2000s Archive

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

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I ask Father Peter Klink, the president of Red Cloud, why the school doesn’t purchase grass-fed buffalo from the tribal herd just a few miles from the school. “I don’t believe that buffalo meat is very accessible to us, and I am fairly confident that it is not distributed to school lunch programs as a commodity,” he says. “We also have to be very careful about the approval guidelines of the National School Lunch Program and the standards of our own food-service provider. I suspect that with all the needed approvals, serving buffalo would be very expensive for us at this time.” Healthy food—so close and yet so far.

What is not too expensive are bananas from Central America, which hang with Red Delicious apples in baskets around the school. The fruits are part of a little-known federal project that is at the heart of the school’s new commitment to health. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program was slipped into the 2002 Farm Bill by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin as a supplement to school lunch programs at about 100 schools around the country. For most students at Red Cloud, though, this pilot project provides the only fresh food in their diet.

When I visited the school in early January, the lunch menu consisted of breaded chicken, hard and dry as a bone, on a white-bread bun, and portions of Tater Tots and boiled carrots. At the end of the line, however, there was an inconspicuous bowl of cantaloupe pieces, as well as a portable salad bar of iceberg lettuce, broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes, pickles, shaved carrots, and the ubiquitous addition to all modern salad bars—grated cheese.

In the 2008 Farm Bill, Senator Harkin fought hard to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to schools in all 50 states. Funding for the program is now mandated: $40 million this fiscal year, with an increase to $150 million by 2011, when it is expected to serve up to 3 million low-income students. He also established a program to support school and community gardens, and he added language to encourage school districts to purchase food when possible from local farmers and ranchers rather than from large institutional contractors. These programs are perfectly designed for schools like Red Cloud, with its extensive land base and past history. But although the school garden program is authorized, so far it is unfunded by the Agriculture Appropriations Committee. In the face of the current recession, there’s a good chance that the program may never be implemented.

The irony is sharp. At the same time that the Indian Health Service and the nation are spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to control obesity and diabetes, the school lunch program seems unable to escape from its dependence on processed commodity foods. Robert Brave Heart illustrates the dilemma: “I have to make cuts and balance our desire for healthy food with our economic limits. Commodity foods are cheaper. A lunch of hot roast beef and fresh vegetables for the students costs six hundred dollars. A commodity meal like Tater Tot casserole costs twenty-six dollars.”

I ask Brave Heart if there is any interest in reviving the school garden. He looks at me as if I have parachuted in from another planet. “Who would do it?” he asks. “It would require machinery and staff to make it work. Someone would have to water it and pull weeds all summer when the students are gone. Right now, I’d say a garden isn’t on anyone’s radar screen.” These days, with the economy collapsing around him and federal funding for Harkin’s garden program unlikely, Brave Heart has no choice but to chase cheap food, and cheap food is commodity food.

In truth, the younger generation has little patience for growing or cooking food. I meet a senior who is on his way to college in the fall. I ask if he knows how to cook. “Yes, I like to cook.” “What do you like to cook most?” “Boxed macaroni and cheese in the microwave.” I wait for him to break open the joke, but he stares at me earnestly and doesn’t laugh.

Every autumn, though, there is one small ceremony that keeps Red Cloud in touch with ancient traditions. Under the supervision of the tribal parks department, the high school students participate in a buffalo kill behind the machine shop, where the chicken coop used to be. It is a time of prayer. The students seem to grasp that food is sacred, part of their culture and part of their survival as a tribe. Of course, the meat cannot be served in the cafeteria, but it is divided up and sent home with students. This year, though the kill didn’t happen. “I don’t know why,” says the senior. “I think they couldn’t get the gun to work.”

Thank You for Not Smoking

School farm programs are on the rise, and in Appalachia students with an interest in agriculture are starting to benefit from the demise of tobacco. Farmers are rapidly losing the crop, so they’re being forced to find new ways to live off their land. One increasingly popular solution: Go young. The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Growing Minds program was developed in 2006, its funding coming entirely from government grants and private donations. The goal: to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships between farms and area schools. “It’s important for kids to know where their food comes from, especially given the childhood obesity epidemic. If they feel connected, they’ll make better choices,” says Rose McLarney, the program’s communication and marketing coordinator. “And the local farmers need help transitioning from tobacco to economically viable alternatives. Fresh vegetables could be part of the answer.” Through Growing Minds, students take field trips to local farms to learn how to plant and care for their own school gardens. When their crops have been harvested, local chefs come to teach the kids how to turn their bounty into healthy, tasty dishes. The hope is that, once home, the children will persuade Mom and Dad to stop smoking cigarettes and start steaming vegetables. —Chris Dudley

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