WHEN COLOMBIA NATIVE BEATRIZ ZULUAGA, a professional cook for 20 years, became the admissions director at CentroNia's DC Bilingual Public Charter School in 2007, she thought she was leaving her old career far behind. Then she laid eyes on the trays in the lunchroom. Mashed potatoes from a box, chicken nuggets, chocolate milk--to Zuluaga, the processed fare didn't look fit for growing kids. At her last job, Zuluaga had cooked for 450 people a day. Surely she could take over the school's kitchen, no?
She unpacked her knives and started whipping up froms-cratch dishes: lasagna with lentils, peppers stuffed with barley and turkey, roasted beets. The reformation did not go over well. One offense after another set the tongues of parents and teachers wagging. What is that? How can you serve that to children? Why are you trying to turn my kid into a vegetarian?
Three years later, Zuluaga has given up on the beets. But American cheese has been scrapped for calcium-rich provolone. White flour has been swapped for whole wheat in pizza crust. Fruit juice, high in sugar, is out. The school nurse is reporting fewer sick kids, and Zuluaga has chuckled at least once when a parent remarked on the new efficacy of her child's bowel movements. More than a third of parents have participated in the school's nutrition workshops.
But when I visited the school last fall, all Zuluaga had to do to temper her optimism was walk into a DC Bilingual lunchroom and discover a chubby, misbehaving fourth grader relegated to a table facing the wall and going to town on his brown-bag lunch: an Oscar Mayer Lunchables "pizza." As the boy perched a piece of pepperoni and some shredded cheese atop a cracker, Zuluaga picked up the packaging to inspect its long ingredient list, then put it back down, crossed her arms, and frowned. I expected her to seize the opportunity for a teachable moment, but she was silent. Later she explained, "He didn't go to the grocery store and buy that."
Zuluaga's education, as it were, mirrors what's occurring in schools across America as proponents of whole--that is, minimally processed--foods try to introduce children to more nutritious diets through the $9.8 billion federal school lunch program, which feeds about 32 million of America's 50 million schoolchildren every school day. One in three American children and teenagers today is overweight or obese. Last year, in a report titled Too Fat to Fight, a group of retired military brass blamed school lunches for the fact that an estimated 27 percent of American youth are too overweight to serve in the armed forces. A study of Michigan sixth graders published in December found that regularly consuming school lunches was a greater risk factor for obesity than spending two or more hours a day watching television or playing video games.
First lady Michelle Obama, a former hospital executive, has made the war on obesity her defining cause, and put the school lunch program in her crosshairs. In December, thanks in part to her lobbying, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which awards schools that meet certain nutritional guidelines an extra six cents per student meal. The extra pennies increase federal reimbursements for lunches above the rate of inflation for the first time in three decades. The law, which cuts funds from future federal food-stamp benefits to cover the reimbursement hike, also grants the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) more power to police what's served in school cafeterias. In reality, though, the battle over school lunches is just beginning, as educators confront a culture that prizes its hamburgers and French fries.
How did a program that was designed to improve the nutrition of the nation's children become a culprit in the scourge of childhood obesity?
As early as the 19th century, some American schools operated their own school lunch programs, often with the help of volunteers. …