Amy Kalafa: School Lunch REVOLUTIONARY
by Bruce Boyers
Filmmaker Amy Kalafa once described herself as a “shy, private person,” who most likely would never have thought of being any sort of revolutionary. Yet she now finds herself a key figure in a revolution—the battlefield is school cafeterias and the issue is the health of our children.
It all started in 2007, when Amy made the groundbreaking documentary Two Angry Moms, focusing her camera on the need to reform the state of food in our public schools. She thought that would probably be the end of it—she’d tour with the movie for a few months, say her piece, and move on to her next project. However, since that time, popular demand and constant inquiry have kept her front and center on the issue. In the intervening years, she has created a nonprofit organization with 9,000 members, and recently she even published a book, called Lunch Wars, which details for anyone how to start a school food revolution in their area. Also to her credit, all of this work has been performed in addition to holding a full-time job and raising a family.
“I had no anticipation of how big it was going to get,” Amy told Organic Connections. “It was a little movie—I made it because it was important to me; and we didn’t have a lot of money, so it was a low-budget film. But the issue got really big right at the time the movie came out. I don’t know if it was the movie itself or the fact that the media paid a lot of attention to the movie that ultimately gave the issue a lot of impact. It was on the cover of USA Today, and we were in the New York Times and in film festivals. Then I traveled around the country with it. Normally when you make a documentary, you go on the road with it for as long as you can—nine months, a year. It came out in 2008; it’s now 2012 and I am still traveling around with the movie, which is totally amazing.”
Two Angry Moms details the adventures of Amy herself, who set off to film school districts all over the country that were making strides in the fight for decent school lunches. Her story alternates with that of Dr. Susan Rubin, a dentist turned nutritionist, who was already engaged in an ongoing battle for better school food within her own district and was also campaigning generally for better school food. The film takes the viewer through the unhealthy condition of school food as it exists in many schools, and then shows us what could be possible and is actually happening in places like Berkeley, California, where fresh food for the entire district is sourced locally. In following Dr. Rubin, we see the process of how ordinary parents can group together, work with food service personnel and school administrators, and bring off much-needed changes.
Since the release of the documentary, Amy has definitely seen a change in awareness in the audiences she addresses. “There’s been a wonderful evolution,” she reported. “When the movie first came out and I would go to the screenings, there was even hostility. There’d be food service directors or administrators there who didn’t want to be told that they weren’t doing a good job, and that’s what they thought the film did. Once they saw the movie, they would realize that the heroes of the film are school administrators and food
“Today, almost everybody who works in school food service realizes that the food has to get better and that there are things they can do to improve it. They are much more open and welcoming to suggestions. And parents and students themselves realize that there’s a crisis in children’s health, that food absolutely impacts their health, and they all want something else too.”
While many engaged in the school lunch battle might point to the government and its policies and subsidies as barriers to change—and there certainly are such issues involved—Amy points out the power a community actually has through the creation of its own wellness policy. Although the USDA mandates requirements for a lunch program, including minimum nutritional standards, it also charges every school district with creating its own wellness policy that addresses nutrition and physical education of students within that school district. This encompasses specific qualities of the school food and the school food culture.
“With school lunch, you hear many people trying to polarize it,” Amy said. “But really, school food is not a political issue. The way the mandate works for school food is that every community has to be responsible for its own school meal program. The government sets some very basic standards and guidelines, and yes, it has requirements, but it does nothing to tell your school district what the quality of the food should be. That’s totally up to not just the parents—it’s up to the community. It’s actually a local issue.
“That’s why I think there’s so much power in school food, because it’s incumbent on the community to make its own wellness policy; every school district is required to have one. You can take that policy right from the USDA website and have these very minimum standards; but if you want to do better in your community, you can have a wellness policy that’s tailored to the needs and wants of your school district. Then it’s up to food service and administration and everybody in the community to make that policy work.”
At the point a parent starts on this path, he or she will begin to run the gauntlet of objections from those who, for various reasons, would rather leave things as they are. “A lot of it is myths and misconceptions,” said Amy. “You’ll hear people say, ‘Well, the kids won’t eat healthy food.’ You’ll always hear, ‘There’s not enough money in the system to get better food.’ You’ll hear, ‘We don’t have kitchen space; we don’t have equipment; our staff isn’t trained.’ ‘The kids don’t have enough time to eat a real meal.’ ‘We don’t know how to source locally.’ ‘We can’t afford organic food.’ ‘There are just not enough farms around; the demand outweighs the supply.’ Food service directors will say, ‘I can’t go to 16 different suppliers; I get it all off of one truck’—and on and on and on.”
But having seen plentiful examples of how these barriers can be overcome, Amy knows the path through them and has good advice for the rest of us. “There are creative people out there with solutions to all of those challenges,” Amy asserted. “A lot of it has to do with hiring chefs to run school meal programs. In many, many places, that’s been a huge part of the solution. A chef who’s had restaurant experience knows, first of all, how to make food that people like to eat, and also knows how to stretch a budget.”
