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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Tag: school lunches

Federal grant helps Chicago fight childhood obesity

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson

Long before First Lady Michelle Obama put childhood obesity in the national spotlight, the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children was working to combat this health epidemic.  Last week, the federal government recognized the organization’s work when it announced that it had awarded nearly $6 million to the Consortium, which partnered with the City of Chicago Public Health Department to apply for the funds.

The award is part of $31 million from the US Department of Health and Human Services to reduce obesity and smoking; the money comes from the new national health care law. 

“It’s a vote of confidence,” said Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, founder and medical and research director of the Consortium, which targets children up to 5 years old.  

Located at Children’s Memorial Hospital, the Consortium was founded eight years ago. Since then, the group has grown to include nearly 1000 organizations, mostly from Chicago. The organization takes a comprehensive approach to addressing obesity, enlisting schools, community groups, health professionals, parks officials and others. 

“There is no single reason for childhood obesity,” Christoffel said. “It was a perfect storm where there were changes all in the wrong direction: a car for every family, cheaper food, larger portions … you can go on and on.”

The Consortium also supports special obesity prevention programs in neighborhoods such as Pilsen, Englewood and Humboldt Park, low-income and communities of color where there is the greatest need for intervention. 

In the next month, the group will develop a plan for how to use the Health and Human Services funds. Under the grant criteria, the money must be used to create structures with "staying power," Christoffel said, and for efforts that focus on policy and environmental change. She said most of the money will go to community organizations working across the city; the Consortium will coordinate the efforts.

 In Chicago, obesity prevalence among children 3-7 years old is 22 percent, more than double that of US rates for similarly aged children, according to the Consortium. However, the prevalence of obesity among children entering local schools has decreased from 24 percent, or about 6,000 children, between 2004 and 2008.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC) suggest that obesity rates have stabilized nationwide, but health officials say policies and practices are not yet in place to reverse the epidemic -- and the rates are still staggering.  Seventeen percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 2-19 are obese – triple the rate of a generation ago, according to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). African-American and Latino children have the highest obesity rates.

Childhood obesity cost the nation upwards of $3 billion annually, the CDC reports, with children suffering from weight-related illnesses such as high blood pressure and cholesterol and diabetes. And obese children – those with a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex – are more likely to become obese adults.

A pediatrician who also has a Master's in Public Health, Christoffel has a long history of involvement in child nutrition, including founding the Nutrition Evaluation Clinic at Children’s Memorial in 1982.  “I’ve been taking care of overweight kids for a long time,” she said. “The severity got worse, and at an early age. And it became increasingly apparent to me that we were not going to take proper care of them or reduce the rising rate of obesity unless we adopted a comprehensive approach.”

The announcement by Health and Human Services comes within days of the publication of the premier issue of Childhood Obesity Journal, published bimonthly by Mary Ann Liebert in collaboration with the American Association of Diabetes Educators, American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association and American Academy of Family Physicians.  The journal, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, reflects the growing national attention on childhood obesity.

USDA will expand support for school food gardens

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson Just in time for the beginning of the school year, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced a $1 million pilot program to develop and manage community gardens at high-poverty schools in five states. Funded through the National School Lunch Act, the program targets schools where 50 percent or more of students are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals.

Public and not-for-profit organizations are encouraged to apply for grant funding for the pilot program. The deadline for applications is November 8, 2010.

The goal is to teach youth about agriculture production, diet and nutrition. Vilsack said the program will help kids and their families make healthier choices and encourage schools to prepare healthier meals by using the produce grown by students.

"Grass roots community gardens and agriculture programs have great promise for teaching our kids about food production and nutrition at the local level," Vilsack said. "Learning where food comes from and what fresh foods taste like, and the pride of growing and serving vegetables and fruits that grew through your own effort, are life-changing experiences."

