Once or twice a month I eat lunch at a nearby place where the food is, like at many Bay Area restaurants these days, mostly organic and locally sourced. I can assemble a salad of fresh and roasted vegetables, and fill a bowl with either homemade chicken noodle or a daily vegetarian soup, like carrot ginger or Mexican red lentil. The daily special might be falafel or curried vegetables; a popular item is the pesto chicken sandwich and of course pizza’s always a hit (I like the goat cheese and sundried tomato). Fresh fruit is offered daily and home made desserts, like chocolate banana bread pudding, are available every Friday.
The atmosphere’s not great — linoleum tile floors, plastic dishes and paper napkins — and it’s only open weekdays between 11 and 1. It’s flooded with sunshine, though, and there’s a cheerful mural on the wall. The food’s free for me, but I don’t get to eat until I’ve helped serve over 300 very noisy young people — because of course I’m writing about my sons’ school cafeteria. But I’m also talking about some of the most delicious and varied food I eat every month.
My boys, as I tell them regularly, are incredibly lucky with their school lunch program. It wasn’t always this way. My husband went to the same school, in a time when on hot dog day one lucky kid was served a rubber hot dog, which meant free seconds and a bag of chips. I always wonder how many kids bit into that rubber hot dog (and how many of them took two bites before realizing their mistake). The school, like most schools, used to house vending machines full of sodas and candy. But then gradually — and not without difficulty or complaint — things changed. The vending machines were banished. The white bread gave way to whole grain. Bagels and cream cheese disappeared (though some persistent kids still ask for them, every single day). The cooking staff is winning over the students one by one, offering tastes, inviting feedback, and encouraging the kids to help out in the new, basketball-proofed playground garden.
Best of all, every day my kids participate in a food program that supports, rather than undermines, what we are trying to teach them about food at home. They are learning where food comes from, how it’s grown, and when it’s seasonal; they are learning about food additives, nutrition, and health; they are learning to ask questions not every child is encouraged to explore at home or at school.
Eleven-year-olds Sadie Hope-Gund and Safiyah Riddle are two inquisitive kids encouraged to ask enough questions to inspire their earnest and comprehensive documentary, What’s On Your Plate?, a documentary about kids and food politics directed by Sadie’s mom, Catherine Gund (2010). What’s On Your Plate? starts with a summer trip to the Ohio countryside, where the city girls are amazed by a farmer’s market vegetable: “This is the best cherry tomato I’ve ever had!” Sadie exclaims; “Why was it so good?” She asks her mom, “Where did you get these cherry tomatoes?” The girls’ questions continue and build; they are fueled by motivations both personal (Sadie’s genetically-linked high cholesterol) and more global: their curiosity about the connection between food and health, about family farms versus corporate agriculture, and about all the complicated factors influencing people’s food choices.
The pair covers a lot of ground in the film. They hang up a felt map of the world and cover it with Velcro-backed stickers showing where food is grown and how it’s transported from farm to market. Their home state of New York grows apples, corn, carrots and loads of other staples — their cloth stickers overwhelm the state’s boundaries — but a line of smog-belching truck and boat stickers shows how much the state also imports. They visit a science class where the students measure how long a variety of snack foods can burn, and how much energy they give off as they do: a walnut burns steadily for over a minute, while a Funyon flames out in a puff of fire and smoke.
They meet a New York state carrot farmer who thought it’d be great to feed the city’s school children (previously eating California carrots) and struggles for over two years to produce a product that will meet state and federal regulations. They visit — and work with — the Angels, a young family of five who farm rented land in Goshen, New York, and are still struggling to make a living with their farmer’s market sales. They talk to Anna Lappé, the author and cofounder of the Small Planet Institute (whose mother, Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet was a staple in my mother’s kitchen bookshelf), about corporate food production, a casual conversation — despite the weighty topic — filmed while they all sit comfortably on a bed, a cat twining itself around their legs.
They interview the Manhattan Borough President and the school district’s executive chef, challenging them a bit about the Snapple machines in the public schools. The men defend the decision, pointing out how much money Snapple has given for school athletic programs, but they’re clearly not proud: “It’s what it is,” one sighs. The girls don’t push too hard, but I doubt even Michael Moore was an aggressive interviewer at age 11; instead, the film cuts to a student buying a Snapple while in voice-over the girls say, “The sign on our school Snapple machine says ‘Made from the best stuff on earth,’ but our science teacher says even 100% juice is mostly empty calories. We’re all for doing sports, but kids can’t run on empty calories.”
I can’t imagine two more engaging guides through this thicket of food issues than Sadie and Safiyah. They’re smart and energetic, moving easily from adroit conference room interviews to little-kid leapfrogging down a sidewalk. And when we see Sadie in the doctor’s office, smiley and relieved at getting good news about her cholesterol count, I got a little teary at the sight of this slim and athletic girl who has to worry far too early about how her diet affects her health. But the scene also illustrates what the film does so well: it addresses serious issues about food and nutrition, but always from a kid’s point of view. So I’m looking forward to watching What’s On Your Plate? again, this time with my own kids.