On a sunny, Sunday afternoon in early spring, about 60 people attended a conference on the future of school food. Some coming early, some late to learn about different eating habits and food possibilities for students, they attended one or more of three panel sessions or networked around information and food tables.
This April 10th conference, presented by the School-Food Connections Group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities – Lehigh Valley and cosponsored by many local organizations and businesses, was held at Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts in Bethlehem.
The six-hour conference began with a period of one-on-one networking, information tables, and a variety of tasty earth-friendly treats. There were then the three panel sessions alternating with thirty minute one-on-one opportunities until closing.
The first panel dealt with food quality. As in all panel sessions, the audience sat in an intimate circular arrangement. Martin Boksenbaum opened with a welcome from the School-Food Connections Group and then facilitated the first panel.
Caryn Hartglass, the Executive Director of EarthSave International, stated that her efforts are to educate the public about food. Her presentation focused on the harm done to food and to the people eating that food by factory farms, food irradiation, and pesticides.
Hope Temple, the Farm Manager for Glasbern Country Inn, talked about how she grows and raises food organically on 150 acres. The animals raised are raised humanely, eating out in pasture, not in confinement as they are in factory farms. She feels as though it is obvious that eating fresh vegetables and healthier food makes people feel happier and healthier, and believes that anyone can learn to grow food.
Leah Nichols, Director of Rodale Dining Services, emphasized the uniqueness of the company. The Rodale Dining Service uses food raised organically by local farms. She is also involved with the farmer-only Emmaus Farmers’ Market which is cooperatively run by farmers whose farms are within a 75 mile radius. She believes that the place to begin healthier eating habits is in Home Economics and school cafeterias.
The second panel, facilitated by Anita Hirsch, dealt with what is going on in schools now.
Emily McGlynn, a student at the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Performing Arts, presented the top five changes she would like to see in her school, which has vending machines instead of a cafeteria. Her ideas include more healthy drink choices, fresh fruits and vegetables, wrap/salad bars, support of local farmers, and food with less saturated fat.
Ed Kenna, the Food Services Director for Bethlehem Area Schools, explained how he is trying to change to a positive perception of dining services for the 14,000 students in the district. His company works with local businesses and stresses the importance of handling food safely, inspecting service sites, and restricting particularly fattening foods.
Anita Hirsch, a nutritionist and author, tries to present a positive point of view about keeping students healthy. She believes changes need to be made in school lunches, including more time to eat and teaching both parents and children healthy food options and the importance of eating breakfast.
The third panel, facilitated by Stephen Hoog, presented different food philosophies. While all agree that eating healthy food is of major importance to one’s health, they have different perspectives on just what that healthy food is.
Wendy Landiak and Melissa Hellman, organic vegetarians from the Green Cafe in Bethlehem, feel it is important to teach children about food at a young age because good and bad habits will stick with them. In general, people need to be more informed and get more support because there are healthy ways to meet requirements of nutrition other than in milk and meat.
Len Frenkel, member of Lehigh Valley Vegetarians, explained that the vegan lifestyle consumes no animal products, for food or clothing for a few reasons: personal and family health, compassion for animals, to spare the environment, or religious reasons. The Lehigh Valley Vegetarians represent all combinations of reasons. He stressed that even though children are not the ones experiencing eating habit related diseases, it begins to develop at a young age.
Steve Hoog, who practices Macrobiotics, understands that it is not easy to make drastic changes in our culture. Macrobiotics concentrates on energetics and the balancing of different food energies. It recognizes that everyone has different needs as an individual, including what foods are best for them. He believes we should eat locally grown food because it helps us stay comfortable with our environment. He supports all types of school diets that come as close to Macrobiotics as possible.
Andrea Stevens, who studies Body Ecology, emphasized the importance of what is going on in our digestive tracts, that we need good bacteria there to produce and absorb nutrients. She believes we are responsible for what happens in our digestive system, that eating processed or refined foods produces bad bacteria. When children consume large amounts of these foods, their bodies are thrown off, making them sick because the bad bacteria interfere with the good bacteria and thus our body’s ability to produce and absorb nutrients. She says we need to keep our body ecosystems healthy.
Alan Stangl, from Weston A. Price Foundation, explained the history behind the Weston A. Price Foundation. Price, a dentist, discovered that isolated groups of people, eating their traditional foods, had healthy, very regular tooth structures and sound constitutions. Modern diets, according to him, make us more prone to crooked teeth, cavities, difficult childbirth, and diseases. Stangl believes schools need less processed and pasteurized foods and beverages, and more nutrient-dense foods, more healthy saturated fats, whole grains and vegetables.
There were many ideas about how to improve school lunches for our children, varying from vegan/vegetarian to meat and milk products. The one thing that was held in common for all views is that school food needs change in order for children to be healthier. Also, purchasing local products will not only help conserve farmers in the area, but promote fresh, nutritious food beginning at a young age.
The School-Food Connections Group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities – Lehigh Valley is made up of a variety of organizations and philosophies about food, but all share the concern that quality of food impacts health, learning, behavior, and performance of children. They are working together to draw attention to school food matters in our community.
By Holly Stoneback