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JBF Impact News: Why You Should Stand Up for a Better Back to School

Katherine Miller

August 23, 2017

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In her latest dispatch, our senior director of food policy advocacy Katherine Miller describes the ongoing fight to improve school food, from ingredients in the cafeteria to how students in need are treated by peers, teachers, and officials.

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All across the country, families are preparing their kids to go back to school. Gathering up school supplies, getting new outfits and uniforms, and figuring out what activities they will have this coming year.

In the food world, this time of year also means that some chefs are publishing new back-to-school menus for students who bring their own lunch, such as JBF Award winner Alex Guarnaschelli, who recently shared her ideas for a quick and easy turkey sandwich with green apples.

Unfortunately, not every family has the luxury of packing their child’s lunch. For more than 31 million school-aged kids each year, free or reduced school lunch is the only option. (There are millions of kids who also rely on breakfast and a nutritious snack at school, too.)

Helping schools make these low-cost, simple meals delicious and nutritious is a priority for many chefs around the country. The Chef Ann Foundation, founded by chef Ann Cooper, works with school districts around the country to move salad bars into schools, help teach from-scratch cooking to school food professionals and even help parents advocate for better school meals.

Making sure that kids get a nutritious meal at school is so important. It helps make sure they have the energy to learn; it can also help reduce obesity rates and ensure that kids are healthy and able to participate in school life.

Thousands of chefs around the country including Hugh Acheson, Charleen Badman, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Giusti, and everyone who participates in campaigns such as No Kid Hungry are also looking for ways to do more than just change what students are eating. These chefs are working to teach kids basic life skills, to get more local produce into schools, and to support programs to help reduce hunger in America.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue recently said, “hungry kids cannot learn. I don’t mean to sound so profound…that’s simple and basic, and it can get lost in the conversation.”

Regardless of different opinions of what foods should be available, it seems that we’re all in agreement that school meal programs are important. And yet Congress has not expanded the program in several years.

It is also surprising—and profoundly disappointing—that both kids and their parents are being shamed for participating. Under federal law, kids can eat for free if a family of four earns less than about $32,000 a year or at a discount if earnings are under $45,000. Kids whose families earn more are eligible for reduced-cost meals, but even those might be too high a price for some: over the course of a year, some families end up with small levels of school lunch debt.

Instead of working with families, many school districts have used shaming tactics that include denying kids meals, offering them different items (the cheese sandwich of shame), and publicly humiliating them. In 2014, the Department of Agriculture issued a study showing nearly half of all school districts in the United States used some form of shaming to compel parents to pay bills.

In some cases, school officials have stepped up to stop the use of these tactics. State legislatures, and now Congress, are proposing ways to protect students. New Mexico was the first state to outlaw shaming tactics; the USDA recently issued new guidelines for school districts; and a bipartisan group in Congress introduced the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act in May of this year.

Our voices are needed here, too. Kids shouldn’t dread going back to school. To prevent this kind of disrespectful behavior, support expanding school meal programs, and promote life skills in schools, we need to engage with our elected representatives. When government feels broken or inaccessible, it is actually the perfect time to reach out and start conversations with members of Congress about these important issues.

We hope you’ll stand with us, and the millions of children and their families, who are headed off to school in the coming weeks in support of a nutritious, delicious school lunch that will help them get through that first day, and all those to follow for the school year.

For more information about the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 or any of the other things mentioned here, please follow us at @JBFChefAction or through our Impact Newsletter.

Learn more about the JBF Impact Programs.

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Katherine Miller is JBF’s senior director of food policy advocacy. Find her on Twitter.