The issue of healthier school lunches is gaining momentum in Evanston.
On Thursday evening, one of two free screenings of the documentary “Lunch Line” was shown to an audience of more than 50 people including Northwestern University students and faculty, District 65 parents and other members of the community. Afterwards, those in attendance discussed issues with the quality of school lunches and possible solutions.
“There are so many ways of coming at this question and this problem, so it’s really exciting to hear different approaches to it,” said Diane Schanzenbach, a Professor at Northwestern University who has done research on school lunches and obesity.
The documentary, which was co-directed by Northwestern graduate Michael Graziano, followed the history and current problems associated with the National School Lunch Program, and the quest of six Chicago Public School students to change the school lunch system for the better. Highlighted was the idea that the NSLP, a social service that brings meals to over 30 million children each day, lacks healthy options for school lunches and is a contributing factor to childhood obesity and malnutrition.
“They don’t see an orange as an orange, they see it as a set of proteins, a set of carbohydrates,” said Northwestern student Victor Fimbres. His statement echoed a point made during the documentary that, according to the USDA standards that all school districts must follow nationwide, a package of Gummi Bears artificially enriched with Vitamin C would be seen as a perfectly viable substitute for a naturally grown orange.
“If it’s cheaper to provide French fries than it is to provide fresh fruit, if nobody is making you provide fresh fruit, than you’re going to do the thing with the higher [profit] margin,” said Schanzenbach.
As solutions to the gap between what is seen as healthy for children and what the USDA deems acceptable were discussed, it was apparent that there is no one silver bullet for the problem. Schanzenbach advocated tighter government regulations and greater incentives for schools to prepare healthy foods, while greater community involvement and more health-focused curriculum were also discussed.
“This is all taking place in an educational setting, and we’re really teaching children not to believe anything, because what they read in the books is contradicted in real life, in their lunch,” said Debbie Hillman of the Evanston Food Policy Council.
Hillman, also an active member of the Evanston PTA Healthy Community Task Force, was confident that a healthier foods movement in Evanston is picking up steam.
“People are creating more of a critical mass. More people are talking to each other and talking about these issues,” she said.
For those interested in learning more or joining in the debate, a second screening of “Lunch Line” will be shown this Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Evanston Public Library. A panel discussion will be led by Hillman, Rochelle Davis of the Healthy Foods Council and District 65 Superintendent Dr. Hardy Murphy after the screening.