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Midday meal debate

What school lunches really look like

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They may not be the horrors that India's midday meals are but school lunches in the US are not the nutritious, delicious affairs they are made out to be on online menus. A fourth grader's guerrilla documentary has blown the lid off the lunch.

A New York City 4th grader's documentary exposing his school's lunchroom menu caused a stir recently. According to The New York Times, Zachary Maxwell, who attends P. S. 130 Hernando De Soto in Little Italy, recorded six months of footage in the cafeteria, hidden-camera style.

The lunchroom monitor in his school cafeteria did catch Zachary filming without permission and was told by teachers to stop to delete the footage. Zachary pretended to delete the day's shots. After that lapse in production security, he said, "I fired my lookouts. "

What his teacher didn't know, though, was that Zachary had six months of footage shot surreptitiously in the cafeteria, forming the spine of his 20-minute movie Yuck: A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch. The film has now done the festival circuit, including a screening at the Manhattan Film Festival.

Like many things in the life of a fourth grader, Zachary's movie started as a dispute with his parents. He told them that he wanted to start packing his own lunch, but they were skeptical. Lunch is free at his school, P. S. 130 Hernando De Soto in Little Italy, and his parents liked the look of the Department of Education's online menus, which describe delicious meals, full of whole grains and fresh vegetables, some even designed by celebrity chefs.

At Zachary Maxwell's school cafeteria, the appetising menu descriptions did not always match the food that was actually served. "I told them that's not what they were actually serving me, " Zachary said. "But I don't think they believed me. "
So he smuggled in a camera in his sweatshirt pocket the next day and filmed lunch. "When I came back home and showed them the footage, they were like, ugh!" he said.

Soon, Zachary and his father, a lawyer and video hobbyist, were cutting together the footage he brought home every day. (In the film, Zachary goes by the name Zachary Maxwell, though Maxwell is his middle name. His family asked that their last name be withheld because of Zachary's age. )

In the film, Zachary, who is not above cheesy costumes and goofy special effects, makes a point that is under the radar of most conversations about the quality of school lunches: that despite the Education Department's efforts to improve nutrition, there is a disconnect between the wholesome meals described on school menus and the soggy, deep-fried nuggets frequently dished up in the lunchrooms.

The film offers no shortage of examples. On a day advertising "cheesy lasagna rolls with tomato basil sauce, roasted spinach with garlic and herbs", for instance, Zachary is handed a plastic-wrapped grilled cheese sandwich on an otherwise bare plastic foam tray.

A 'Pasta Party' is described as "zesty Italian meatballs with tomato-basil sauce, whole grain pasta, Parmesan cheese and roasted capri vegetables. " Meatballs and pasta show up on the tray, if none too zesty-looking, but the vegetables are nowhere to be seen.

Salads devised by the Food Network chefs Rachael Ray and Ellie Krieger are similarly plagued by missing ingredients. On the day Ray's 'Yum-O ! Marinated Tomato Salad' is listed, Zachary is served a slice of pizza accompanied by a wisp of lettuce.
Krieger's 'Tri-color Salad' is a no-show on one day it is promised, and on another, it lacks its cauliflower, broccoli and red peppers. The shreds of lettuce and slice of cucumber could still be described as tri-color, Zachary points out, if you count "green, light green and brown. "

Indeed, among the 75 lunches that Zachary recorded - chosen randomly, he swears - he found the menus to be "substantially" accurate, with two or more of the advertised menu items served, only 51 per cent of the time. The menus were "totally" accurate, with all of the advertised items served, only 16 per cent of the time. And by Zachary's count, 28 per cent of the lunches he recorded were built around either pizza or cheese sticks.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department, Marge Feinberg, said in an e-mail that vegetables and fruit were served daily and she suggested that Zachary must have chosen not to take the vegetables served in his cafeteria. "It would not be the first time a youngster would find a way to get out of eating vegetables, " she wrote. Zachary responded that he always took every item he was offered.

Until this past September, Feinberg said, schools did have some freedom to deviate from the systemwide lunch menus. New federal regulations for the current school year set stricter guidelines for what elements need to be on each child's plate.
On Monday, Zachary thought he was in trouble again when he was sent to the principal's office and found two men in black suits waiting for him. They turned out to be representatives from the Education Department's Office of School Food, he said, who complimented him on his movie, asked for feedback on some new menu choices, and took him on a tour of the cafeteria kitchen.

There, Zachary met one of his school's cooks, and got some insight into her thinking. "She wants us to be happy, " he reported. "So she cooks what she thinks the kids will like. " Then he sat down for lunch with the officials. The adults ate the cafeteria lunch of chicken nuggets, carrots and salad. Zachary had pork and vegetable dumplings - brought from home.


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