Fast-Food Children

Making school lunches healthy is an uphill battle

In 1984, Rudy "Butch" Stanko was sentenced to six years in prison for violating the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Court papers show that his Cattle King Packing Company was not only riddled with rats and cockroaches, but also workers at the facility routinely processed animals that were dead before arrival, hid diseased cows from inspectors, and mixed rotten beef that had been returned by customers into newly packaged hamburgers. Butch had already been convicted on similar charges two years earlier, yet the United States Department of Agriculture continued to buy 18 million pounds of Cattle King's meat for the National School Lunch Program. In fact at one point, a quarter of all ground beef served to America's schoolchildren was coming from Stanko's plant.

Things haven't changed much. The school lunch program's mission is to provide all children with a warm daily meal that meets approved nutritional requirements. But the USDA, which operates the program, has an ulterior and conflicting motive: to subsidize agribusiness and pay back agrilobbyists who have contributed so generously to Washington politicos. So as determined administrators at the David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center in North Miami aim to make the lunch program at their brand-new school more salubrious, it should come as no surprise that their ambitions are being thwarted at almost every turn.


"It's an uphill battle," principal Bernard L. Osborn admits as he sits in his spanking-new office — the Lawrence Center is the first public school to be built in North Miami in more than 50 years. Osborn appears youthful for a principal, partly because he is trim and fit but also because he exudes such boyish enthusiasm as he speaks of teaching students "not just how to read and write, but how to be healthy." Bernard has been a leaden meatball's throw away from one Miami-Dade public school cafeteria or another almost his entire life. Born, raised, and public-schooled in North Miami Beach, he began his teaching career at Little River Elementary, moved onto assistant principal positions at Horace Mann Middle and W.J. Bryan Elementary, and later became principal of Greynolds Park Elementary. Now his own sons are enrolled in the public school system in Broward. Osborn sat and ate with them a couple of years ago in their cafeteria. The food was so bad "it was ridiculous," he recalls. His sons take their own lunch to school.

"If I am going to feed my family at home healthy foods, I'd be a hypocrite not to serve the same at school," says Osborn. "I personally looked over every item that went into our vending machines. By the time I was done, the vending guy was dizzy." Osborn grabs a green apple from a bowl on his desk as we get up to leave for a tour of the not-yet-completed "cafetorium." "You've got to walk the walk" he says, and does so, rather briskly, past vending machines stocked with Soy Crisps, Pita Puffs, baked tortilla chips, Health Valley bars, 100 percent fruit juice, and Gatorade. Sodas are banned from machines. "We don't sell candy. The PTA doesn't sell candy. Our teachers don't give out candy as incentive or reward."

The Lawrence Center's cafeteria kitchen, like its gymnasium, is state-of-the-art, at least relative to other school cafeterias — meaning meals will actually be cooked on premises. Public school food deteriorated during the decades of budgetary cost-cutting that began with the USDA redefining ketchup as a vegetable to help the Reagan administration pare $1.5 billion from the national lunch program. Stoves and other cooking equipment were removed from most schools; prepackaged meals are prepared in centralized kitchens and shipped to the cafeterias, where they need only to be heated in convection ovens.

Truth be told, cafeteria cuisine didn't begin its descent from an especially high perch. Not until 1946, when young men were being rejected from military service because of malnutrition, did Congress approve the National School Lunch Act — and only after it was framed by President Harry Truman as being a matter of "national security." Every weekday more than 28 million youngsters depend on their school lunch for one-third to one-half of their daily nutritional intake (low-income children often eat breakfast and lunch, getting at least two-thirds of their calories at school). A market this size is obviously alluring to the junk-food industry, and not just to generate profits. As John Alm, former president and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, put it: "The school system is where you build brand loyalty."

School children compose an exceedingly impressionable and captive audience, and an increasingly unhealthy one. In just one generation, concerns have shifted from undernutrition to overfeeding — since 1980, obesity has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents. There are now nine million obese American school children; one in four Florida kids falls clunkily into this category. These rising childhood obesity rates have created an epidemic of type 2 diabetes, once considered an adult-onset condition. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other warning signs of heart trouble are likewise rising at an alarming rate in children, yet schools continue to serve the very foods that lead to these diet-related diseases.

Such somber statistics have prompted pioneers like Bernard Osborn to try prying school menus from the fat-fingered clutches of agribusinesses like ConAgra, Kraft, and Coke. He has backing from his assistant principals, cafeteria manager, the local school board, and the school's namesake, education activist and former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr. Yet Osborn's staunchest and fiercest ally in the fight just might be a soft-featured, soft-spoken woman from Mexico City named Nora Kracer.

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