Special Issues: Hunger and School Lunch
By Rachael McDonald
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For children from low income homes, school lunch can be the only consistent source of nourishment in their lives. For our special issues series on food and agriculture. KLCC's Rachael McDonald takes a look at school lunch, its nutrition, its value and its future.
It's lunchtime at Shasta Middle School.
Students crowd into the cafeteria and head for the hot food offerings.
Athey: "Today we're serving cheese enchiladas, chicken alfredo, and pizza, chicken nuggets, quesadilla, yogurts with fresh fruit and deli sandwiches."
Teresa Athey is the head cook at Shasta. The kids call her "Mama T."
Athey: "We have lots of fruits and vegetables, fresh."
Athey has been cooking at Shasta for more than 10 years. She says the meals have gotten healthier since Jennie Henchion was hired a couple of years ago. Henchion is Nutrition Services Director at Bethel School District.
Henchion: "I'm a dietician, so I approached this from a nutrition standpoint. But the district was very ready for it and the staff were very nutritionally aware."
Henchion says for some children, school lunch is the only daily meal they can rely on -- which makes nutrition even more crucial. 56 percent of students in the Bethel district are in the free and reduced lunch program. Henchion says the numbers have gone up since the recession.
Henchion: "Hunger is increasing in Lane County and school-aged children are particularly vulnerable to that and some of our schools, the free and reduced percentages is above 70 percent and its very obvious in these schools especially on Mondays. When they come back to school after the weekend that they're hungry. They take a lot of food. I stroll through the cafeteria and I see them, literally licking their plates clean."
Thirteen percent of Oregonians experienced what's called "food insecurity" in 2008. It's when people are unsure of where their next meal is coming from. Jessica Chanay with Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon says studies show children from food insecure households are more likely to suffer from physical ailments, including iron deficiency.
Chanay: "But they're also finding that they're not doing as well in school both in math and reading. Some of the other indicators though is kind of their emotional health. There was a study that came out that showed that teens in food insecure households were 5 times more likely to attempt suicide."
The recession has put people who were already on the edge closer to that precipice. According to the USDA, Oregon ranks 2nd in the nation for hunger, behind Mississippi. In April more than 800 thousand Oregonians were receiving food stamps. Nearly 900 thousand received emergency food boxes. Chanay's goal is to fight hunger by focusing on prevention. That means working to affect public policy.
Chanay: "We really say it's a public health concern. It affects their ability now, in terms of being in school and so forth, but it also affects their future productivity to really participate in society and to do well as a worker."
Chanay says this year's federal reauthorization of child nutrition guidelines for the school lunch program is crucial. The government spends 22 billion annually on school lunch, WIC, food stamps and other programs. Chanay would like 10 billion added over 10 years. But the latest bill which is in the Senate only adds 4.5 billion. Chanay says that's a start.
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley says the timeline for a full senate vote on the bill hasn't been set.
Merkley: "We here in Oregon have one of the states most impacted by hunger. Unemployment puts an additional burden on the family and we have a very high unemployment rate. And so the discussion on reauthorizing this program will be a very important one and I expect to be fully engaged."
Eugene's 4J school district tries to stretch its dollars. The district has 16 thousand 500 students and about 40 percent are on the free and reduced lunch program. Some schools also serve breakfast and an after-school meal.
4J is under pressure from some parents to make changes to the food offered in the cafeteria. Schools are reliant on free food from the USDA commodity program. Nicole Zammit is the dietitian at 4J.
Zammit: "Bottom line is, our program couldn't function without the use of the commodities so like it or not we're forced to implement them onto our menus. But, could the ingredient label be cleaned up? Heck yeah. There's a lot of room for improvement in that area and that's just going to take the USDA working with the food manufacturers and reducing the amount of the additives, preservatives fillers and making it more of a whole product."
Zammit says the main items 4J gets from the USDA are meat, eggs and dairy. Zammit works for Sodexho, a food service contractor. Eugene parent Carrie Frazier is critical of 4J's food. She has a 1st grader at Camas Ridge Elementary.
She and a group of parents have been meeting regularly to discuss school food. They even have a facebook page. Frazier says she would like more whole foods, locally grown veggies and fruits. And something as simple as water offered during lunch. The only beverages offered are milk and chocolate milk. Frazier says usually the kids choose the latter.
Frazier: "There's corn syrup and there's sweeteners in there and so it's not anything I would want my child drinking on a daily basis. I could see as sort of a special treat, but when they're drinking that day after day, I don't think that's the best thing for a child's body."
Frazier is active at her son's school. She helps out in the classroom and with the school garden.
4j, Bethel and Springfield School Districts participate in a project to educate kids about where their food comes from.
Kemple: "That simple understanding is really one of my main goals in the program that food comes from the ground, it comes from a farm someone has to grow it and it grows around here."
Megan Kemple is the Farm to School Coordinator with the Willamette Valley Farm and Food Coalition. Kemple also works to bring more locally grown food to cafeterias. And she brings the students to visit farms.
Kemple: "We're going to be at Lost Creek Farm with Farmer David all morning today and I'm going to give you a few ground rules and then Farmer Dave is going to say hello and tell you about his farm and what he does."
Kemple brought a group of 2nd graders from Clear Lake Elementary to this farm outside Eugene. David Desmond is the farmer.
Desmond: "My name's David and this is a vegetable farm. So when you go to your produce aisle at the grocery store and you're seeing all those different kinds of vegetables. We grow all those different kinds of things here."
The students get to taste cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes and carrots. And dig potatoes.
Elementary Students: "Here's one! I got one!...."
USDA visited Eugene in late May to find out how Bethel and 4j incorporate farm to school programs. The districts were among 15 chosen nationwide. Recently big name celebrities have been getting involved in efforts to improve school food and fight childhood hunger and obesity. Food Network stars Jamie Oliver and Rachael Ray among them. And first Lady Michelle Obama has made it a priority to improve school lunch. She has her own farm to school program at the White House Garden.
With summer vacation around the corner, children from food insecure households have less access to regular meals. There are summer food programs offered by the schools and by Food For Lane County.
Back at Lost Creek Farm, the potatoes get cleaned up. Then they'll be taken back to the school and cooked up in a harvest meal with other farm fresh veggies.
Rachael McDonald:"Was it fun to dig potatoes?
Students: "Ya. Kind of."
Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: FOOD & AGRICULTURE
for photos and more information.