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'Lunch Hour' reveals the empty calories of school meals

"Lunch Hour" takes a close look at what kids eat at school and how that food gets to the table. (Birdstreet Productions)

Following in the activist tradition of such Participant Media films as "An Inconvenient Truth" and "Waiting for Superman," James Costa's documentary "Lunch Hour" seeks to wake up viewers to the national epidemic of unhealthy eating and how the school lunch program is creating a new generation of overweight, diabetic and otherwise overfed and undernourished kids.

The images are striking: Taking his cameras into school cafeterias, Costa finds Styrofoam trays haphazardly heaped with fried chicken patties, grey-ish mystery meat and, always, that ubiquitous carton of milk. (Ever wonder what a "spent hen" is? Believe me, you don't want to know.) Tracing the school lunch program to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Depression, Costa reveals that today's school lunch staples are artifacts of a time when school kids were getting too few calories, rather than too many.

They're also the result of aggressive lobbying by the food business, a confusing role for the USDA (which both regulates and promotes the agriculture industry) and the steady incursion of fast-food marketing into school lunch programs. Longtime food expert Marion Nestle, as well as media stars Rachael Ray and Robin Quivers, are on hand to provide cogent analysis of the problem. Luckily, just when viewers are likely to feel hopeless (or tempted to run straight to school and yank their kids out of there), "Lunch Hour" shines a light on some encouraging pilot programs in New York and California, where parents, chefs and enlightened school leaders are making exciting inroads in introducing kids to fresh, healthy, non-processed crunchables.

"Lunch Hour" has been lucidly filmed, although even at a sleek hour-and-15-minutes running time, the talking heads begin to weigh it down. But the things they are saying matter, and "Lunch Hour" does its job as an effective, informative, if not formally scintillating example of advocacy filmmaking. Taking another page from Participant, Costa ends with a list of recommendations for concerned parents, who with luck will heed his advice. As Ray says, this is that rare problem that can be fixed within our lifetimes, if we simply put down the Whoppers and Big Gulps and decide to do something about it.