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Thompson: Michelle Obama, Meanwitchs and Stinkburgers


I love Michelle Obama as much as I remain loyal to her husband, despite his awful test and punish education policy. When the First Lady is attacked, I am angered almost as much as when the Obama administration assaults public education.

The issues underlying both Michelle Obama's Let's Move healthy schools campaign, and President Obama's corporate school reform are equally complicated.

Time Magazine's Jay Newton-Small, in Michelle Obama Bites Back at Critics of Her Healthy School Lunch Standards, reports that a million fewer students ate school lunches in the first year of the program. The bigger problem is anecdotes and twitter photo campaigns featuring students who want their junk food back.

In light of the House Republicans' assault on anti-obesity efforts, Burkhard Bilger's 2006 New Yorker article, The Lunch Room Rebellion, should now be reread. As the First Lady explains, the "stakes couldn't be higher" in the battle to improve children's health, so the fight is worth it. But, given the difficulty Bilger described in providing nutritious meals in the affluent Berkeley, California schools, we must prepare for a long, frustrating struggle.  

Bilger told how a "haute cuisine chef," Ann Cooper, got schooled when she brought nutritious meals that were a hit in a progressive private school to a public system. Cooper's biggest problem was that children's food tastes (not unlike some of their learning habits) are established before they enter school. But, a seemingly absurd combination of political and institutional dynamics created unforeseen complications, even in a system where only 40% of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch.

In some ways, Cooper's approach to healthy meals resembled the methods of accountability-driven reformers, who disastrously intruded into education policy. But, she also developed some very different methods. 

On one hand, the newcomer to public schools sought to rapidly scale up policies without having a commensurate increase in funding. In doing so, she inevitably annoyed lunch room employees who tired of being reminded of what they had done wrong over the decades.

On the other hand, when students rebelled and signed a petition protesting her menu (including its "veteteriyin pizza"), Cooper met with the kids and explained why she was changing their diet.  

The New Yorker story explained innovations that incorporated USDA staples into healthier dishes like coleslaw (which still needed more salt) and delicious-sounding focacia pizza (which still ended up in the trash.)

Bilger is also insightful in recounting the historical and institutional barriers to better meals. As with so many aspects of education, and other social services, political sausage-making dating back to the 1940s was to blame. It meant that schools were hooked on surplus agricultural products, regardless of their nutritional harm. Reagan era policies made problems worse. Due to the imposition of the "gospel" of treating students as customers, schools got heavily into the soda and snack business. Due to budgetary cuts, systems became dependent on profits from junk food vending machines.

Cooper had to negotiate patiently (but successfully) with federal regulators. Moreover, a lack of physical capacity meant that schools became overly reliant on ready-made processed and packaged foods. And, even in Berkeley, breakdowns of decades-old refrigerated trucks created complications.

The toughest challenge, however, was the students' taste buds and their "X-ray eyes," that were practiced in locating healthy ingredients, hidden under sauce, to be discarded. One 4th grader complained she was going to move to Texas to get away from the food.

In other words, improving students' health is a political process that requires give and take, not top-down mandates. Cooper had wanted to produce a "set-by-step manual for lunchroom reform nationwide - complete with recipes, menu cycles, and staffing and ordering guides." Bilger was not confident that her most far-reaching goals could be met.

Substitute the above words with "best practices," "aligned and paced curriculum," and "value-added models," and you can see why Cooper's experience is relevant to the instructional policies mandated by the test-driven reformers who dominate the Obama administration's DOE.  

Even if the administration's market-driven school reforms were implemented in a less heavy-handed manner, they were policies that remain unworthy of public education. Michelle Obama, however, has tackled a public health crisis that must be solved. I am not qualified to say, for instance, whether it would be a good idea to slow her efforts by a year, as some recommend. I just hope wisdom is demonstrated and that we all stand by the First Lady and the administration in fighting this battle that must be won. -JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.   



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