Public schools teach us what to eat

Cilantro is not your typical school lunch ingredient. Last week in St. Paul, Prosperity Heights Elementary School piloted the first in a series of new international menu items aimed to trim fat from children’s lunches and broaden their horizons.

The recipe for Hmong beef fried rice came from Seng Vang, the mother of two boys in St. Paul. It is safe to say if the cilantro farmers of the United States had a strong political lobby, children across the United States would also be eating Vang’s fried rice.

School lunches are a vital gateway to improving the lives of children and their communities. The St. Paul experiment proves that school lunchrooms should be more than dumping grounds for agricultural surplus.

Since 1946, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has influenced distribution of school lunches, as well as the menus. The USDA insists local schools’ food authorities are free to determine what food to serve and how to prepare it. However, schools currently get many of their ingredients from so-called “entitlement” foods, mostly dairy and meat products.

The overproduction of these commodities is subsidized by the federal government and later sold as “surplus” to U.S. schools. As the obesity rates rise among children, we must question whether such subsidies are in the best interest of our nation’s health.

What U.S. public schools serve for lunch does not accurately reflect who we are. Unlike most school districts, St. Paul food authorities recognized that their thriving Hmong and Hispanic communities offer an opportunity to redefine lunchroom menus. The changes are long overdue. Minority students make up 69 percent of St. Paul schools, confirming that antiquated notions of traditional U.S. fare are no longer valid.

Public schools teach children what to eat, and consequently, what Americans eat. They do so at the detriment of our health. Americans are among the fattest people in the world, weighed down further by unsound agricultural subsidies.