Sowing the seeds of the food revolution 

Reforming school lunches

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If you've been watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution airing Friday nights on ABC, then you know the problem with school lunches: all too often processed, frozen foods get slapped on a plate, and kids gobble up a heaping helping of fatty, salty, manufactured products. It's cheap, filling, and — most importantly — meets the government's guidelines for the National School Lunch Program. And it's feeding an epidemic in the U.S., where one-third of our kids are obese.

Oliver's show centers on Huntington, W. Va., where the obesity levels are at epic proportions, and he is attempting to reform the entire culture, from the school lunchroom to the home kitchens, where moms are serving fast food and Big Gulps to their families with no sense of guilt whatsoever. Of course, to make the TV watching good, he's battling all kinds of people including a stubborn lunch lady and an angry talk radio host.

Watching this program has me thinking about my kids' lunches. The war against crap in the lunchroom started many years ago in the local schools in Charleston.

In 2005, Jonathan Sanchez wrote a City Paper cover story called "Fat Kids: Overweight, undernourished, and at risk for major health problems. Are public schools helping or hurting this growing epidemic?" and dug into the Charleston County School District's menu and competitive food offerings (the fries, nuggets, and pizza that are offered to middle and high schoolers willing to pay the extra money for such food).

He also looked at the controversial Pepsi contract and what was being offered at Stall High School, a school that serves a low-income population of kids who were coming to school hungry. A caring school nurse, concerned about the kids eating food that wasn't nutritious, helped reform the offerings at the school and even convinced the principal to do away with sodas in the vending machines, replacing them with juice and water.

Today, while the schools in Charleston are feeding kids a menu of chicken tenders, mac and cheese, corn on the cob, carrot salad, and a fruit cup, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Julie Paradis will be taking part in a roundtable discussion with school and state officials at the Francis Marion Hotel.

Paradis will be talking about the Obama Administration's efforts to improve the Child Nutrition Act with officials from the Department of Education, Department of Social Services, Department of Health and Environment Control, and the Director of Nutrition Services from 12 to 2 p.m. today in the Calhoun Room.

Expect to hear even more about the childhood obesity issue in the coming weeks. Michelle Obama has launched her Let's Move initiative, and the Obama Administration formed a Childhood Obesity Task Force last week. The goal is to solve the childhood obesity problem in a generation. And the USDA's role in the school lunch program is just one component of solving that problem.

Of course, Jamie Oliver's revolution is airing when the school lunch reform movement has finally gotten some traction nationally, and he'll present his petition to a sympathetic advocate in President Obama. As for Charleston, you can be comforted knowing that advocates like Dr. Ann Kulze have been sowing the seeds of the school food revolution here for years.

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