WASHINGTON – Tired of yucky, unhealthy, pre-packaged school lunches? So is Baltimore eighth-grader Alice Sheehan.
The perky, articulate City Neighbors Public Charter School student testified Thursday at the House Education and Labor Committee hearing on school nutrition, lamenting the “overcooked, tasteless, and just plain disgusting food” that her cafeteria served.
Sheehan and other students on City Neighbors’ lunch committee drew up a “Cafeteria Bill of Rights,” which includes students’ rights to healthy and nutritious breakfasts and lunches, fresh fruits and vegetables, and more than one choice at mealtimes.
“Why not ask kids to plan the menu?” Sheehan asked the lawmakers, saying that prepackaged lunches were often thrown into the garbage whole or with only the bread and sweet, sugary snacks missing.
Sheehan recalled a taste test that her committee did to determine what the cafeteria should serve. The members sampled three school lunches, including one from Baltimore County, and noted that the City Neighbors’ lunch was “by far the worst.”
“All kids need to eat well, whether they live in Baltimore City or Baltimore County,” Sheehan said. The disparity in wealth between the two regions should not bar access to nutritious food at school, she said.
Testifying with Sheehan was Tony Geraci, the food service director for Baltimore City Public Schools, appointed in January 2008 to overhaul the school district’s food practices.
Geraci touted the benefits of the Great Kids Farm in Catonsville, a 33-acre agricultural center that he helped create at an abandoned orphanage site. The farm educates city students about growing and eating fresh fruits and vegetables. He described the delight of students eating cherry tomatoes they planted themselves straight off the vine.
“That’s a moment you can’t teach in a book. It’s only a moment you can experience,” Geraci said.
The director also introduced “Meatless Mondays” to the school district, the first of its kind in the nation to offer students healthy meat alternatives they may not have at home.
Geraci increased participation in the district’s breakfast program from 8,500 to 35,000 meals in fewer than 60 days with orange boxes for the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and purple boxes for the Baltimore Ravens football team. One in 20 boxes contained codes redeemable for prizes, including MP3 players and tickets to sporting events.
Geraci hopes to one day build a central kitchen for the school district, which would be less costly than building or updating kitchens in every school. It would also create more “green jobs, train chefs, and cut down on the costs of shipping frozen food from across the country, he said.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., opened the subcommittee hearing, saying that “given the current harsh financial realities for many families in my district and throughout the nation, schools have an increasingly important role to play in providing children with nutritious food during their days.”
The hearing, titled “Examining Innovative Practices to Improve Child Nutrition,” also looked at student participation in free and reduced lunch programs and the ties of physical education to nutrition.
City Neighbors Public Charter School would welcome some congressional assistance.
“I’ve been working to solve this problem for three years,” said Sheehan. She hopes that nutritious and filling meals will be available soon, adding that “it’s a lot of a hassle to pack lunch at home.”