To the Editor:
When we talk about issues surrounding school food, it is important to first ground ourselves in the facts about kids and their health. Nineteen percent of American children are obese, and 35 percent are overweight, and the prevalence of overweight or obese children is expected to nearly double by 2030. For the first time in this country’s history, the current generation of children has a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Thirty-two million American children eat lunch at school every day, 1,350 of them here on the Vineyard. What we feed our kids during their school day matters — for their health and for the health of our country. Americans spend $200 billion per year in diet-related health care costs, far more than any other developed nation. We end up paying for what our kids eat — now or in the future.
Unfortunately, under the pressure of shrinking school budgets, the quality of school meals has taken a hit over the course of the past 30 years. One of the ways schools have tried to save money on food programs is privatization: approximately 25 percent of schools in America have contracted out their meals programs to for-profit corporations, including three of our Island schools. These corporations are fundamentally concerned with producing a profit for their shareholders, which often means paying workers the least amount possible and sourcing the least expensive ingredients available.
In a time of economic recession and mounting pressure on school budgets, it’s easy to understand why money has been cut from school food. Does it cost more money to use quality ingredients and to pay workers a living wage? Yes. But if we are going to help our children value the importance of eating well and empower them to rise above the troubling trends in children’s health, we as a community need to make an investment in what we choose to feed them at school.
Over the course of the past four years, Island Grown Schools has teamed up with school chefs, administrators, parents, teachers, farmers, and students to bring fresh, healthy food to Island children. Together we have increased the amount of locally grown produce in school meals by thousands and thousands of pounds each year, brought gardens to every school, decreased the amount of processed foods in school meals, and helped local children get excited about eating vegetables they didn’t know they liked.
While increasing the quality of school food has been a true community effort, no one has been more dedicated to this cause than the hardworking school chefs. Cooking school meals is an incredibly demanding and difficult job, and trying to use fresh ingredients, rather than canned or frozen, is more labor intensive. Food service workers from every school have donated time and gone above and beyond their job descriptions to make these changes possible.
In a continuation of the efforts to improve school food on the Island, momentum has grown to move away from corporate control over our schools’ meals programs. The community has come together in wonderful, innovative ways to create the opportunity for community-managed, scratch-cooked, hot, healthy meals at the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools. If up-Island voters approve next year’s school budget, the West Tisbury School kitchen will be renovated, enabling it to make an estimated 500,000 meals over the next 25 years for the next generations of up-Island children; corporate control of the up-Island meals program will end; and four local people will be paid a living wage to cook for these children.
The desire to move our food service program away from corporate control is courageous, groundbreaking, and necessary, for our children and for the chefs who cook school food. But while Chartwells is a massive corporation, the people who work for Chartwells on this Island are Island people. They live here, they are our neighbors, and they are dedicated to making the best food they can for the kids they serve, under challenging circumstances. Keeping a distinction between the corporation and the local workers is important as we continue to work together to bring living wages to these workers and the best possible food to our kids.