Undercover in the cafeteria... Yuck!

Nov 2, 2012

—School lunch program not truthfully advertised.

Undercover coverage in the modern food chain is nothing new to the American public. Covert videos taken on farms down to misdeeds in high-end kitchens are readily available online. But the tradition Upton Sinclair made popular with “The Jungle” might have seen its youngest addition yet: a 10-year-old with a pocket camera.

Last year, Zachary Maxwell started secretly documenting the contents of his New York City (NYC) public school’s lunch program. What he and his friends were being served was not what the school and the NYC Department of Education said was on the menu.

The resulting documentary—“Yuck: A fourth-grader’s short documentary about school lunch” (“Yuck”)—is now making the rounds of independent film festivals in NYC.

Maxwell said he was motivated to start his undercover project when his parents wouldn’t let him pack his own lunch.

“I wanted to pack my lunch and my parents looked at the menu and said it looked pretty good and it was free,” Maxwell told NewFilmmakers New York, the group promoting his movie, in his profile interview.

“So I decided to bring a flip camera with me to school and film the school lunch. I wanted to prove to my parents that the Department of Education wasn’t being too truthful and that their school lunch wasn’t as good as they say it is. My parents were pretty shocked and surprised so I just decided to keep going with it.”

The short documentary covers Maxwell’s adventures in the real world where official statements and reality are not necessarily the same. Over the course of his project, he collected footage of 75 days’ worth of his school lunches. His findings were a disappointing indictment for the school lunch program.

In comparing the contents of his footage with the descriptions provided on the menus, Maxwell found that roughly half of the time the menus were “substantially accurate,” as in at least two of the items listed on the menu were actually served. Only 16 percent of the time—12 lunches—were the lunches totally accurate to the menu. That leaves a third of the time where what was served bore little to no resemblance to the menu.

Numerous side-by-side comparisons of menu claims to reality were presented to humorous effect in the movie. Even in the cases where the menu items and the served lunches did overlap, the description and the reality were rarely similar. The majority of items displayed were breaded and certainly did not look as if they came “from the finest dining establishments,” as was Maxwell’s impression of the menu descriptions.

As it stands today, the NYC school lunch program—SchoolFood—claims it has changed its menus to “support the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.”

According to its website where it welcomes students to the new 2012/2013 school year, a whole new line of more nutritious and healthy choices are available in the lunch program. New items supposedly include more fruits and vegetable options, as well as the use of non-genetically modified ingredients and more whole wheat.

The NYC SchoolFood program also boasts menus created by “SchoolFood’s Executive Chef and a team of professional Chef Instructors,” along with its claims of greater variety and more nutritious choices. The topic of professional chefs supposedly designing the school lunch menu items is again humorously addressed in “Yuck.”

In what Maxwell calls the “Battle of the Salads,” the documentary shows the school’s rendition of two different salad options supposedly designed by celebrity chefs Rachael Ray and Ellie Krieger in 2009. Both amounted to a few pieces of limp chopped lettuce despite the descriptions which included tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower and peppers.

The claims of the NYC SchoolFood program aside, Maxwell says nothing has really changed since his covert investigation last year and the making of his documentary. Though he takes his lunch now, some of his friends still participate in the lunch program so he still has contact with it that way.

“Well, nothing’s really changed. They’ve just been calling [menu items] different names. But I didn’t see any changes at my school.”

This on-the-ground observation comes as a counterpoint to much of the official rhetoric on the topic. Considerable official and media attention has been devoted to the recent changes to the school lunch program under Michelle Obama’s nutrition-oriented initiatives. One sticking point about the mandated changes—and highlighted in several parody videos which have gone viral online—is the cuts to calories provided in school lunches.

The findings documented in “Yuck” show a situation where the carefully planned menus crafted for nutritional value and flavor appeal do not necessarily come to fruition. If Maxwell’s situation is at all representative of other public schools participating in the school lunch program, this draws into question how effective the high-level changes are.

Both in speaking with WLJ and in his documentary, Maxwell concedes that the duty of feeding so many students is indeed a challenging one. Reportedly, his school alone serves roughly 971 free or reduced-cost school lunches a day. He did point out that he really couldn’t complain since the lunches were free and sometimes even very tasty, but that the lack of truthful advertising was a problem.

Maxwell ended his documentary with a call to action for the Department of Education.

“To all the school food service programs out there: time to step up your game. Because we’ll be watching,” he said, holding out his undercover camera as proof of his warning.

So far, very few of Maxwell’s teachers or school administrators are aware of his documentary. He told WLJ his gym teacher and home room teacher saw it and said it was “cool” and encouraged him. When asked if he had a particular interest in food documentaries, he explained that his topic choice was more out of practicality than anything else.

“As a kid I don’t have that many choices right now. I thought the Department of Education would be a good opportunity, and I could do it when no one could see me.”

Maxwell plans to pursue his love of documentary filmmaking and has the encouraging support of his parents.

Even at his young age, he knows what he wants to do.

“When I grow up, I want to be a documentary filmmaker and make documentaries on a lot of different topics. When I get better, I want to be a studio director. Also, I hope when I succeed, I can create my own studio and my own empire, like George Lucas. He’s like my idol.”

“Yuck” runs about 20 minutes long and has been shown at a number of NYC film festivals. The remaining available screening will be held on Nov. 21 at 6 p.m. at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, New York City. Admission is $6 and the box office opens at 5:30 p.m. A trailer of the documentary can be found online at YuckMovie.com. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor