Today’s New York Post has an article about my book, Kid Food, and while I’m certainly grateful for the coverage, I was a bit troubled by the overall impression it may leave readers about the state of school food today.
While America’s school meal program remains in need of improvement, there’s certainly much good news to share, including increased farm-to-school sourcing, districts striving to offer children fresher, more diverse meals, and—most significantly—the resounding success of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in significantly improving the nutritional profile of school meals, without causing students to reject them at any higher rate than before.
That said, a heavy reliance on highly processed foods remains a reality in many districts around the country, including the offering or sale of “copycat” products bearing junk food brand names like Pop-Tarts and Cheetos. Since Kid Food is all about the role of highly processed food in children’s lives, my one chapter on school meals tries to explain for readers the many complex forces driving this reality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the New York Post story homed in on the same topic.
But the story’s headline—”The Shocking Foods Your Kids Are Eating at School”—and the fact that the reporter (understandably) couldn’t include the full context offered in a book chapter, left me worried about how school food professionals would view Kid Food‘s take on this complex issue. And that prospect was troubling to me, as I was only able to write the school food chapter with their generous assistance and candor.
Here’s a letter I posted this morning on a Facebook page widely read by school food professionals. I thought I’d share it here as well:
Dear [forum] friends:
As many of you know, I have a new book out, KID FOOD: THE CHALLENGE OF FEEDING CHILDREN IN A HIGHLY PROCESSED WORLD, which looks at all the ways in which our children are pushed toward the consumption of highly processed food in their daily lives—from restaurant children’s menus to misleading nutrition claims to junk food advertising to children.
Highly processed food is a reality in the NSLP, too, as this group knows all too well. But in the book’s chapter on school meals, I took great pains to carefully explain the WHY of that reality: insufficient federal funding and kitchen infrastructure, your need to compete with the junk food sold in (often illegal) food fundraisers and school stores, the lure of open campuses, the fact that kids’ themselves may reject your scratch-cooked, healthier fare, and so much more.
I was only able to do justice to this very complex topic because so many of YOU, both here on this page and in private communications, so generously and willingly answered all my questions, allowing me to accurately share your challenges with interested readers.
So when I checked my phone last night and saw the particular headline in this story about KID FOOD in today’s New York Post, I worried that those of you who spoke with me would assume that I’d possibly betrayed your trust.
Please know that instead, I wrote that chapter entirely to engender to empathy in the reader for the incredibly hard job each of you do, day in and day out— just as Jan Poppendieck’s wonderful book FREE FOR ALL did for me when I read it a decade ago.
Since many of you may never read KID FOOD, I wanted to share here the section of the book’s acknowledgments that I dedicated to you. Please know these sentiments are deeply felt:
I’m grateful to the many school nutrition professionals who’ve connected with me over the years through my blog, private emails, and the online forum mentioned in Chapter 5. I’ve learned so much from each of you, and while we sometimes disagree, it’s been a particular honor to have earned your trust. Thank you, too, for all your hard work, each and every school day, on behalf of America’s most vulnerable kids. I did my best to describe here the many challenges you face, but any inaccuracies in that depiction are my own.