Monday, May 3, 2010

School Lunch, Real Food, and Politics

School lunch has been discussed more this year than any other in my memory, given the activity in Congress for increasing funding and updating standards as well as Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. The NY Times reported that "the new standards will require more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and, for the first time, limit the amount of calories in each meal." I'm glad there is energy toward improving school lunches, but my personal opinion is that the changes that are described here are not the ones that are most urgent.

When I look at the menus & published nutritional analysis for the local elementary school, I see some meals that are ok and some that are really loaded with sodium and sugar (the fat content is largely under control, and there minimal to no trans-fats), and far too many things that are filled with flour. Many of the meals are a total carb rush that would leave most adults in a stupor, not prepared for an afternoon of work (example: one day I witnessed a meal of French toast sticks with artificially-flavored (HFCS) syrup, a white-flour dinner roll, and fruit... sugar overload). In my opinion, the first step should be reducing sugars and sodium, if our district's meals are typical. Yes to water with lunch. But no to just skim milk! It has more sugars (lactose) than 2%. Better to cut milk entirely and recognize it as the food that it is, not a beverage.

Most of our school's meals include "whole grains" - in the breading that is on the (frozen and reheated, but baked, not fried) meat-based products. Whole grains as flour aren't the same as whole grains. When our school serves rice, it's white rice, and when they serve rolls, they are extremely bleached - so when they say that meals include whole grains, it's a very minor inclusion. I think that massive reform is needed, not just changes to the existing program. Start from the ground and build a new program - based on real nutrition knowledge, and not run by the USDA or based on its guidelines. The Mediterranean diet is widely touted for promoting health - but it is absent from our cafeteria.

I've been in a couple of meetings with the nutritionists for our school district. They have to walk a pretty fine line. They have a budget they have to meet (and schools everywhere are in the red these days, so there's not an extra penny to be had), they have to meet USDA guidelines (which may or may not actually promote health, depending on your point of view), none of our schools have actual cooking kitchens, so they have to buy prepped stuff for warming, and they claim the kids won't eat anything that isn't familiar to them.

[I see the greatest flexibility on the last point. Most hungry kids will eat. I don't think the schools are going to even try foods that are likely to be totally unfamiliar, such as artichokes or risotto (yes, the kids are missing out, aren't they!). I am not suggesting they serve the kids steamed beet greens over quinoa. I am suggesting that they get creative. Surely these kids have seen foods other than hamburgers and pizza in their lifetimes.]

Anyway, in our district at least, the nutritionists are in a bit of a corner, and rather than admitting this, they tend to get defensive. It's a difficult topic for discussion. They feel they've made vast improvements in the past decade; while this may be true, there are many people (myself included, obviously) who feel that there is still a broad chasm between what we have and what would be a healthy lunch.

School lunches cost almost $2.50/day. I can pack my daughter's lunch for about $0.60/day, which includes organic fruit.

Why shouldn't school lunch just be lunch? For schools that can't cook, sandwiches on *real* whole grain bread with low sugar and some sliced fruits and vegetables would be familiar foods to everyone, and would cost a lot less than the processed things they are currently serving - various forms of chicken nuggets, ground beef, pizza, pancakes, and hot dogs. I know that part of the motivation for school lunch is that some kids don't get a complete meal, but seriously now - chicken nuggets are no more a meal than a sandwich is.

OK, ranting about school lunches aside - I am glad that ABC is airing "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," and I hope that it wakes up parents across the country.

I hope that it helps people realize that what they eat has a huge impact on their health, and their kids' health. I hope it spurs some dietary change - but I don't know that it will. I think that anything on TV is still somewhat abstract for most viewers. Will they connect that boy's pre-diabetic condition with the food they eat next time they go to a fast food place? Or with the sweetened yogurt in their fridge? Or the white bread toast or bagel they had for breakfast? I don't know.

What's the best way to teach people to cook, and eat, vegetables? For people who grew up eating fast food or canned foods combined in casseroles, a head of cauliflower or an eggplant might be a daunting object.

Learning to cook takes time. I grew up watching my mom cook, so by the time I hit college I was probably better off than many kids in that regard - but during the many years that I worked full time, my cooking abilities were really limited compared to now, when I can concoct a meal from whatever's in the fridge with little notice and no recipes. And now that I really can cook, it takes me a lot less time than it used to when I needed to follow recipes.

I eat lunch with my daughter at school from time to time. I always pack my lunch. One day one of her classmates asked me if I liked chicken nuggets. I said no. Cheeseburger? No. Hamburger? No. At this point she was clearly having problems thinking of what we must eat, if we didn't eat any of those things. Unfortunately, I think that may be the situation of many families and children.

I think that encouraging people to eat raw, prepped veggies or salad might be a way to start, because of the time factor - but they do cost more in that form. Frozen vegetables are healthy and a time-saver - and often cost less than fresh, too, especially if you consider they are already trimmed and 100% usable (e.g. frozen cauliflower is just the florets, and no huge stem to dispose of). Could restaurants or community education programs offer free cooking classes? If so, when is the best time for working parents or low-income families? What ideas do you have for helping our next generation to be healthy?

No comments:

Post a Comment