“Lunch Ladies” by Mas Masumoto

Viewpoints: ‘Lunch ladies’ are on the front lines of teaching children good nutrition

By David Mas Masumoto
Special to The Sacramento Bee
Published: Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012


I want to honor the hands that feed our kids, especially those hands that prepare school meals.

At many California schools, there’s a return to the ritual of preparing and cooking. It’s a quiet revolution that began years ago with the banning of junk food and sodas. Schools now work to serve something real instead of processed or prepackaged, hoping to revive the tradition of preparing meals for our children. And it’s making our children healthy.

Don’t underestimate the impact of school meals. Imagine changing the menu of your city’s largest restaurant that serves thousands every day. That’s the typical school lunch and breakfast program – and in some cases even supper. For example, 45,000 school meals are served daily in the Sacramento City Unified School District and 55,000 in Fresno Unified.

In many cases, schools provide the only solid and nutritious daily meal a child may receive. Today, there’s a growing movement afoot: Those hands that prepare the food are instilling an old but now new attitude that the things you eat can make you healthy.

Part of a national USDA program, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act reforms school meals, instilling new nutrition standards and funding. The program provides new guidelines for increased consumption of fruits and vegetables; lowering sodium, saturated fat and calorie limits; adding more whole grain foods; and serving only fat free or low fat milk.

Some have grumbled as kids are forced to change eating habits. Students have protested over lower calorie standards and claim “they are starving.” But it’s the larger picture I’m interested in.

When it works, school food service programs are creating a memory. Gone are the nightmares of school lunches from decades ago with awful canned beets and green beans, or mystery meat shepherd’s pies. Today, eating is not a passive act of cramming what looks like food into your mouth to keep your stomach filled. At an early school age, children can begin to connect the dots between making good food choices and health. This becomes an educational lesson: Children learn that they can control their own well-being.

It’s as simple as adding a salad bar at a school cafeteria: Students have the option to choose between various fruits and vegetables. It can transform a generation and its eating habits.

School meals help train future decision-makers. Eating is an agricultural act because it’s about real food. It involves choices and judgments. When children equate food with health, they become partners with good farmers who care.

I witnessed kindergarteners pause at lunch to decide between a green salad, cucumbers, garbanzo beans or a small plum. Little did they know they were beginning to make fundamental decisions that they will live with for their entire life. Children will begin to create an array of good food experiences, healthy alternatives that become gems in the pile of junk food that typically permeates the world of youth.

As a farmer, I’m overjoyed to see children pay attention to their food. Nutritious food can excite the senses as children explore a sensory relationship with the world. School meals can become the training ground that empowers a generation to see the food world differently: It redefines what is good food and that it comes from farms and ranches. A new agriculture embodies the marriage between good health and good food, something adults have embraced. Why not our children too? Meaning matters, even with food.

I want children to mature into active eaters, not passive consumers. My greatest fear is that a generation grows up and doesn’t know what great tasting foods are like. If it never had something great, how does it know what it’s missing?

In a similar way, if kids never eat healthy, how do they know what they’re missing? If they grow up with lousy diets, are out of shape and overweight, they may never know what a healthy body feels like. They many never know what good health means; and then, how do they know what they’re missing? Healthy diets can lead to healthy bodies and a health consciousness.

School food workers are the caregivers for this generation. However, like many caregivers, they are underappreciated. They work quietly, field complaints and hear few compliments. They are invisible because like educators, their impact can’t be directly measured by dollars and cents. And there are no API test scores for healthy kids. Too often the world ignores the work of caregivers.

Yet they are skilled as financial wizards, making due with a lunch budget under $3 or less per meal. They manage thousands of meals a day for perhaps some of the pickiest eaters in the nation. For the most part, school food workers are not paid well. They work in teams, mostly women, and labor behind counters and in antiquated kitchens as their craft is squeezed into shorter and shorter lunch hours. Welcome to the world of “lunch ladies” who feed our children.

Still they inspire. As a parent, as a farmer, and as someone who hopes for a healthy future, I thank them.