters golf tournament.

Shortly after he set up the business, Christian and his wife at the time, Edita, had their second child, Britha. In 2000 the family took her to a specialist for asthma and was told she'd need to take steroids every day for the next decade. As an act of desperation, Christian says, Edita decided that Britha needed to go "all organic and alternative medicine."

He didn't believe it would work, but Britha did get better--she's now 14 and plays high school field hockey--and Christian exclusively credits the change in her diet. "I'll lose an argument with anyone on this," he admits. "'How do you know it was the organics? Maybe she just grew out of it.' I have no idea."

His daughter's recovery inspired Christian to undertake a spiritual quest. "I started traveling to China and Mongolia and hanging out with lamas," he says. "In Mongolia I got worked on by a reindeer shaman." He studied with a Blackfoot medicine man, hoping to become a traditional healer. Then three years ago he joined AA to deal with the drinking problem he'd been wrestling with since he was 17. "The whole time I was drinking, my kids were like, 'This is what I did at school.' And my reaction was, 'I don't care.'" The turning point, he says, was a New Year's Eve concert during which he watched a performer stumble around intoxicated, and thought, "That's me."

At AA Christian was told he had to replace his drinking with something else. "And at first I thought, That's a bunch of crap," he says. "Three months later, after watching every blockbuster and eating more Ben & Jerry's ice cream than anyone--butter pecan--I thought, I need something else." So he started researching organic agriculture. "The realization rushed in: Mr. Fancy Pants Chef doesn't know where his food comes from. I felt like an idiot." Having seen the improvement in his daughter's health, he believed organics would benefit other kids as well. Plus, he wanted to do something "selfless" to atone for his drinking, and cooking was the only thing he could think of. "I'm a food guy," he says. "I'm not anything else."

The roots of the modern school-lunch movement can be traced back to 1995, when Alice Waters, chef at Chez Panisse and the doyenne of local, seasonal, organic eating, planted the Edible Schoolyard garden at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley. Nowadays its loudest advocate is probably Ann Cooper, the Renegade Lunch Lady, a former fine-dining chef who remade the cafeteria of the ritzy Ross School in the Hamptons in 1999. Two years ago, after consulting with public schools across the country, Cooper was hired by the Berkeley Unified School District (as part of its School Lunch Initiative, a public/private partnership with the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Chez Panisse Foundation) to transform the food at 16 schools. Her counterpart in England is Jamie Oliver, the Naked Chef, whose 2005 "Feed Me Better" television campaign caused such an uproar that the British government pledged an additional £280 million over three years to improve school lunches.

Christian says the Organic School Project wasn't influenced by any of these prominent reformers. "I didn't research anybody," he says. "I just sat in my meditation room and thought about what makes sense." His guide was Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, who he says inspired him not to judge the big companies and agencies that control the food industry. "There's a place beyond right or wrong, like Rumi said."

This attitude is what sets Christian apart in the movement. At a speaking engagement in Chicago last fall, Cooper condemned the USDA, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, for caring more about agribusiness than the health of American children. "I hate the USDA and I want to sue them," she said. "They're poisoning our kids." (She wants the school lunch program transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services.) Oliver so brutally criticized the Compass Group that when the company's profits declined in 2006 CEO Mike Bailey partially blamed the "Jamie effect."

Christian hates the Jamie Oliver approach. "He never talks to the parents," he says. "He never gives the kids a choice. And then he makes one-sided sensational documentaries." Oliver's attack on the Compass Group means that "now they're real suspicious of Greg Christian in Chicago." He doesn't like Alice Waters or Ann Cooper either. "Waters is going around America and basically what she's saying is, 'Get rid of the food-service companies.' I understand the revolutionaries are needed to make things happen, but their holier-than-thou attitude, it kills me. It's all about win-lose." And playing win-lose against corporations is stupid, Christian says. "Change isn't going to come from the revolutionaries. It's going to come from Kraft. It's going to come from McDonald's."

From the beginning, Christian has admitted that he doesn't have a specific plan for changing the larger system. He thinks that's up to people with more power and money than him. "Let me figure it out halfway and let them figure out the rest," he says. He believes the big guys will ultimately step up because they want to. "We all have unconscious guilt about our current situation," he says. "The fat, asthmatic African-American kids--we want to help them."

Christian approached CPS CEO Arne Duncan with his idea at a meeting of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children in 2005. With Duncan's permission, he then pitched 25 schools: "It was no, no, no, no, no, no. Not even close." But after reading an article on Christian in May 2005, Alcott principal David Domovic came to him. "I couldn't get on the phone fast enough and say, 'Come here, mister,'" Domovic says.

