Speaker blasts school lunch standards, American diet EVERETT - Two big names headlined Snohomish County’s annual Focus on Farming Conference last week at Comcast Arena.
Ann Cooper, “The Renegade Lunchlady,” and Karen and Colin Archipley, who give veterans a leg up through farming, headlined the conference.
Cooper, who is on First Lady Michelle Obama’s team for the Let’s Move initiative to install salad bars in schools, spent years as a gourmet chef before advocating for healthier school lunches.
The Archipleys opened up Archi’s Acres, a small-scale farm in California that gives combat veterans farm training on how to grow sustainable crops.
The conference theme this year was “Feeding our Future.” In her speech, Cooper held no reservations lambasting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch standards and the American diet.
After researching what kids were eating, she said she was startled.
Most school districts spend less than $1 in food per meal, Cooper said. The food guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture allow for chocolate milk and, until recent revisions, corn dogs and chicken nuggets.
The USDA’s revised guidelines require two fruits or vegetables as part of a meal.
“We are a nation of adults not worried about spending $3 to $4 on coffee every day, $4 on a beer … but we won’t spend more than $1 on kids,” Cooper said.
These meals are making kids sick, Cooper said.
“Hungry children don’t learn, and malnourished children can’t think,” she said.
Cooper wants soda and snack vending machines removed from schools and salad bars installed in every lunchroom. She advocates for farm fresh produce on school menus and kitchen staff who cook from scratch.
Cooper’s ideas cost more to do, but she says are necessary.
“You make your choices,” Cooper said in a separate interview, adding, “It’s still going to cost a lot more if they get sick” by feeding them foods that are “perpetuating obesity and diabetes.”
At the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado where Cooper works, adding a kitchen staff of three sous chefs and nine others to cook from scratch costs a half million dollars in payroll. The district has 30,000 students.
Before opening the kitchen, the menu consisted of highly processed food.
Many schools ripped out their cafeteria kitchens 30 years ago when large food manufacturers promised they could provide all the meals, she said.
Some districts, including in Portland and Seattle, now have implemented organic foods and other healthier methods into their food policies, Cooper said.
Teens in the Monroe Future Farmers of America said the food at Monroe High School improved slightly, but the food’s still not good.
They described the school menu as “gross,” unhealthy and most disturbing of all, “plastic-like.”
Students get 30 minutes for lunch, but spend 20 minutes standing in line to get food. Some kids grab a few bites before leaving for class. A lot of kids flock to the vending machines to get food because of the short lunch time, Leah Burlingame, 17, said.
“A lot of kids pick at their food and then throw it away,” Valerie Martinez, 17, said.
A true salad bar would be helpful, Allyson Carother, 15, said. Monroe High has a salad bar, but it’s inadequate, the teens said.
Some of the food is hard to identify, Martinez said. Nobody knows what’s in the “meat circles” they are served.
Cooper argues the American diet can reverse itself toward farm fresh goods if more people knew where their food came from.
Ten companies control 90 percent of the food sold in the U.S. The American agriculture industry uses 1.2 billion pounds of pesticide a year, which breaks down to 5 pounds of pesticide for every American, Cooper said.
There are more people in prison than who farm, according to Cooper’s statistics. There are 1.9 million farmers in America.
Americans eat fast food one out of every four meals they have, she said.
“We have kids who think chicken nuggets are a food group and eat Cheetos for breakfast,” Cooper said.
Cooper urged the crowd of more than 200 to lobby for better food at school and at home.
Joe Rogoff, the regional president of Whole Foods Market, predicts more people will opt for locally grown natural food in the coming years.
“I don’t know what the next pink slime is, but I know it’s out there,“ Rogoff said, referring to the food byproduct used in a majority of fast food meats until earlier this year.
He predicts organic food prices will go down to meet demand. “A majority of people say ‘if we could afford organic, we’d buy it’,” Rogoff said.
The conference included a trade show and lessons in farming.
Snohomish couple Jeff Fjeld and Renee Schwarzmiller came to learn more about organic beef farming.
They’re trying to rejuvenate their 80-acre grass-fed cattle farm east of Lake Stevens. The farm’s been in Schwarzmiller’s family since 1903.
“There’s a lot of people interested in how and where (their food) is raised,” Fjeld said.
This year’s Focus on Farming was the largest in its nine-year history. Between 550 and 600 people attended, said Linda Neunzig, Snohomish County’s agriculture coordinator. She also raises beef cattle.