Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Meeting addresses overhauling, improving school lunches

About 30 people met for a "picnic, a potluck and a virtual march on Washington."

Those who took part in the National Day of Action on Labor Day were given food for thought on the meals served in public school systems.

With the Child Nutrition Act up for reauthorization this fall, the aim of National Day of Action is to push for Congress to enact policy to revamp the National School Lunch Program.

The main changes they pinpoint are: increasing the reimbursement given to schools for lunch; protecting students against unhealthy foods currently served in vending machines and cafeterias; teaching healthy eating habits; giving schools financial incentives to buy local food; and creating green jobs within the school system.

In a local version of what Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel dubbed a "picnic, a potluck and a virtual march on Washington," about 30 interested people squeezed into Roanoke's Local Roots Cafe to share ideas on bringing healthier meals to public schools.

Mary Harshfield, one of the organizers, said creating a healthy lifestyle for children at a young age helps put them on the right track to continuing it into adulthood.

"I run across people all the time who eat almost no fruits or vegetables," Harshfield said.

Another organizer, Polly Branch, said that 306 groups nationwide took time out of their Labor Day to have similar potlucks.

Kirk Ballin of Roanoke said he heard about the potluck through Facebook and was immediately interested in the discussion.

"If we are able to sustain ourselves on local foods, our children will be healthier and the farms can play their role in serving the community," he said.

While he coordinates a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program with Virginia Tech, he said he was "there to learn."

Elise Hansard of Roanoke said the topic especially interests her because she has four grandchildren at Woodrow Wilson Middle School. She said she is optimistic that starting this discussion nationwide can help get the ball rolling on what she calls an important health issue.

"I think it can be easily done," she said.

No matter the level of difficulty involved, organizer Pete Johnson stressed the economic importance of a community empowering itself by relying on local farmers.

"Without local food, how can there be security, how can there be freedom?" Johnson said.

He also said that while money is a major factor in the conversation, it's important to begin with education on the issue of nutritional health.

With food as the topic of discussion, there was no shortage of food being passed around in the cafe. Those in attendance brought in a variety of healthy meals, including a vegetarian pizza and a dish consisting of lentils, beans and vegetarian sausage.

Organizers urged those present to sign the Time for Lunch petition, which currently has more than 15,000 signatures. Organizers in Floyd and Blacksburg also took part in the National Day of Action.

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