Christian began teaching occasional nutrition classes at Alcott almost immediately. But to get into the cafeteria, he had to get the blessing of Chartwells-Thompson. "I go in and say, 'I honor you, Chartwells-Thompson,'" Christian says. "I volleyed over the net in the first meeting: 'You're doing the best you can do. I know that. And I could never do what you do.' That sort of thing, you know." Equally important, he says, was not calling his food healthier. "It's more positive," he says. "To the big companies, their food is healthy."

Christian soon landed two other schools: the Chicago Botanic Garden, which he'd recruited as a partner, courted McCorkle Elementary on his behalf, and Chartwells-Thompson and CPS suggested Hammond. The OSP's education component--which includes nutrition, meditation, and yoga--has been in place at all three schools all year, but Chartwells-Thompson only gave the organization the final go-ahead to take over the kitchens in December. So far, Christian says, the company has been "very hands-off. But everything goes through them."

Lauer joined the OSP staff in November. A food and beverage coordinator at the Park Hyatt, she'd read about the OSP in the local press and was so inspired by the concept that she quit her job to work for Christian full-time, even though he wouldn't have the money to pay her until January. The staff also includes a fund-raising director and a soon-to-be-hired education coordinator, who will work closely with teachers in each school.

But the OSP is heading into the next school year cash-strapped. Even with recent grants from the Newman's Own Foundation and Chicago Community Trust and donations from Whole Foods and individuals (including Christian, who says he's put up at least $50,000 himself over the last two years), the organization is still trying to cover next year's all-inclusive million-dollar budget, which covers food and possible additional staff to help out in the kitchens. "Raising money is harder than I thought," Christian says. At one foundation, he was told, "Somebody already did gardens in Arkansas. What else you got?"

Though he's always had a great degree of faith in the OSP, Christian seems a bit less naive these days. When he first approached foundations and donors, he says, "so many people told me, 'Get back to us once you're feeding.'" Now he intends to go back, vindicated. And he was wrong in thinking the Fortune 500 would line up to help. Coke told him no; so did Walgreens. He never got anywhere with Kraft and still hasn't approached McDonald's. Now, he realizes, "I really need to know somebody. They're not going to say, 'We've been waiting for you.'"

Each school day, 634 CPS schools serve an average of 299,139 lunches and 84,200 breakfasts, dished out and eaten in periods as short as 20 minutes. Eighty-five percent of those meals are free or discounted. "It's a very complex operation," says Louise Esaian, the district's director of food services. She just started three months ago, and as the person with final say over what 300,000 children eat almost every day, she'd like to see improvements as much as any activist. "I would love to see longer lunch periods," she says. "I'd love to see breakfast become a part of every school day." But "we have very limited funding for this program."

Free or cheap school lunches might seem like a basic right today, but when Harry Truman originally proposed the idea in 1946, it was regarded as just another welfare scheme. To make his case, Truman had to stress how his plan coincided with other objectives. Young people called up by the army were failing their physicals because of malnutrition, so Truman argued that feeding them while they were in school was a matter of national security. Moreover, there was an agricultural surplus that had to go somewhere, and if released onto the market it would depress the farm economy. The National School Lunch Act, which established the National School Lunch Program, gave the schools free agricultural surplus and compensation for every meal given away so long as they met certain dietary guidelines. It also provided a small contribution for every full-price meal sold, which gave upper-income districts an incentive to participate, and paid for kitchen construction and cafeteria staff.

In 1966, the program was expanded to include breakfast, but beginning under Jimmy Carter's administration and continuing under Reagan's (which famously tried to classify ketchup as a vegetable), funding was dramatically cut. Wealthier school districts, whose students largely paid for their own lunch anyway, dropped out and created profitable a la carte programs, often hawking fast food. Eligibility requirements for those districts that continued to participate were tightened. School kitchens were neglected or not built at all, and food increasingly arrived processed and premade.

For the current school year, students from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level ($26,000 for a family of four) qualify for free meals. Families with incomes up to 185 percent ($37,000 for a family of four) qualify for reduced-price meals, which are capped at 40 cents. The amount that the federal government reimburses a district for each free lunch is $2.42. The federal contribution is the bulk of any district's lunch funding; at CPS, it's 85 percent of the budget.

Once staff salaries and overhead are subtracted, the amount that a district like CPS spends on food alone is shockingly small. The average price paid to Chartwells-Thompson for lunch is 93 cents; the average for breakfast is 82.2 cents. It's a measure of how stretched school-lunch funds are that food-service contracts are sometimes as precise as a hundredth of a cent: Preferred Meals gets an average of 97.85 for lunch and 66.84 for breakfast. And yet these are competitively bid contracts: even on these low sums, food-service providers make a profit.

