Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Battle of the Bulge: School Lunch vs Healthy Kids

It's no secret that school lunches in America are, shall we say, less than stellar. I live in a reasonably well-to-do school district, which has over ten thousand students to educate on a budget of right around $100m a year. That's a lot of money - but once you factor in teacher salaries (85% of the operating costs), building maintenance, and all the other things our schools have to provide, the amount of cash spent on food service is, in the grand scheme of things, fairly low. While my kids aren't being fed the shit on a shingle that I got in elementary school thirty five years ago, it's hardly anything that would be considered overly healthy, either. I'm not bashing my district's food service program, don't get me wrong -- but it's pretty average, when compared to school food service around the country.

And that's where the problem lies. Our kids have become accustomed to being fed bland, beige foods for so long, that when someone comes in and tries to change those meals to something healthier, there's resistance -- not so much from kids as from parents. "My kid won't eat healthy food!" they cry. That's bullshit. Kids will eat what you give them, as long as IT TASTES GOOD. If you tell them eating vegetables is a chore, or something you do because you HAVE to, then no, they will not want to eat them. On the other hand, if you assume that all parts of the plate are equal, that message will also be passed along to children. Vegetables and fruit are just as tasty as meat and pasta, when prepared correctly.

I should add right here that while both my girls are fans of the not-very-spicy, they're also good sports who will almost always eat new stuff that's put in front of them. My son, on the other hand, will eat damn near anything.

But anyway, back to changing school lunches -- administrators fight it, citing costs as an issue - case in point: Chef Jamie Oliver has been trying to bring his Food Revolution program into the Los Angeles school district, and been soundly denied by the school board. Why? Because they say it's not cost-effective to feed a million kids a healthy lunch every day. Again, I call bullshit. If I can feed my family in a healthy way on a limited budget, so can the schools. Chefs shouldn't have to beg school districts to let them in, asking if they can try something new for a television show. School districts should be calling up food and nutrition experts and asking, "What can you do to help us feed kids healthy and tasty food in an affordable manner?"

If you look at school-aged children in other countries, like France, they eat good, delicious, healthy food every day. Those kids eat a wide variety of foods, with a vast array of flavors. They're trained from early childhood to appreciate flavor and taste -- no plain ol' macaroni noodles or chicken nuggets for them. And it's a badge of honor for a chef to prepare a school menu in Paris. Everything is prepared by hand, food safety is a big deal, and local foods are prepared whenever possible. Sure, the broccoli might be deep fried, but these children are also eating salads, bouillabaise, and garlic roasted chicken. In a small town, school lunch costs the equivalent of $2.50, and the chef is preparing food for 800 kids. By hand.

And guess what? There are not too many fat kids in France.

As if this isn't insane enough, now we've got a small school in Chicago which has banned packed lunches altogether -- parents are only allowed to send in food if their child has a documented allergy. They claim this is because parents don't send in healthy lunches. And yet, judging by the photo in the Chicago Tribune, they're feeding the students carb-laden enchiladas and fat-filled chocolate milk. So now, not only are students being fed stuff that's nutritionally deficient, their parents aren't even being given the opportunity to feed them an alternative.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of cutting out certain foods in schools. Kids don't need to drink a soda with lunch, or eat cake for dessert every day. Likewise, they'll drink white milk if you don't offer chocolate or strawberry variations. But I also believe that it's up to parents to have the ability to make smart food choices for their kids - particularly when the alternative is far less healthy than anything I could pack in a brown bag and send in.


  1. I just read the Chicago Tribune article and my blood absolutely boiled. If my boys were still public school aged and subject to this kind of (probably unconstitutional) policy, I would make the biggest racket and be the biggest thorn in their sides. I'd also probably "discover" some rare food allergy that required me to prepare their special lunches.

  2. Funny how quickly the district denied this, and then stated that the principal of the school in question was "misquoted" and there had been no ban on lunches from home. I hope someone is out interviewing parents right now about this. And someone, somewhere, has a school memo stating that there are no more "home" lunches allowed.

  3. Precisely - and it's clear from the Trib story that the students themselves believed that there were no more home lunches allowed.

  4. The school administrators are doing what they're being paid to do: train kids to be good consumers of the poor-quality, over-packaged, over-priced, ready-to-eat products that are produced by corporate America. And the ban on bringing home-made lunches adds an element of obedience training and inculcation of learned helplessness. The lesson is clear: if you want to eat, you take whatever your betters provide and are grateful.

  5. This makes me want to home school my kid for the next 6 years. So sad what is happening to the youth of today through the school system.....it's just not like it used to be.