The pilot comes as Congress considers improvements to the Child Nutrition Act, which includes school-based food and nutrition programs that feed 32 million children a day. Designed as anti-hunger initiatives, school breakfast and lunch programs have been criticized in recent years because the meals are heavy on processed foods, which have limited nutritional value and contribute to the nation's soaring childhood obesity rates.

Some school districts, including the Chicago Public Schools, have attempted to provide healthier school fare through partnerships with local organic food growers. But school officials say it is too expensive to take such programs districtwide.

Grant applications for the USDA school garden pilot program may be submitted by email to: or through The Request for Applications is available on-line at

Chicago Public Schools to buy more produce from Illinois farmers

Cassandra West

The food service provider for Chicago Public Schools plans to increase the produce it buys from Illinois farmers. Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality is asking farmers to contract for $500,000 of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables in addition to the $1.8 million in local farm products purchased last year, the food service company said in a July 15 press release. “This program is fulfilling our commitment to meet the new nutritional standards adopted by the Chicago Board of Education to try and surpass the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ‘gold standard’ guidelines for school food,” said Louise Esaian, logistics officer for food service at Chicago Public Schools.

Chartwells-Thompson has teamed with, a Chicago-based non-profit that works to build and utilize local food systems.

“We want apples, peaches pears, broccoli, beans, potatoes and other fruits and vegetables grown by Illinois farmers to serve nearly 305,000 students in 481 schools every day,” said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president for Chartwells-Thompson. “This is good for local farmers and great for Chicago students.”

Documentary explores history of the School Lunch Program

Cassandra West

Lunch Line documentary clip By Susan Richardson Lunch Line, a new documentary about the history of the school lunch program, comes at  an important time. The 64-year-old  program is up for reauthorization by Congress as part of the Child Nutrition Act, bringing attention to what children are eating, where it comes from and the role of the federal government  in ushering food from farms to forks.

The program, created in 1946 by President Harry Truman, is designed to reduce child hunger, but the nutritional value of school lunches has come under fire.  Critics say the lunches are loaded with high fat, high calorie and heavily processed food.  School lunch officials counter that it is too expensive to provide fresh food to millions of children.  With support from the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama's quest to reduce obesity is calling for more nutritional school lunches.  Given the attention surrounding the school lunch program, Lunch Line could influence the legislative debate about the future of a program that feeds millions of American children for about $2.68 per child per lunch and has historically enjoyed bipartisan support.

Seeding Chicago interviewed Michael Graziano, co-director, with Ernie Park, of Lunch Line.

What prompted you to make the film? Do you have an interest in the healthy food movement? I had read Wendell Berry and some Michael Pollan. But we are not food advocacy people. We are constantly looking for new ideas and read a story in The Chicago Reader  about The Organic School Project (a school-based pilot program that helps children make healthy food choices) and thought it might yield some interesting things about our society.  The plan was to make a verite film. We shot about a year of (the project) then realized the school lunch program begged bigger questions. We needed to talk to people who could  answer some of those big questions, like Susan Levine of the University of Illnois Chicago. who has written about school lunch policy.  Once we kind of broke the seal on putting interviews in,  we thought we  might as well talk to a range of people who  have been influential in the actual school lunch policy.

Why should Americans care about school lunch policy? It's important for a few reasons.  A big thing that gets left out is that it's an important feeding program for 31 million kids, and most of them receive  one-half to two-thirds of their total caloric intake from school lunch per day.  For many of those kids school lunch is the only square meal they will get in a day, but it's so complicated now with obesity.  At the same time as you have hunger as a problem you also have obesity as a problem.

What effect do you think the film will have on the school lunch debate? I think that our film illustrates how policy, politics, money, and nutritition all interact , and how they have interacted historically. And I think if you want to change a system you have to understand how it works. For all that Jamie Oliver did to raise awareness about problems of school lunch in terms of affecting substantive change, you wonder how successful it will be.  It may alienate some of the people you need to enroll to your cause to make the change.  If we can get people to understand the context or the back story, there is actually a lot more common ground (around the school lunch program) than people might realize.

