Lunch Wars Book Review and My Own School Food Journey

Lunch food

True confessions: a random selection of stuff that may or may not find its way into my kids' lunches

I’m a sucker for books about nutrition and health. But I’ve noticed a trend among these books. They will either scare you from ever eating anything else in your life — for fear of pesticides, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and Roundup-Ready corn and wheat. Or they will be high on lofty feel-good anecdotes —  but short on actual advice on how to put those platitudes to work in your life.

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So when I had an opportunity to review a new book, Lunch Wars, by Amy Kalafa (Penguin Books, 2011)  for the BlogHer Book Club I was really interested.

For several years, my family avoided buying hot lunch. As a new mom concerned with nutrition, I was horrified by the plastic wrapped burritos and pizza pockets dished up at my kids’ school cafeteria that were nothing like the Chicken Fricasses and freshly made rolls of my own childhood. And Big Brother was nervous about being responsible for money, standing in line, and ordering his own meals. But after a few too many emergency midnight trips to the grocery store (need turkey! bread!), I came around to school food service as an occasional convenience. One chicken nugget day, I finally convinced Big Brother to buy lunch. Little did I know, I had created a monster.

One day after picking up my then-second grader  from school, I heard the rustling sound of plastic in the backseat.

“What are you eating?” I asked, trying to remember if I had packed a granola bar or something in his lunchbox.

“mmmf… pizza pocket… mmmf…”

“WHAT?!? I thought you brought lunch today?”

“I did. But some other kid didn’t want this, so I took it.”

Besides being a funny story, I’m sharing this anecdote as an example of why school food is something we should all be concerned about — even if our own kids do not depend on cafeteria lunches as their primary meals.

Lunch Wars definitely has its share of statistics to scare you from ever handing your kids a Fruit Roll-Up , as well as feel-good tales from the Edible Schoolyard. But what makes Amy Kalafa’s book different than others I have read is that it contains a LOT of nitty-gritty information about the politics of school lunches — from local district wellness committees, to the economics of the National School Lunch Program, to USDA policies.

I was hoping to find a few tips on how to pack healthier lunches for my own kids, but Lunch Wars is not that kind of personal how-to book. Unlike many books aimed at women (especially moms), the book is refreshingly smart and extremely political.

Kalafa doesn’t try to sell the reader that this is an easy job. Frankly, I don’t think I”ll be following up on any of her ideas because I’m already up to my eyeballs in other issues at my family’s school. But for someone who has the passion and energy to crusade for better nutrition, Lunch Wars is practically an action plan of how to organize parents to approach administrators to change outsourced, processed foods to locally grown, organic, made from scratch meals.

What do you think about the food at your kids’ school? How concerned are you with reforming cafeteria food? Or does this all seem like too much to bite off?


This was a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.


  1. says

    I’m not quite there yet since my daughter hasn’t entered school yet, but I’m sure I will be horrified by the lunch options at school, too. Hope by the time she gets to school there will be more healthier choices for school lunches.

  2. says

    Hi Grace, great review. When I was an eager new school mom and head of the grant committee at my kids’ school, I tried so very hard to get grants for improved school lunches. There was a specific group– something with Revolution in the name– that was ready to go, but politics got in the way and I also lost steam (and got distracted by blogging and now Twitter, I’m afraid!) Interestingly, the school made all the food at school healthier last year but now the kids think it is even yuckier. I have not had a break from making daily lunch in a few years, I’m afraid. We do have a wonderful school garden led by a more persistent mom and even an adobe pizza oven in it (yes, indeed!), so there is hope. And my kids do a lot of cooking at school, the best way to learn nutrition. I think we need Michelle Obama’s help here.

  3. says

    Chrtistina, I’d love to hear more about how your school changed their hot lunch program. I remember you posting about the school garden on OS…

    Linda, the book mentions Revolution Foods as an example of an outside food vendor that can still provide healthier options than the big corps.

    We also have a great garden at our school… but the district bylaws don’t allow the produce to be served in the official meals.

    Thanks for stopping by and telling me about what’s being done in your communities. It’s very interesting!

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