Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How Rome Changed School Food

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

It didn't happen in a day, but Rome completely changed the food it serves in its schools, from pre-packaged, factory made meals to food cooked daily from scratch for all 160,000 of its public school students.

Here's a great, 27-minute film explaining how school officials in Rome accomplished the switch from factory meals to food made from fresh and largely local, organic ingredients. It took a determined food services director and lots of political will power. A coalition of local caterers (including Sodexo, the international food services giant) was brought on board to work within the schools budget. Kitchen staff had to be trained how to cook. Local suppliers had to be brought into the loop gradually.

Parents also are involved. They form "kitchen commissions" that routinely visit school kitchens to make sure ingredients are fresh, kitchens properly maintained. They also routinely visit cafeterias and taste the food. Kids get lots of soups and pastas made with fresh vegetables. They sit at tables laid with fresh linens and eat off real plates, using real cutlery.

In Rome, every child 14 and under receives a hot meal in school. One thing they don't get is a choice about what to eat. They also are not allowed to bring snacks or meals from home. Teachers are expected to sit with their students for lunch to encourage good eating habits.

This kind of school meal service is costly. Rome spends nearly $7 for each lunch, about $1.70 for ingredients. In the U.S., the federal government pays $2.68 for a fully-subsidized lunch. Most schools spend less than $1 on ingredients. But in Rome, parents pay half the cost. Italians see more expensive school meals as an good investment against the price of treating diseases caused by obesity.

But even in Italy, kids are influenced by the junk food culture that surrounds them. Some things they refuse to eat, and teachers are discouraged by how much food kids leave on their plate, to be thrown into the compost bins. (At least it's composted, not just sent to the landfill.) One-third of Italian seven- to 11-year-olds are overweight or obese. Kids are taught about healthful food habits and good nutrition in class.

This is an uplifting look at how school food can be when everyone works together. There's no reason we can't do that here--is there?

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