Tale Of “Two Moms Angry” Hits National Stage

The Katonah-Lewisboro School District has ample reason to pat itself on its back.

For one, its schools now offer healthy food choices in their lunch menus. For another, it’s been featured in a critically acclaimed documentary film—one that chronicles the schools’ journey from junk snack to health food.

As its eponymous title would suggest, the film, “Two Angry Moms,” is actually, about two angry moms, who were fed-up with the food served in school cafeterias, and together, decided to take up the cudgels against calorie-laden fatty foods and fizzy drinks.

Clips from the film were screened recently at the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on September 25.

It’s expected to hit the big screens, later this year, with a showing at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, scheduled for November.

How the district came to be the focus of the movie is a story of the convergence of an ambitious project, a band of dedicated individuals, excellent timing, and one noble cause.

The district has had a food committee for a few years now. But up until recently, it’d been a toothless tiger, playing an ornamental role more than anything else.

The onerous task of shaking it into action fell on Mary Ann Petrilena—the mother of a 16-year-old—who along with other concerned parents spearheaded a call for change.

Their anxiety was driven by a grim reality. Since the 1980s, obesity in kids has tripled. Today, nine million American children are overweight, according to the estimates of Action for Healthy Kids—a consortium of over 50 public and private agencies, dedicated to promoting kids’ health.

In 2004, as the district toyed with ideas to revamp the school menu, a few miles away, in Chappaqua, New York, Dr. Susan Rubin, 47, a mother of three daughters, was readying to launch a non-profit grassroots coalition called Better School Food.

“I got involved 12 years ago, when my then-first-grader came home with candy in her backpack, she had gotten in the cafeteria. As a dentist, it started out as a sugar issue for me. I created a junk food awareness program,” said Dr. Rubin in an e-mail response.

“Then, I ended up going back to school for holistic nutrition and realized that sugar and other poor quality ingredients caused more damage to our kids besides their teeth and waistlines.”

“I met Dr. Susan Rubin and invited her to speak at the Katonah-Lewisboro School District in 2004,” said Ms. Petrilena.

Around that time, the local board of education and the school administrators also attended a conference hosted by Better School Food—an event that galvanized their nascent efforts at weaning the children off unbalanced diet.

From here on, there was no looking back. “They used it as a springboard to improve what was already going on,” said Eve Hundt, the board’s vice president.

A districtwide survey was conducted. Its results only reinforced the officials’ belief that the community wanted its schools to serve nutritious meals.

In 2006, in accordance with a federal policy, a wellness committee, consisting of an assortment of administrators, teachers, parents, students, school nurses, and a food-service manager, was established.

It scored a resounding victory with the drafting of a tough nutrition policy that clearly drew the line between what was and wasn’t admissible in the schools’ vending machines and lunchrooms.

“Before the changes occurred, the district served the same institutional quality, unhealthful processed foods that all other schools serve,” says Ms. Petrilena, who co-chaired the wellness committee.

The new program tossed out the entire gamut of processed food—everything from French fries, donuts, cookies, white bread, chicken nuggets, popcorn, canned fruits in heavy syrup, and everything in between—and introduced in their place, selections of whole foods including seasonal fruits and fresh veggies.

“All foods and beverages with unhealthy ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, partially hydrogenated oils, and high sugar were eliminated,” she adds.

In September 2006, the district hired a trained chef, Andrea Martin. Instead of serving ready-to-eat and heat-and-serve fare, meals are now prepared from scratch. From being a regular fixture on the menu, pizza is now served only once a week and is made with whole wheat flour.

Fried chicken nuggets have given way to succulent chicken, roasted with olive oil and fresh herbs. The French fries have been replaced with oven-roasted sweet potatoes. Soy milk and fruit juices have supplanted the energy drinks.

Not ice-cream, but yogurt, now fills the shelves of the vending machines. The middle and high schools also have salad bars and pasta stations.

While Dr. Rubin and the district collaborated, their project caught the attention of Amy Kalafa, 48, an independent veteran filmmaker, in Weston, in neighboring Connecticut, who asked if she could follow the development of the Better School Food movement on film.

At the same time, the district was working on its Wellness Policy.

Susan [Rubin] told Amy about what was happening at the Katonah-Lewisboro School District and she was very interested, says Ms. Petrilena.

Speaking of the students’ reaction to these changes, she says, in the initial six weeks or so, there was a “dramatic drop in participation. More students brought lunch from home.” But by the end of October 2006, “sales [of school lunches] picked up and have continued to build substantially” thereafter.

The program has been so successful that it’s being touted as a model for other school districts around the county. The “two angry moms” are already inundated with calls of help from parents from Oklahoma to Maryland.

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