Tight budgets make the donated agricultural surplus precious. The commodity program, as it's known, is by now a massive price-stabilization effort responsible for almost a billion dollars in purchases each year. It's heavily biased toward meat and dairy products: if farmers produce too much ground beef, schoolchildren eat a lot of ground beef. The Chartwells-Thompson menu for CPS, which stays pretty much the same throughout the year, is heavily influenced by what commodities are available. The company places its orders through CPS every February (it can't order from the USDA directly) and finds out in June what it will get for the next school year. Corn, green beans, carrots, and peas, all canned or frozen, are usually available year-round, but for fresh produce the pickings are slim: this year the price of oranges rose due to a freeze in California, so neither fresh oranges nor orange juice ended up as a handout. "We try to buy all the USDA commodity vegetables we can," says Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson. "There isn't a whole lot."

Current school-lunch nutrition guidelines, which are based on USDA guidelines, set targets for protein, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, and calories. No more than 30 percent of total calories can come from fat, less than 10 from saturated fat. But so long as cafeterias are meeting those criteria, they can serve whatever they like. This month, for instance, Chartwells-Thompson is serving a whole lot of turkey: turkey hot dogs, turkey bologna, turkey ham, turkey pastrami, turkey salami, turkey-sausage pizza, roast turkey with gravy, and turkey and cheese sandwiches are all on the menu at least twice. Pork is off-limits in CPS--for religious reasons, says Bloomer--so turkey, which is low in fat and infinitely moldable, takes its place. Tony's frozen pizza is served once a week. Vegetables could be celery sticks, vegetarian beans, collard greens, peas, or confetti vegetables. Occasionally there's a tossed salad. And the nutrient analysis for the week is always averaged out and printed on the menu.

Chartwells-Thompson doesn't operate its own kitchen, so the company outsources its meat preparation: Tyson, for example, handles all the chicken. As a condition of its contract with Chartwells-Thompson, the Organic School Project outsources it too. Its raw meat is cooked according to Christian's specifications by Food Services Professionals, which caters Chicago's Catholic schools. The facility is USDA inspected, which Christian thought would reassure both the company and the district.

So far Bloomer seems satisfied, if not overwhelmed, by the job the OSP is doing at Alcott. "I think it's been reasonably successful," he says. "I've learned a whole lot about organic food, which I didn't know very much about before. I've even started buying organic meat." But he does think there should be more "variety" on the OSP menu--and he admits that what he means by variety is more hamburgers and hot dogs.

"We're feeling pressure," Christian says. "It's coming from the cafeteria staff, the older kids, and from Bob. We're trying to hold the line." But according to principal David Domovic, sales of breakfast and lunch at Alcott are up 30 percent since the OSP took over. Last week the staff even sold out of ratatouille. "I'm trying to keep Bloomer cool and say, 'Look, we're running out of ratatouille,'" he says.

Perspectives Charter School, an expanding network of public schools with locations in the South Loop and Calumet, treats healthy living as a fundamental part of its identity. Its lunches are cooked from scratch on-site and its menus, which include dishes like pozole and chickpea salad, are created anew every month. This year it introduced a program that lets students eat breakfast in their first-period classes. On the surface it looks like a model school lunch program. It isn't--it costs way too much money.

Last year, the cost of each meal at Perspectives was about $5, approximately twice what the schools were reimbursed and three times what it charged any students paying full price. "The model we have has worked on a small scale," says Marc Arakelian, who runs Perspectives's cafeterias. "To do the same kind of food as we expand to ten schools, it's not sustainable." Arakelian, who was hired last summer to bring meal costs down, says what's served in the future will be as good, just more efficient and cost-effective.

When Christian was developing the OSP, he was adamant that his model be affordable and replicable. But after doing the math, he's no longer so sure. Of the 92 cents Chartwells-Thompson receives from CPS for lunches at Alcott, the company keeps 40 cents for soap, disposables, and management. The rest goes to Christian. But he's spending more than four times that amount just on food. "It's costing me over $2 a day for lunch," he says. "Is that replicable? No. The rich-kid schools will buy it. The poor-kid schools--whatever the politically correct way of saying that is--I hope to someday have a foundation they can get a grant from."

Despite increased public scrutiny, there's less cooking in CPS these days, not more. New schools are built with reheating facilities only, and fewer kitchens mean fewer cafeteria employees, whose union salaries eat up the food-service budget. It's a trend that Rochelle Davis, the executive director of the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, disparages. "That's not what I would call progress," she says.

