Lunchtime Lessons from New Orleans

President Obama's daughters get healthy school lunches. Why don't I? So asked a pigtailed black girl plastered on buses and billboards around Washington, D.C. The White House blasted the political ad, which promoted healthy food options in public schools, as exploitative -- but the little girl's complaint should resonate with an administration that has prioritized healthy eating and food security, from both the East and West Wing of the White House.

In 2006, a group of New Orleans elementary school children, freshly returned from displacement after Hurricane Katrina, took up a similar refrain about public school cafeterias as part of a citywide leadership-development program known as Rethink. Their version: "We hate sporks!"

Initially used throughout the New Orleans Parish school district as a cost-saving measure, the plastic spoon-fork combination was all that remained after Katrina swallowed dishwashing equipment at school cafeterias -- leaving hundreds of students with a bad taste in their mouths. According to a survey of some 500 middle-schoolers, the spork was the most humiliating thing about going back to school. "In Louisiana," said one Rethinker, standing on a chair to reach the microphone at one of the group's awareness-building press conferences, "our food culture means eating with a knife, fork, and spoon." The crowd roared -- and in the summer of 2008, the kids notched a significant policy victory: The state-run New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) wrote into its charter that the sporks would be no more.

The dysfunctional, disposable flatware, however, was just one symptom of the city's bankrupt educational system. During lunch periods capped at 30 minutes, students were also subject to fat-filled, sugary offerings, long lines for food, and "silent" cafeterias used as a punitive measure in crowded, troubled schools.

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The national debate on obesity and health is gathering steam -- thanks in no small part to Michelle Obama's White House Kitchen Garden. The 1,100-square-foot plot grows kale, rhubarb, lettuce, broccoli, figs, and countless herbs. And Obama has used America's youngest generation as a way to draw attention to the massive problems associated with food sourcing in the United States. The first lady, who planted the garden with local fifth- and sixth-graders, believes empowering kids can have remarkable outcomes. They have "really learned some lessons about nutrition," she said in May. "They're making different choices because they're a part of the process of planting and tilling the soil and pulling up the food."

But a better example of progress on food justice comes from New Orleans, where the crop of youths in Rethink have discovered that education and nutrition in America goes far beyond Obama's Washington outreach and picture-perfect plot. As seventh-grade Rethinker Renaldo Herald put it: "We are experts in education. We go to these schools every day."

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Ironically, Katrina offered an opportunity to start afresh. The potential for political reform has grown enormously in New Orleans as a direct result of the storm that ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. The field of education reform has had particular success. After Katrina, all of the schools in the city were either damaged or destroyed, and almost 100,000 schoolchildren were displaced. Families stayed away until 2006 -- flung as far away as Colorado and New Hampshire. Today, innovative charter schools fill the void, developing best practices on education from within a school system that had been among the country's worst. "The idea was here's the possibility to create something that could be great from the ashes of something that was a disgrace to our city," says Jane Wholey, Rethink's founder.

Because students across the nation get two-thirds of their daily food intake at public schools, Wholey and her partners at the nonprofit New Orleans Food and Farm Network saw a huge opportunity at lunchtime. The Rethinkers are committed to the principle that "students not only have the right to be part of the debate on public schools, but they often have things to say that are really interesting," she says. In their early days, they vowed to clean up the graffiti-riddled, unsanitary bathrooms in the schools' crowded buildings. Today, some 300 public school bathrooms have been rebuilt to exacting standards, including a number of cost-saving green measures. On the heels of that success, the Rethinker kids went after the spork.

Initially, the group was criticized for trying to fix toilets and tableware: "Educators said, 'Why aren't you talking about standardized tests and libraries?'" Wholey says. But the Rethinkers argued that the learning environment, which includes cafeterias, is just as important (overall, studies show that students whose diets contain salt and saturated fat do worse on tests than kids who eat veggies).

Today, the Rethinkers have expanded operations to five RSD schools and another three charter schools in New Orleans. They've held more press conferences, and they've written policy briefs on the issues of nutrition, economic development, and the environmental impact of food transport. They've also created a video game, "The Ultimate Lunch Tray," to teach students about healthy choices. In 2008, they visited Grand Isle, a Gulf Coast shrimping community that has been hit hard by the lack of demand for local catch as well as the incursion of Louisiana shrimp cloned in China and shipped back to bayou markets. Working with city government, Rethink persuaded the head nutritionist of the RSD to write into New Orleans' food provider contract that fresh, local food must be used at schools where economically possible.

While the food- and environmental-justice movements generally have a reputation for elitism, these ordinary, mostly African American children prove an exception to the rule: "Their first passion about food," Wholey says, "was not so much that they understand the importance of it from a health perspective -- we didn't even talk about diabetes until this summer -- but that they could actually create a market in the public schools that could save the shrimpers and save the farmers."

We're sticking on the green process," says Isaiah Simms, a ninth-grade Rethinker. The group's imagined "21st-century cafeteria" serves locally sourced food with vegetarian options, stocks biodegradable tableware, and eliminates Styrofoam trays. To take the vision from a green dream to a reality, the Rethink coalition pushed its ideas on important allies like TV chef Rachael Ray and New Orleans Education Secretary Paul Vallas. "This is a really great group," Vallas said at Rethink's most recent press conference. "They are polite but yet they're aggressive. But that's the way the city is."

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Now their model for making change is making waves throughout the national education and food-justice community. The Rethinkers were invited to address the 2009 gathering of the "Farm to Cafeteria" movement in Portland, Oregon, which coordinates around 1,000 other schools. Edible Schoolyard, another innovative charter school program that operates nationwide, has also used the opportunity of Katrina to emphasize sustainability in school food, instructing children in planting, harvesting, and cooking from an organic garden year round.

Both Barack and Michelle Obama seem to support kids' involvement in the food movement. But can the New Orleans example go national? "I don't know if I would necessarily say a national program is our goal," says Jocelyn Frye, director of policy and projects for the first lady, at the White House garden's harvest party. "For the moment we just want to get more people focused on this issue and strategies." The president did emphasize food justice in schools when talking about health outcomes at a recent roundtable at the Democratic National Committee: "One of the things that we are doing is working with school districts," he said. "We provide an awful lot of school lunches out there and -- and reimburse local school districts for school-lunch programs. ... We've got to [get] local farmers connected to school districts, because that would benefit the farmers, delivering fresh produce, but right now they just don't have the distribution mechanisms set up."

Presently, only 37 percent of schools indicate they offer "fresh and local food," while another 21 percent of school districts are considering it. The president ran down the list of unhealthy public school options at the DNC roundtable: "french fries, tater tots, hot dogs, pizza." As these fattening foods remain in cafeterias, recess and physical education classes are being cut -- even with $120 billion in health-care costs related to obesity spent in 2008 and troubling statistics on the life expectancy of today's youth. As Michelle Obama told local sixth-graders at the White House's harvest party: "While the dollar figure is shocking in and of itself, the effect on our children's health is even more profound. Nearly a third of the children in this country are either overweight or obese, and a third will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lifetime."

Despite the promising New Orleans example, it may be hard to change the game in every badly fed school district. But after Labor Day, it's back to school -- and back to work for Congress, which is considering the 2009 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. This provides an opportunity for the whole country to rethink the way students eat in schools. The White House would be well served by focusing on one of many post-Katrina success stories: "You can never have what you had before Katrina," Simms said earlier this year. "But it's just a storm. Now you can try to make New Orleans a better place."

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