While the national discussion over children's nutrition has heated up recently, Madison parents have long tried to get healthier food to kids at school.
"My son came home one day and said the lunch at school is gross," recounts Susanne Swift, parent of two school-age children.
Curious about the comment, Swift sent around an email to other parents with kids attending the Franklin-Randall Elementary schools and was shocked by the response. So began the conversation that launched the MUNCH group, which maintains a website (munchmadison.org) and discussion group. The grass-roots MUNCH (it stands for Madisonians United for Nutrition for Children's Health) organized to improve school lunch and promote positive nutrition education at home and at kids' activities, like soccer games.
Over the past year, the virtual group has grown to about 200 members representing parents with students attending schools all over the city. MUNCH helps like-minded advocates share information and experiences. Those who have, for example, started a fresh snack program through Madison's Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP) at their school can give a how-to primer to others looking to add that program. Members in the group also occasionally contribute to the national School Lunch Talk blog (schoolfoodpolicy.com) run by Ann Cooper, self-proclaimed "renegade lunch lady," of Lunch Lessons LLC.
"This came from the desire to make good food an integral part of our children's lives," says Shannon Henry Kleiber, MUNCH member, food blogger at cookingwithfriendsclub.com and parent of a Franklin Elementary first-grader. "I care a lot about what my kids are eating, and what the other kids are eating as well."
Last month, Madison parent Salud Garcia started the Google group Mad-Foodies (firstname.lastname@example.org) as an effort to spur action to encourage congressional funding of school lunch programs. Garcia launched the email list in December after showing Two Angry Moms (angrymoms.org), a movie-turned-lunch-improvement movement, at the Lakeview Branch of the Madison Public Library.
"It's a place for people to find other people who want to work on the issue. It's not enough to share information," Garcia explains. The group, with an inaugural 14 members, hopes for starters to produce a letter-writing campaign to Madison's congressional representatives and show the Two Angry Moms video again this spring.
The efforts of MUNCH and others have led to a notable shift in direction for the Madison school district's nutrition program. Last summer, the district formed the Madison School Lunch Initiative, a committee that includes district staff, business owners, chefs, local-food advocates, parents and students. The group is looking into the district's food service operations and exploring ways to bring sustainable food education into schools.
Committee members have already taken a look at how fresh-local food programs have been added in the Minneapolis School District. And, in late January, Beth Collins of Lunch Lessons (chefann.com) came to Madison, the first step in producing a feasibility study on improving meals in schools here. Lunch Lessons has helped change school food service in Boulder and Berkeley.
"This is the first big hurdle for us," says committee member Lisa Jacobson, who manages REAP's Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program. "We want to change school food. These are the people who have been successful. So we said let's bring them and see what can happen."
Erik Kass, MMSD's assistant superintendent for business, says the buzz created by grass-roots advocacy encouraged action. "The main reason we're doing what we're doing and listening to the committee is to take a look and see what makes sense."
This fall, the district piloted a program to add locally grown squash to menus at several elementary school holiday meals, processed at RP's Pasta in Madison. But this fresh-local addition, slated for inclusion in the regular menu last month, was sidetracked because not enough squash could be purchased. Logistical issues like this will need to be addressed. But, says RP's Pasta owner and Lunch Initiative committee member Peter Robertson, "The district is really taking this to heart."
Efforts by the committee are, in turn, energizing the grassroots movement. According to Pat Mulvey, a local chef, parent and committee member who helped launch the MUNCH group, advocates are eager to see what comes next, "thrilled that the [committee's] efforts continue to march forward, when they feel past efforts floundered."
Lisa Ferin, who leads the Madison chapter of Slow Food, says advocacy is important to keep things moving. "The government can be pretty slow, so you get enough angry parents who are fed up and that's the way you get change."
Garcia is encouraged by the changes so far. But she says it's just a beginning and that, in the end, funding will be the key to change. "It's a step in the right direction, but far from the ultimate goal," Garcia says. "I'm trying to do what I can to move things forward."