I think a lot about what kids are eating in public schools
I didn't always. In fact, it is only relatively recently that I've given any thought at all to what people eat in schools, or the military and prisons for that matter.
For me, it started with milk, before I had my first baby. I was hearing so much about artificial hormones and precocious puberty, and about the side effects of unnecessarily used antibiotics, and I became afraid for the development of the child I was going to have. I made arrangements to get dairy from a small, local dairy farm. It came in glass bottles. I felt safer.
When my kids came of school age I took an initial look at the options in their cafeteria and I felt that same fear. But this time it wasn't a simple matter of calling the local dairy truck, and so I tried to convince myself that my kids had good eating habits and that there were things about the lunchroom offerings that were ok.
In point of fact, a lot of good work has been done around food, already, in my district. We are lucky, and owe a great debt to the diligence of a few very dedicated people. Our yogurt is hormone and antibiotic free, as is the milk the kids are offered. In our district we have an occasional vegetarian lunch entree appearing regularly, which is unusual in the US, what with the crazy protein-heavy nutritional guidelines, and we buy local apples that are made available to the kids all year long, whenever they might need a healthy boost. I was so happy when I discovered these things, and so I have let my kids eat at the school cafeteria, and hoped that the choices they made would be good ones. Ones I could feel good about, anyway.
This morning, at the breakfast table, while my kids were eating their oatmeal (made with locally grown oats, maple syrup, butter and milk) I asked what they had for lunch yesterday. "A sandwich", says my son with food in his mouth, "I didn't want to have Fluff, so I had the peanut butter and jelly."
That's where it all breaks down, right there.
What was on the menu at our cafeteria yesterday?
It would appear they had the option to eat macaroni and cheese with carrots and peaches. I can get this information any time, from the school district website. This is a fixed menu, all the schools have the same one, so we are looking at a lot of meals. Thousands a day. I would like to think that someone is getting up early in the morning to melt the butter for the roux to start the cheese sauce, but there is no chance of it. That mac and cheese is a product that is made up of a lot of things that are not food. There is sure to be horrible sweeteners in it, and most likely in the peaches as well. The carrots are going to be 'peeled baby carrots' in a little plastic bag. And, even though they are the fibrous core of big carrots cut down, soaked, transported and wrapped in plastic, and they have retained a whopping %20 of their original nutrition, most of which is fiber and beta-carotene, they are possibly the least offensive of those offerings. Not that it matters, because my children (yes, both of them, his younger sister was happy to pipe up with, "I have that everyday!") aren't eating the hot lunch, apparently. My kids are eating good old PB&J.
This is not new to me. I have suspected for a while now that my kids, and a lot of others like them, are most frequently by-passing the hot lunch in favor of the alternate- peanut butter and either jelly or Fluff (yes, seriously, marshmallow cream) on whole wheat bread. Doesn't sound so bad, really. But if we are potentially feeding thousands than that PB&J has to be one the school can afford, so I did a little bit of digging, and I got my hands on the ingredient lists for those three key items. I couldn't get the ingredients for Fluff. No one seems willing to admit that Fluff is still served in the cafeterias here. If it isn't then there is a very enterprising middle-schooler selling it on the side, cuz I don't' think my kids are making it up when they tell me they had it for lunch.
You can probably guess where I am going with this. Yes, there are hydrogenated fats, high fructose corn sweeteners and unnatural colors in this interpretation of that most traditional of simple sandwiches.
No surprises really. If you are reading this kind of writing you might already be activated, yourself, around food-related issues. Perhaps you have also investigated what your kids are eating at school, and are feeling a fear similar to mine. Maybe you are wondering what sorts of evils are being perpetrated on their hormonal development? Obesity is the side effect of eating unhealthful food that we can see. What we cannot see is malnutrition, hormonal disruption, and inability to focus and therefor learn properly.
The meat in our school lunchrooms is tainted with ammonia to kill the bacteria.
The kids are offered sweet drinks instead of water.
And the simplest, most unoffensive sandwich on earth is a transmission device for saturated fats and unpronounceable chemistry.
The way I see it there are two very obvious answers.
1- Pack lunch
2- Talk to my kids, keep helping them to make choices that are the least horrifying, and get involved with the system to make change.
Or perhaps even a combination of the two, but it is the second I want to focus on, because I think that most people choose #1, and that is why the problems we have are not going away.
It is not easy to understand what has happened in this country to have created a distribution system that sends the food of the lowest quality to the sprawling, hungry populations in our schools and other public programs. At the end of the day it is about money. In most simplistic terms, the government subsidizes farms, who in turn dump surplus on the government, who then make is available as "commodities" to the aforementioned programs.
What "commodities" really means is "free food". The commodities list is critical to public schools in this country because they have no money to pay for the food to feed the kids. Budgets have been cut so severely that schools have had to turn to their own cafeterias, and their student bodies, to pay for the lunch program. The appearance of soda machines and candy snacks in public schools is completely revenue driven. The money made from selling junk food pays for most of what the kids eat. The rest is "commodities". When soda machines are removed from the school lunchrooms the revenue stream disappears and so does the food services ability to purchase ingredients.
Many schools have rooms for the children to eat in, but no real kitchens in which to cook, in a real sense. Those that are lucky enough to have the facility to cook food often do not have the personnel to do so. Prepared foods come out of big bags made of thick plastic. Chicken, and other meat, is pulverized, fried and frozen to be reheated. Most commonly, little, if anything, is made from 'scratch', and the majority of vegetables are not remotely fresh. The long-suffering district employees who have to order the things that the kids then eat are dealing with a complicated set of offerings and no money to speak of. Where does a parent even begin to attack this monster?
Having put some energy into this when I first encountered these concerns I conscientiously attend meetings where parents have the opportunity to address the food service management directly. I am usually one of a small handful of parents who show up, even though there are twelve public grammar schools in my district. I think I am one of the more concerned and more agitated parents in this area, and I want to make change. I want a forum, and I want to help. One meeting, at 8:30 in the morning, twice a year is the platform I have found thus far.
And that is why I was stunned when I recently learned that there is a federal mandate that each school district has to have a "wellness committee" that oversees school food and suggests a wellness program. I know that our idea of wellness has become rather skewed in the past decade, but I care about what kids are eating and this is something I have never been aware of. Fundamentally, it doesn't matter what we moms think, we are not only not being told what our kids are eating, we are not even being told that we have the right to be concerned.
If you are, like me, agitated by the idea that what kids (as well as soldiers and prisoners) are eating is the worst kind of cheap food you do not have to sit silently by. You can investigate the options in your area. You can join with other concerned people in asking questions, and demanding first answers, and then solutions. Call the schools, ask who is on the mandated wellness committee and what are they doing. Go to the cafeteria and read ingredient lists. If you don't know what something is, look it up. And most importantly, talk to your kids. Talk to your kids friends, and your friends kids. Do you really know what they are eating?
"It's muffin day!" my son reminds his sister as they are eating that super-healthy breakfast. "I'm going to have two!" My daughter puts her spoon down, locavore, organic hot breakfast barely eaten, and announces that she is finished. It's an uphill battle, the fight for good food, made fresh from whole ingredients against the processed, sweetener laden, artificially flavored garbage that is everywhere. It's uphill all the way, and I'm going to keep climbing because I'm too scared to do anything else.