For years, nutrition experts, parents and food activists have criticized school cafeterias for serving unhealthy, unappetizing school lunches, linking federally subsidized food to childhood obesity, inattention in class and a host of other ills.
But the harsh criticism of school food and food service employees created a divide among groups that otherwise might have formed a natural alliance.
This fall, with the federal Child Nutrition Act up for reauthorization, these groups appear to have embraced a new spirit of cooperation.
"There's been a lot of organizations that have worked very closely this year," said Alexis Steines, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit group representing school food service employees. "There's a lot of interest in trying to find ways to make the school nutrition program operate effectively and reach the most students possible."
The Child Nutrition Act authorizes the national school lunch and breakfast programs and others important to the nutritional health of low-income children.
This afternoon, several hundred people are expected to gather in Pittsburgh's Mellon Park for an "Eat In"-- a potluck lunch where people will show their support for improving school meal programs. Slow Food USA, which advocates local and sustainable agriculture and eating, has organized almost 300 such Labor Day events in parks, gardens, schools and fairgrounds across the country.
Participants will be asked to sign a petition and contact their federal legislators urging improvements to the Child Nutrition Act.
The two top priorities pushed by Slow Food and other advocacy groups are closing the funding gap for school meals and creating consistent nutritional standards for all food served at schools.
Currently, the federal reimbursement for each school meal is $2.68, while the actual average cost per meal is $2.90. Slow Food, in particular, is asking Congress to raise the reimbursement by $1 per meal.
The other great challenge for school meal programs is competing with the other food available at schools. The federal government currently sets loose standards for snacks dispensed from vending machines and goodies brought in for such activities as bake sales or classroom parties. A strict federal requirement governing all food in schools would cut down on confusion and improve overall nutrition.
The school meal programs are an essential component of President Barack Obama's pledge to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. Because of the recession, more children are participating in school meal programs, which aim to provide low-income children with at least two nutritious meals a day.
During the 2006-07 school year, more than 8.1 million children received free or reduced-price breakfasts and 17.9 million children received free or reduced-price lunches. These numbers increased significantly during the last school year, according to a School Nutrition Association report.
Last year in the Pittsburgh city schools, school breakfast participation increased by 33 percent and school lunch participation increased by 7.6 percent. Free school breakfast was implemented across the district last year, but Food Services director Michael Peck said he hopes that improved food and marketing also helped to attract students.
The Pittsburgh schools have made strides in making food more nutritious in recent years. They've increased whole grains and fiber and reduced fat, including eliminating trans fat from 95 percent of products; they've reduced salt and sugar, processed and breaded items, and this fall, they're reintroducing whole muscle meat -- a piece of roasted chicken -- to the school lunch menu.
Mr. Peck is particularly excited about the Peak Harvest of Western PA initiative. With the assistance of Grow Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization, the district has identified local, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and they're selecting one each month to feature in schools, starting this month with peaches.
According to Ms. Steines of the School Nutrition Association, school districts across the country are improving nutritional standards and even working to source local foods.
"The most recent update to the farm bill last year eased restrictions on purchasing products from local producers," she explained.
There are still obstacles to overcome.
"The conditions of many cafeteria kitchens and equipment are outdated or non-existent," Mr. Peck said. His goal is to cut back on serving as much processed food as possible, but school kitchens must be updated to allow these changes.
Even if all school food were to meet the same strict standards, however, youngsters still decide what winds up on their plates. Education must receive equal support.
Grow Pittsburgh, which is dedicated to modeling, teaching, and facilitating sustainable urban agriculture within the Pittsburgh region, has built Edible Schoolyards at four Pittsburgh public schools.
Julie Pezzino, associate director of Grow Pittsburgh, said the organization hopes to create two more this year. These gardens aren't designed to provide food for the school cafeteria, but to teach youngsters where their food comes from and get them excited about trying new fruits and vegetables. As part of the Child Nutrition Act, Slow Food USA is asking Congress to fund grants for more programs such as Grow Pittsburgh.
But the focus on schools and nonprofits shouldn't distract from the fact that nutrition education starts at home.
"I think the parents are really going to have the power to change all this," Ms. Pezzino predicted. "When the parents get together and go to the school board and say we want real change to happen ... that's where we've seen a lot of success in other parts of the country."
China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or email@example.com . Follow China on Twitter at twitter.com/chinamillman.