The New York City Department of Education took a very different tack several years ago, hiring an executive chef, upgrading cafeterias, and introducing more plant-based meals. "We've really gone through a revolution in school food," says Eric Goldstein, chief executive for school support services. The cafeterias were redesigned to look more enticing, less institutional, with new features like rotating bars: salad, pasta, burrito, etc. Ingredient costs are higher and spending is still in excess of government subsidies, but Goldstein says the system is so much more efficient, with so many more students participating, that the department is better off financially than it was before the changes were made.

Last year the Oak Park school district kicked Preferred Meals--the company that services CPS schools without kitchens--out of its elementary schools. "It just didn't seem like they wanted to work with us," says Ellen Pimentel, the president of the parent-teacher organization at Beye Elementary. She and others met with Preferred Meals officials to request lunches with less fat and sodium and more fruits and vegetables and even drew up a mock menu from ingredients Preferred said it had in stock. Almost nothing changed. "It was a very frustrating experience," Pimentel says. (Company officials declined to comment for this article.) Next year the elementary schools will begin serving food prepared in Oak Park's high school cafeteria.

The USDA has included several school food initiatives in this year's farm bill. Over the next decade the agency wants to shift $2.75 billion of commodity purchases toward fresh produce and to purchase $500 million more of it, period. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in D.C., says she's skeptical that the powerful beef and pork lobbies will stand for that. The USDA is also moving to apply its latest set of dietary guidelines, which call for more whole grains and fruits and vegetables, to the food in school cafeterias. But though those guidelines were issued in 2005, Wootan predicts this will take several more years. "They're moving at a glacial pace," she says.

Rochelle Davis of the Healthy Schools Campaign says even these changes are "nipping around the edges" of larger problems. "There are some structural barriers that need to be addressed and most of those are not school-level decisions. You need to change the reimbursement rate." The federal school lunch program costs approximately eight billion dollars annually; Ann Cooper, who only aims high, wants to double that. More modestly, the Healthy Schools Campaign is studying how slight of an increase schools need to significantly improve food service.

Money may be an insurmountable obstacle, but it's far from the only one. Even more fundamental is the question of how a movement centered on a good and healthy diet can catch on in a society where food is valued for its convenience. "The fact is, schools function like a lot of our homes do, relying much more heavily on processed food," says Davis. For Yom Kippur last year she made soup from scratch and her guests were shocked. "It's like, 'Did you peel the butternut squash?'" Janet Poppendieck, a sociology professor at Hunter College who's writing a book on school lunch, thinks the central question is whether what we feed schoolchildren will be a reflection of American culture or a challenge to it. "My transcripts are full of food-service directors saying, 'If they don't eat it at home, they won't eat it at school,'" she says. "But I think schools are pretty much the only place in American society where we could make a concerted effort to create a healthy food counterculture."

Still, as a New York Times Magazine cover story pointed out last fall, studies have not actually shown that school food that is less processed and more plant-based is measurably more healthy. Not only does Chartwells-Thompson meet all the USDA-dictated dietary requirements but by this fall they'll have voluntarily eliminated trans fats. "We know all this stuff intuitively," Ann Cooper has said about the benefits of the food she serves, "but no one's ever proved that it works." The movement's next goal is to change that. The Center for Weight and Health at the University of California at Berkeley and the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute are running separate multiyear studies on the effects of Cooper's work in the city's public schools. As part of the OSP pilot program, Deepa Handu, a professor of nutrition at Benedictine University who works on obesity and type 2 diabetes, will conduct a study measuring changes in weight and waistline as well as grades and attendance.

In the meantime, activists are learning to speak the public-school lingua franca: testing. Healthy Schools Campaign staffers encourage district food-service directors to couch the argument for better food in terms of "providing an environment in which kids can succeed"--in short, to argue that better food will improve test scores. In Oak Park, Ellen Pimentel says she framed the issue as "our kids won't succeed if they don't eat well. That was our sell, not to be crass about it. That's how schools think." When Greg Christian was unsuccessfully pitching the OSP to a couple dozen schools, he says the response he always got was "How's this going to help the grades?"

Christian will be out of Alcott, McCorkle, and Hammond after three years, but he hopes to make enough of a mark in that time that his project will spread to other schools, like a meme. He doesn't know what the program will look like once he hands it over to administrators, but he fully expects that "it'll get watered down." Even so, he says, "I can only think that there's going to be a significant impact. It has to add value. Don't you think?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Greg Christian at Louisa May Alcott School photo by Lloyd DeGrane.


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