Kid director dishes on 'gross' truth behind school lunch program

Zachary Maxwell, a fourth grade Michael Moore, is hitting film festivals with a hidden camera exposé on the supposedly nutritious menu options at his school.

Reading, writing and revulsion.

That was the order of the day until lunchtime for one New York City fourth grader.

The online menu at P.S. 130 Hernando De Soto, as described by the city's Department of Education, presented scrumptious-sounding dishes like a "tri-color salad" and sides like "orange glazed carrots."

Fourth grader makes undercover documentary about school lunch

Fourth grader makes undercover documentary about school lunch
Duration: 2:05 Views: 27k MSN News/Newsy

"But the lunch being served at my school was nothing like what they were advertising on their website," reveals child filmmaker Zachary Maxwell, in the trailer for his documentary exposing the truth behind his public school's food service program.

What was meant to be a "Yum-O! Marinated tomato salad" from a recipe by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, for example, turned out to be a slice of pizza. As for the tiny salad on the side? That was curiously lacking any of the aforementioned tomatoes, though a sad-looking sliver of carrot did peek out from under a sprinkle of chopped lettuce.

The visual proof came from a sneaky project that Zachary, now 11, had been working on for six months.


Last year, he secretly filmed his cafeteria lunches — which are free at his school — as part of a mission to prove to his parents that the delectable-sounding and supposedly nutritious menu options at his school were just plain "gross."

The descriptively titled movie, "Yuck: A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch," has since been touring the film festival circuit. It opens next month at the Manhattan Film Festival.

But Zachary's hidden-camera project wasn't filmed without some grumbling from school staff and administrators. When the young filmmaker's surveillance team failed to give him a heads-up that he'd been spotted by a lunchroom monitor, his whole mission was put in peril.

"She sent me to my teacher, and my teacher told me to delete everything," he told the New York Times.

Zachary only pretended to comply. He kept the footage for what became his 20-minute documentary. Afterwards, he told the Times, "I fired my lookouts."

The documentary caught the attention of New York's Department of Education, which has boasted about offering salad bars for more than 1,000 schools every day, replacing white bread with whole wheat and eliminating trans fats in recent years.

But kids were reportedly tossing out their healthier lunches and rejecting the increased portions of fruits and vegetables. In a bid to keep bellies filled, some cafeterias tweaked the menus to make them more popular among students.

Asked about the disparity between the wholesome advertised menu items and what's actually served on certain days, department spokesperson Marge Feinberg explained in an email to MSN News that schools were previously free to play around with the system-wide recipes in order to appeal to more students.

She noted that Zachary's movie was filmed last year, "and up until last year, what was served in schools often deviated from the printed menu to some degree because we gave schools flexibility."

Feinberg added that as of September 2013, schools will have to "strictly adhere to the printed menu." The planned change was not however, a direct result of Zachary's film.

New York-based dietitian Laura Cipullo, who has designed a nutrition guide for children and educators called Healthy Habits, is familiar with local kids' abhorrence for public school lunches offered through the city's food service program.

Her clients tell her their children are fully aware of the salad bars at their schools, but that they avoid them because they don't seem appetizing.

Superstar gourmands like Rachael Ray, Jamie Oliver and the Food Network's Ellie Krieger have tried to make a difference, pitching healthier school-lunch dishes for public school kids in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years.

But Cipullo said that even though some of the items are prepared by celebrity chefs, kids aren't going to be enticed to chow down if it doesn't always look yummy. It has to be consistently tasty to hook young people into making smarter food decisions.

"You can't just have a chef come to your school once. The thing is, when you're going paper to plate, there's a discrepancy," she said, suggesting that local chefs could drop in regularly on schools to ensure standards are kept up. "If Rachael Ray isn't preparing it every day, it's not looking appealing and kids aren't eating it."

Another way to get kids to want to eat healthier is to engage them in the food prep process. Children could be introduced to the kitchens at school, compete in contests for meal presentation or get involved with planting a school garden, she said.

Cipullo also wants to see a sequel to Zachary's documentary to follow up on whether his school has improved its lunch service standards.

"It's very clever. I'd really like to see him make it again, a new version," she said. "It's good to have the eyes and ears out there. It's an eye-opener, so let's fix this miscommunication, not hide it. Let's turn this into a good thing."