The Other 60 Percent

Heroes, villains hard to peg in Lunch Line

Image of typical American school cafeteria lunch on a tray.
A typical lunch in many U.S. schools.

Say this for Chicago filmmaker Michael Graziano: He has turned 60 years of the dry, political history of the national school lunch program into an engaging and entertaining werewolves-versus-vampires cartoon/documentary, with no obviously good guys to root for or clearly bad guys to boo.

Graziano was in Denver Thursday night for a special screening of Lunch Line, the much-talked-about hour-long documentary that examines why it’s so hard to serve healthy food in our nation’s school lunchrooms.

Fittingly, the screening took place in the cafeteria at SOAR, the Denver charter school in Green Valley Ranch that serves mostly organic, locally-produced vegetarian meals to students. SOAR also bans sugary treats brought from home, along with any beverage other than water or 100 percent fruit juice.

“It’s been screened around the country, and each time, a good dialogue gets started. At each screening, people meet who never met before and they see they have common ground,” said Graziano, who made the movie with Ernie Park.

“I hope the take-away is that compromise is not a dirty word. There is common ground. If you show a film about global warming, there’s not much you can do about it afterward. But when you show a film about school lunches, it’s remarkable what a group of committed people can really do. You can make changes at the micro level.”

A Lunch Line movie poster.
A Lunch Line movie poster.

The film is an often subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – political commentary on the politics of hunger and the politics of agriculture. But it started out to be something else altogether, Graziano said.

“We’re not food advocates,” he said. “We heard about this Organic Food Project in Chicago and thought it would be interesting to follow for a year.

But as got into it, we realized it wasn’t yielding answers to the questions we were asking: Why is it so hard to do something so obvious? It’s obvious we should feed kids better food. But it’s not so obvious what the right thing to do is.”

So the film begins as a documentary about some Chicago schoolchildren who win a contest for designing a low-cost, high-nutrition school lunch menu and how the efforts of one Chicago school to serve better food get derailed because of budget cuts.

But to put this in context, the film gets creative. To tell the back story of how the national school lunch program came to be in 1946, and the political battles that have embroiled it to this day, Graziano and partner Park borrow the vampires-versus-werewolves motif from the popular Twilight/NewMoon books and movies.

The liberal anti-hunger, progressive lawmakers are depicted as werewolves. Conservative legislators representing farm interests are drawn as vampires. The school lunch program benefits both, creating secure markets for farmers while ensuring schoolchildren are fed.

But sometimes, a vampire’s “secure market” starts looking like a werewolf’s glut of cheap non-nutritious commodities dumped on innocent schoolchildren who need and deserve better. Yet at other times, the powerful vampirish U.S. Department of Agriculture has been the key to keeping the werewolves’ beloved school lunch program alive through wave after wave of Congressional cost-cutting.

A promotional ad from the new documentary Lunch Line

“It’s not always so clear who the good guys and the bad guys are,” Graziano said. “We worked hard not to create heroes and villains. That’s a trope in documentaries today. But to do so would do a disservice to this issue. We’ve gotten nearly universal positive feedback because everybody can see their interests represented in this film.”

About a hundred people turned out for the screening and post-screening panel discussion Thursday night. Among them was Ryan Galanaugh, community relations director for Metro CareRing, a large downtown Denver food pantry. He was there because he’s interested in eradicating hunger, and he has questions about how legislation to re-authorize the school lunch program might impact other anti-hunger programs.

“I enjoyed the movie,” he said. “It was very informative. Plus, I like vampires and werewolves. But I’d like to see some more practical steps, some more ideas about how I can get involved.”

Panelist Gabriel Gillaume, vice president with LiveWell Colorado, a non-profit organization that has launched a series of “culinary boot camps” for school food service workers across the state, said engaging parents will be key to ultimately making school food better.

“I tell doctors to tell parents who ask what to do about childhood obesity to ask what’s going on in their children’s school and to demand better. Get involved in the discussion,” he said.

For now, the only way to see the film is to contact Graziano’s company, Uji Films, and arrange a private screening. But come January, it will go into much wider distribution, Graziano said. He particularly hopes that schools, education advocacy groups and health advocacy groups will show it.

For more info on the film visit:

To see a teaser of the film visit:

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”