When I listen to these types of interviews, I cannot help but think how this is mostly a community issue and that we all need to work together to create a systemic change. I believe we can have an impact on the issues facing our society in this area if we focus on both ends of the spectrum—the bottom-up local grass roots level and the top down regulatory and government level. I would like to talk about that theme first, using the conversation with Crystal Fitzsimmons &Lucy Komisar, as a starting point. Then I’d like to expand on some of the key points that they brought up with more specificity.
From the top:
We live in a country where USDA nutrition standards consider(using only a few examples here) pizza and french fries as vegetables—which means they can be served to our school-aged children every day of the week. If that is the standard that we set; if the bar is set at that low a level, then kids are far from safe. No one can re-invent the system overnight, but parents and educators need to step up and say, “this is not helping our children and it must change.”
Here is another awful oversight in our current system:refined foods. None of the school nutrition standards in place today address those at all. Until Congress changes the guidelines, large companies will not change what they serve. We all know pesticides, chemicals and preservatives are horrifically bad for us—as kids and adults. Yet, we treat all fruits and vegetables the same. Do you think peaches that were grown on a farm 50 miles away and picked yesterday have the same nutritional value as those that were picked 6 months ago, shipped half way around the world,dumped into a sugary syrup (most likely high fructose corn syrup) and canned?Take a look at the typical school lunch fare and you will find more of the latter than the former.
Though I think the Let’s Move Campaign is a terrific first attempt at setting a good example, we need to go further and deeper into the system to make wellness, fitness and healthy food options something all kids—of all socioeconomic backgrounds—have access to.
From the bottom:
Companies like Red Rabbit go above and beyond to provide top notch meal programs using local, sustainable food sources—typically at the same price as the current poor quality options found in most schools. Parents and educators are reaching out to smaller companies for all of the above—and something else—education and support of local suppliers.
Through partnerships with local and regional suppliers, we are able to contribute to the health of our local economy and also provide operational efficiencies that translate into savings which we then pass onto our parents and schools through competitive pricing. Other similar organization like City Fresh Foods in Boston,and DC Central Kitchen in Washington DC have made the health and wellness of children and the local community a greater priority than making a profit.
Additionally, by combining healthy meal programs with nutrition and cooking education, we can extend the benefits of healthy eating beyond the classroom and into the home. Local NY based non-profits like the Children’s Aid Society, The Palette Fund and Food Fight (to name a few), are all making a concerted effort to embed nutrition education as a basic component of our education system.
In response to the INTERVIEW with CRYSTAL:
I agree with Crystal that there is a huge need for more summer and after-school programs, but the food quality in the majority of those programs is also questionable. Small companies like ours want to do something about food insecurity but we are often discouraged by all the regulations. We are willing and able to provide healthy food in a safe manner, but someone has to step in and help us navigate the “endless administration and red tape” that surrounds the system.
In terms of packaging and waste, we encourage schools to use a family style approach in place of individual packaging. As adults we have all dined family style or buffet style at events ranging from fancy banquets, to small neighborhood pot lucks, so why can’t our kids in school?This approach typically requires a greater initial effort from the school, so Red Rabbit provides the training and support to help them through it. Teachers don’t think they have options for both healthier food and more sustainable practices, but they do—just look away from large conglomerates that put convenience and profit ahead of our kids’ health,towards local community based organizations.
I strongly counter the assumption made that healthy always means more expensive because we have proven since our inception that it doesn’t have to. Through a careful selection of local and regional vendors, and our commitment to sustainability and streamlined operations, we are able to take the waste out of our business—literally. This enables us to offer far healthier choices to our schools and kids—at, or even below, the federal reimbursement program level. It has been a challenge, but one that we’re proud of.
In response to the INTERVIEW with LUCY KOMISAR:
The relationship between food service management companies and food manufacturing companies is a great topic. If the question is “can a school can provide healthy meals to kids at an affordable rate if there is no rebate offer?”, then the answer is most definitely yes. Do you think districts/schools are aware that they risk reimbursements based on these rebates? Schools and districts should feel empowered to look for options that make their net costs the same—and are far better for their students and kids health. If small providers like us are able to achieve better quality, and healthier options with a commitment to the local economy—let’s not make the conversation about these rebates at all.
I would like to steer the conversation away from the ills of the current system and onto the cure: a dose of good and simple corporate responsibility. Red Rabbit is proud to be an early supporter of the new B-corp/Benefit Corporation. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a new breed of company that ties social benefit directly into their business model. We like to call it “doing well by doing good.”
Bottom line, I recommend a follow-up special segment to discuss solutions not just the issues. We all know that traditional school lunches are bad, that the poor typically get the short end of the stick, and that there is a huge obesity issue in this country. Without effort at the top, and at the grass roots level, like I spoke to above—we are just talking in circles. It is important that people hear about real world solutions and examples, and about who is succeeding in our current environment. It’s a mission that companies like Red Rabbit have had since 2005, well before it was a national trend.