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It's time for lunch -- school lunch, that is

August 25, 2009 |  7:46 am
SchoollunchThirty million children eat school lunch every day. A pretty big captive audience, and plenty of healthy-food advocates want to see some changes in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.


So what do food people do when they want to make a statement? They do it with food, naturally. Slow Food USA has organized "Time for Lunch," a campaign to draw attention to school food. Around the country, almost 270 pot luck "eat-ins" are planned on Sept. 7, in schools, community gardens, parks, homes and other spots. One goal is to get 20,000 people to sign a petition to the federal government asking for changes in the school food programs.

“We want to tell the story of America coming together to demand food that’s good for their kids,” said Slow Food’s president, Josh Viertel.

For Viertel and others, that means more fresh fruits and vegetables and more federal money for schools to buy food -- many child nutrition advocates would like to see $1 a day per child more -- reimbursements are now less than $3 for each free lunch a cafeteria serves.

One of the Los Angeles events will be at 4 p.m. at Fancifull Fine Food and Baskets, on Melrose Avenue near Larchmont. Computers will be available for people to sign the Slow Food petition, and there will be cooking demonstrations for children by Homegirl Cafe. People are asked to bring a dish to share.

Other eat-ins are planned in Elysian Park, Culver City, Highland Park and elsewhere around L.A.

Many educators now see the cafeteria as a part of a child’s learning, and food services officials are listening to students’ opinions about food they’re served, said Matt Sharp of California Food Policy Advocates. And decision-makers are tying what kids eat at school to their long-term health and to the costs of treating conditions associated with obesity, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

“The huge increase in obesity got attention, scared policymakers, government health officials, nutritionists and budget people and understandably, and correctly, the quality of what kids were eating became a huge issue over the last seven years,” said Jim Weill, president of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center.

“The deal is pay now or pay later,” said Susan Rubin, founder of the advocacy group Better School Food.

Expanding the school breakfast program is a priority for many. Starting the school day hungry, experts say, affects children’s ability to behave and to learn. About 15% of schools that offer lunch don’t offer breakfast (1,200 schools in California, according to California Food Policy Advocates), but even in schools that have breakfast, many children would rather play or don’t get to school early enough to eat.

School food comes under the Child Nutrition Act, which is up for reauthorization every five years, and this is one of them. The legislation also covers summer and after-school food programs; food served at many day care facilities for children and adults; and WIC, the special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, which provided food to more than 8 million people in 2007.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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