To organize a screening of the film, contact Watch a trailer of film.   For more information, visit

Shabazz Food Hub connects farms and cities

Cassandra West

A young volunteer at Shabazz Food Hub Market Days By Susan Richardson The smell of mustard greens sautéed in olive oil with garlic fills the air in an auditorium at Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago.  People browse and buy produce and seedlings on a Saturday afternoon. It is Market Day at the Shabazz Food Hub.

Twice a month, hub members come to pick up preordered produce; others shop for greens, millet, papaya, sunflower seeds and other healthy foods.  And vendors sell items including homemade bean pies and organic juices, completing the menu.

The food hub is a project of the charter school and Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living, an eco-campus and farm in Pembroke Township that seeks to restore the link between African-Americans and their agrarian past, encourage collective economics and promote health and locally grown food.  Based in the historically black farming community about an hour from Chicago, the Center  sponsors training sessions for students and others, teaching them about composting and growing their own food and the politics and history of food production and distribution.

Shabazz Food Hub is one of two food centers in Chicago sponsored by Black Oaks.  The other is run through the office of Dr. Jifunza Wright Carter, who, with her husband, Fred Carter, founded the Center.

“Ideally we want to have hubs that sort of dot the city and in different areas where there is not access to the food,” said Mike Strode, coordinator of the Shabazz Food Hub and parent of a daughter at the charter school.

U.S. consumers are growing more aware of the ills of processed foods and the dangers of a global food delivery system that ships vegetables, fruits and meat thousands of miles from their point of origin.  Transporting the food across the globe threatens the environment and also raises food security issues in an age of terrorism and volatile political conflicts.

In African-American communities, access to healthy food has become a public health, social justice and economic rights issue.  Studies show the link between access to healthy food and food-related illness. Blacks suffer from diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure at higher rates than whites, yet are least likely to have a quality grocer in their neighborhoods.

Research from Policy Link, an advocacy organization that works for food justice, reports that 8 percent of African -Americans live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31 percent of whites.  A report by Policy Link and the Food Trust recommends developing retail outlets such as farmers’ markets, coops, farm stands, mobile vendors, and other community-supported agriculture programs to help address health disparities and encourage economic development.

At the Shabazz Charter School students are served vegetarian meals and food has long been a part of the educational process, said Strode.  Launched in November 2009,  the hub makes it easier for parents and the surrounding community to embrace a healthier diet. In addition, the Shabazz Food Hub connects with the school’s African-centered principles, in particular the concept of ujamaa, or collective economics, and the teachings of Maat. The principles are reflected among the volunteers at the Hub, who refer to each other as Baba (for men) and Mama (for women), terms that denote respect, and, most important,  community.

Market Day also includes cooking demonstrations that emphasize healthy preparation of healthy food.  Like millet with cinnamon, nutmeg and butter, and a new way to prepare chard, with natural peanut butter melted and tossed with tomato and onions.  Strode said the market and the demonstrations encourage people to try “foods they are not familiar with.”  And show  them how good healthy food can taste.

Coming Up: Seeding Chicago's visit to Black Oaks Center and interviews with Fred Carter and Dr. Jifunza Wright Carter.

Oscar-Nominated Documentary Tackles Food Production

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson

Food, Inc., a documentary that explores America's industrialized food system and its effect on the environment, health, and economy, will be shown tonight, Wednesday, April 21, at 9 p.m. on WTTW 11.   The film, which was nominated for an Oscar, examines major issues surrounding food and food production: factory farming, genetic engineering, pesticides, food-borne illnesses, organic food, nutritional labeling, environmental impact, school lunches, obesity, and farm workers' rights.  The documentary is also available on Netflix.

Director Robert Kenner follows the processed chicken at American grocery stores back to cramped chicken houses where the birds are puffed up on steroids.  Kenner also highlights  a working-class family as it struggles to eat healthy on a limited budget.  The documentary is informed by the work of healthy food advocates Eric Schlosser, author of  "Fast Food Nation," and Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma."