What’s for (School) Lunch?

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The Modern-Day Version of A School Lunch

A group of parents in Washington, DC, where I live, is becoming very vocal and active on a subject that is gaining steam in PTAs and schools around the country: the issue of what we are serving our kids for lunch in school cafeterias. DC Parents for Better School Food, led by former Washington post writer Ed Bruske, has testified in support of school lunch reform before the DC City Council, met with the public schools’ food service director, and pounded the pavement to draw interest and attention to this matter, all in just a few short months of operation.

Many communities across the region and country are also involved in this struggle, attempting to force/ assist (depending on your perspective) local jurisdictions to be more mindful of nutritional concerns when purchasing and serving school lunches. What we are finding on those school cafeteria trays is not pretty, from either a healthful or a “good taste” point of view. The norm now seems to be an endless rotation of things like flavored milk, French fries, chips, applesauce, chicken nuggets, cheese pizza, hot dogs. Whatever can be pulled from a freezer or pantry shelf, warmed over and served; alas, most public school cafeterias, in Washington at least, don’t even have real “kitchens” where any form of cooking can be done.

Ed Bruske visited one such DC elementary school recently and took the attached photograph of the lunch that his daughter was offered: French fries (a vegetable?), strawberry flavored milk (protein/ dairy product) and whole grain chips (that essential grain component.) And let’s not forget the ketchup on the side; I suppose that we are again revisiting the Reagan-era claim that “ketchup can be considered a vegetable.” (For the purposes of school lunch, anyway.)

My contribution to the discussion, as always, has to do with the taste of these foods and the endless point that “this is what the children will eat.” Yes, we certainly make it simple for them. The lunch menu pictured here is a perfect example of what I describe in my book as a diet laden with “the Big Three: Fat, Salt and Sugar.” The French fries have the fat, the chips are salty, the strawberry milk is made sweet by artificial flavor additions. The point that I make in “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus” is that, if we are ever going to get to the point where children actually like and request foods more healthful than these, we are going to have to teach them to appreciate flavors and textures that go beyond these. You know: things like the bitter/ sharp flavor of most green vegetables; the earthy unami flavor of mushrooms; textures that are crunchy, stringy, even a bit slippery (like cooked spinach.)

As demonstrated here, once children reach elementary school age, many of their eating habits and food preferences are firmly entrenched. It is going to take some work to get many of these kids to try, then accept, then actually like and ask for things like vegetables at school, especially when many of them get so little reinforcement of this position at home. We must keep striving for this, but also not miss the lesson to be learned: the time to introduce kids to “real” foods and flavors is when they are very young. And it is exactly this steady diet of “kiddie foods” that so many of them eat at young ages that works against this.

Our DC parents group is growing, in both membership and enthusiasm. But all of us who are close to this issue realize that we have a long way to go to see real and permanent improvements. There are financial limitations, we’re told, bureaucratic processes that must be worked within, true logistical operations issues (like the lack of real kitchens to actually cook fresh food) that must be overcome. But I take heart in the fact that more and more of us are talking about this issue, and seeing it for the importance that it has to our kids’ futures. Please join us!

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One Response to “What’s for (School) Lunch?”

  1. Antonia Malchik Says:

    Have you been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution? The UK celebrity chef is doing a show about his effort to convert Huntington, West Virginia, to healthy, tasty eating (according to the CDC it’s the most obese city in America). His major obsession is with school lunches, and that’s where he started there. I think you’d be very interested in seeing what he’s trying to do, and what he’s learning about what constitutes a ‘balanced’ lunch according to the USDA. He’s already gone through this whole issue in Britain, and has done a huge amount to change the way that country approaches its school lunches. Like you, his major platform is that kids WILL eat nutritious food if it tastes good and you expose them to it a few times.

    I spent most of my childhood eating these lunches, because we were very poor and my mother hated getting up in the morning. In high school I began bringing my own or going out. I remember consuming some things that were vile (reconstituted powdered meat and the memorable occasion when maggots appeared on the pizza come to mind), but I ate it because it was there. I can’t remember EVER, however, liking it. Not even tater tots.

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