Several examples of this kind of creativity are shown in Two Angry Moms. Berkeley, California, Unified School District hired Chef Ann Cooper, who implemented a fully local food supply system for the entire district. ConVal School District in New Hampshire hired Chef Tony Geraci, who converted the student bodies to wholesome food by treating them as customers, fully involving them in the process of choice and educating them on food sources. And in Dr. Rubin’s school, her committee aided in hiring a chef to take over and convert the food system there.
A Personal Mission
Since the release of Two Angry Moms and its considerable aftermath, Amy has stuck by the school lunch issue mainly as a matter of personal passion.
“I am a documentary filmmaker and I have to make a living,” Amy said. “I have a kid in college and all of that good stuff, so I work full time for clients. I think what’s really motivating me to stick with the school lunch issue is just the fact that people still want the help. My inbox every day is full of letters from people saying, ‘This is terrible! There’s a crisis. Do you know what to do? How do we get it going?’—that kind of thing. So I act as a clearinghouse of information to help people get started. I also teach people how to be advocates, because that was not a skill I had when I began. I was this shy, private person, and I kept it to myself that I ate organic food and grew food in my backyard.
“I try to empower people to stand up and say, ‘No! There’s a better way to feed kids! And I know how to do it. Let’s work together on it.’ What motivates me, really, is hearing from so many people who are exactly where I was ten years ago.”
Recently, in an effort to provide more information to those who need it, Amy published her book called Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health. “What caused me to write it was that I was getting, on some days, hundreds of e-mails from people who had a pretty long list of questions as follow-up to the movie,” she recalled. “I had created templates for e-mails that I would send out in response to individual questions, and I started collecting more information and putting these templates together.”
The book is a how-to guide, which takes the reader step by step through the way to reform the school food scene in their area. It begins with having parents actually sample the cafeteria food for themselves. It instructs them on connecting with other concerned parents in their area. In plain English, it lays out the rules and regulations under which the school district must operate. It enumerates the details of putting together a wellness policy. These and many more lessons thoroughly arm any concerned parent.
“It’s really a handbook for anybody who wants to know anything about how they can get involved,” Amy continued. “I did it in chapters so that if you’re interested in school gardens, you can go to the chapter on school gardens; or farm-to-school programs—there’s a chapter on that. I tried to make it a resource book so that you could read it cover to cover, but you could also go to a particular subject and just focus on one area of involvement. Because this is a huge issue. It’s a lot to take on, and it can be quite overwhelming.”
Ignoring Doesn’t Work
One lesson Amy learned from her own experience, and from interacting with many other parents, is that school food is not an issue a parent can simply ignore. “Every parent has their own way of reacting to it,” Amy said. “Parents who are very concerned will certainly send their kid to school with a packed lunch, and that’s what my husband and I did for many years. You can kind of turn a blind eye and think, ‘Well, sorry for all those other kids, but at least my kid has good food.’
“As I learned when I made the movie, that’s not true. Even kids who bring a healthy lunch will often trade it, or they’ll dump it in the garbage. They have access to a lot of food that you probably wouldn’t want them to be eating—but that’s the general school food environment. The school is basically teaching kids that this is okay, and most kids want to be like everybody else.
“So every parent, once they realize what that environment is like, will probably want to get involved at some level. It’s really hard to ignore it. Susan Rubin, who was the other ‘angry mom’ in the movie, said she got involved when she started finding candy wrappers in her kids’ backpacks every day when they came home. And she was sending them to school with a packed lunch.”
In fact, Two Angry Moms begins with Amy herself meeting with a staffer in her daughter’s cafeteria and looking through the computer to see that her daughter—who came to school daily with a packed lunch—had been buying numerous items without Amy’s knowledge. The list included cake, chips and numerous sweets.
“As a parent you have to find a way that you can be involved,” Amy stressed. “It might just be, for example, going into schools and showing kids how to make a smoothie out of fruit—I met a mom who does that. What I tried to do in the book is give people lots of different points of entry.”
Although Amy would probably like to move on, her conscience has not let her. “You see, I’m a filmmaker, and it’s like, ‘Okay, next?’ But this genuinely caught me up, and it is something I’m so passionate about,” she said. “It wasn’t just an interesting topic about which to make a film; I feel as if I have to keep going, you know? I have to, until I see that there’s real significant change in the school systems on a district-by-district level, and I think that we have a long time till we get there.
“But it’s great to be part of this movement,” Amy concluded, “and it feels really good to be doing what I can. I hope other people will feel that way too.”
For more information, or to obtain a DVD of Two Angry Moms, please visit www.angrymoms.org.
To join Amy’s Angry Moms social network, visit angrymoms.ning.com.