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Labor Day potluck pushes better school meals

on September 8, 2009

Michelle Mapp and Rachel Carroll, of Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, took their 8-year-old daughter Lauren to Labor Day lunch yesterday, taking their seats at a white-cloth-covered table in the middle of Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Civic Center Park.    The menu, on their plates, at least, was enchiladas, red grapes, and freshly squeezed lemonade.  It was a community potluck–with a purpose.

The three gathered at the end of one of five long tables lined with bright red apples. As Lauren alternated between popping grapes and bites of a roll into her mouth, she said her favorite vegetables were broccoli and artichokes.  Her favorite food of all?   “Mommy’s armpit chicken,” she said.

Carroll, 43, quickly clarified that the name is derived from shoving the paprika and Dijon rub deep into the chicken’s “armpit.”  Mapp smiled and added, “I’m a chef, so Lauren’s lucky when it comes to food.  We teach her to cook and about proteins [and other nutrients] that are part of a meal.”

Dubbed an Eat-in, this event was one of about 300 public potluck lunches planned by community organizers volunteering with Slow Food USA, a national nonprofit that promotes home-prepared locally grown and organic food.* The potlucks were meant to push for better food in public schools by gathering local activists and adding signatures on a petition to Congress asking for the revision of the federal Child Nutrition Act.

Rep. Barbara Lee, who stopped at the potluck long enough to thank the picnickers for showing up, said in an interview that she expected the Child Nutrition Act to come before Congress before the year was out.  “We have a lot on our plate right now,” she said.  “[Nevertheless,] we’ll be working very hard to make sure that our issues that we care about here in terms of health, food, and nutrition are included in the bill.”

The Child Nutrition Act is an outgrowth of the school lunch program first signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946 to ensure that all children were served a nutritious lunch in school.  President Lyndon B. Johnson updated the lunch program in 1966 by adding nutritional guidelines and a breakfast program.   These programs now establish a federal reimbursement of $2.57 per free lunch that schools provide to eligible students.

Slow Food USA is pushing the tightening of the nutrition standards in the current version of the Act. The standards, last updated in 1995, are now being reviewed by the Institute of Medicine, a non-profit research institution that advises federal policy makers on matters of health.  The Institute’s final recommendations will be available this fall.  The current standards promote low-fat, high nutrient foods as part of the balanced diet that schools are required to offer.

However, since the nutrient standards only apply to reimbursement-eligible foods, the law allows school snack bars to serve “a la carte” items, like cookies and cake, that do not meet the nutritional standards. As long as a school is offering a balanced meal, it can also offer additional items that are not eligible for reimbursement, but are available for any student to buy.

Leon Jones of HOPE signs the petition for healthier school lunches.

Leon Jones of HOPE signs the petition for healthier school lunches.

To combat this, Slow Food USA, and the 20,000-plus people who have signed their petition, advocate new wording in the bill  that would ban high-fat, high-calorie food in schools.  Slow Food also wants to raise the federal investment in school lunches  by $1 per lunch.  They argue that this would allow schools to spend enough on lunches to provide nutritious and locally grown food.

Berkeley is nationally known for its food advocacy and school lunch program.  The lunch program is focused on bringing local, sustainable foods to schools, and is funded with a private grant from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Foundation.  Participants at the Eat-In were generally ready with praise for Berkeley’s program, but cautioned that it was currently one of a kind and that students in other districts across the country were not so well served.

“I think Berkeley is setting the standard in my district,” Lee said, “as well as in the rest of the country.”

Many students in Oakland schools receive free or reduced-price lunch.  At Oakland Technical High School in North Oakland, for example, 49 percent of the students are eligible for these free meals.  At many elementary and middle schools in East and West Oakland the numbers are closer to 80 percent.

Organizations like HOPE (Health for Oakland’s People and Environment) and People’s Grocery are working to teach families in these areas about nutritious foods, and to provide access to organic and locally grown produce in these neighborhoods.  Leon Davis of HOPE said corner stores are often the only available options for food purchases in these neighborhoods, but he said that people there would buy better food if they knew about the benefits and had access.

The manager of Farm Fresh Choice, Hunia Bradley, echoed this sentiment and added that since First Lady Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden earlier this year, she has seen an uptick in business at FFC’s produce stands.  “I’ve just had many conversations based on Michelle’s garden,” she said.  “The garden definitely boosted business.”

There was a bounty of nutritious and locally grown food on display at the potluck buffet table. Sharyn Dimmick of Kensington had brought whole wheat bread made at home and sweetened with honey.  Also on display were fresh pears, ratatouille, and large platters of cucumbers.  Not everyone eating the food had brought a dish of their own to share.

Charlie Rose, 62, who says he lives at the park, had known there would be free food on Monday and was looking forward to the cucumbers.  Carrie Galles and Mary Daly, event organizers, said they knew people were taking free food, but they weren’t worried about it.  “It’s about community,” said Galles, “and we figured this would be a part of it.”

*As of September 9, Brian Sinderson, the Director of Communications for Slow Food USA, said he was confident that about 300 pot-lucks had actually taken place.  Slow Food is gathering feedback on the events by systematically calling the planners for each event and checking how things went, how many people showed up, and asking them to upload photos from the event to  Photos can be viewed here:


  1. […] are pushing for significant changes in the nutritional guidelines. Slow Food USA, which held an East Bay event this fall as part of its national “Time for Lunch Eat-In,” is calling for increased funding for […]

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