The Madison School District's lunch program serves as a window into the national debate over school nutrition and childhood obesity in an upcoming documentary film series.
The documentary, set to air on HBO on May 14 and 15 and for free on HBO.com, also features two Madison families who participate in the UW Hospital's Pediatric Fitness Clinic.
The four-part series, titled "The Weight of the Nation" and produced in collaboration with the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, is intended as a wake-up call for the country. According to the CDC, over the past 30 years the adult obesity rate has doubled and the child obesity rate has almost tripled, fueling a surge in heart and kidney disease, diabetes, cancer and strokes.
But the segment featuring Madison schools as the typical American cafeteria experience should alarm a city that prides itself on its farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture, said Martha Pings, a local parent nutrition advocate who appears in the film.
"When you think of Madison's food culture, the school system is not keeping up," Pings said in an interview after viewing part three of the series, which features Madison.
Pings and other parent advocates have pushed the School District to reduce processed foods, sugary cereals and chocolate milk, and to increase whole grains, raw fruits and vegetables, plain milk and real cheese.
The documentary features a handful of Madison parents, teachers and principals critical of the lunch menu and amount of time children have to eat. Scenes of food service workers packaging lunches on conveyor belts and students in cafeterias grabbing bags of chips and sports drinks while complaining about the greasy pizza all were shot in Madison, executive producer John Hoffman said.
Erik Kass, assistant superintendent for business services, who represents the School District in the film, doesn't challenge the premise that school lunches could be healthier. Instead, Kass laments limited funding for school meal programs.
"We're not going to take money out of kids' learning and try to provide them a different food product," Kass says in the film.
The School District has made changes to strike a better balance between what's healthy, affordable and appealing to students, food services director Steve Youngbauer said Wednesday. This year the district eliminated chocolate milk from breakfast menus, increased the amount of whole grain foods, offered two options at lunch instead of one and recently has been experimenting with new salad options.
Hoffman said Madison was selected partly because the district was willing to cooperate, but also because of the school lunch debate going on in the community.
"It really represents a discussion that's happening all over the country about how we improve the state of school lunch," Hoffman said. "We have a long way to go to get school lunch where it needs to be that we're only feeding school lunch to children that's good for them."
In addition to school lunches, the film explores several facets of the childhood obesity problem, including sugary drinks and cereals, advertising targeted at children, the increase in television, video game and computer time, and the decline of physical education in schools.
Randy Clark, manager of the UW Hospital Pediatric Fitness Clinic, who appears in the documentary, said the HBO request to film patients posed logistical challenges because of privacy considerations. The clinic also had a bad experience several years ago after a local TV station did a story about the clinic and a local radio host made fun of one of the featured children, he said.
A private screening of the hour-long childhood obesity segment, which includes about 20 minutes of material filmed in Madison last fall, is being held Thursday at Sundance Cinemas in Madison.