Marcel Proust had his madeleine but me, I had a peach. As it happens, not an American peach and certainly not a run-of-the-mill apple or orange, the kind of fruit frequently tossed from school lunch trays across our country. To be honest, I hadn’t paid much attention to whole fruit for years. Why bother with the real deal when we have so many fruit-flavored alternatives?
And then I ate that peach.
Right off I realized I’d forgotten what peaches were. How the flavors of tart and sweet tangle on the tongue. When I ate that peach in France six years ago, I instantly returned to the row home of my Philly childhood, a time and place when every kid could eat a perfect peach, not just foodies or world travelers.
Times and produce have changed.
Recently, we heard more from the trenches of plant food promotion with some mixed reviews of our national school lunch program. On one hand, we found that under the 2012 federal legislation school cafeterias became “healthier under new regulations” (New York Times, 8.28.15) and that a “majority of Americans support providing schoolchildren with healthy meals that consist of more fruits and vegetables” (N.Y. Times, 8.19.15). On the other hand, we received a dismaying snapshot of actual consumption habits in a recent public health report showing an increase in waste, especially vegetables. In their study, the “Impact of the National School Lunch Program on Fruit and Vegetable Selection in Northeastern Elementary Schoolchildren, 2012-2013”, the authors state that more than 80% of 240 school nutrition directors reported an increase in fruit and vegetable waste.
In other words, they’re still tossing those apples and dissing that broccoli.
As the Los Angeles Unified School District can attest, mandating a healthier meal is not the same thing as getting a child to eat it. In lunchrooms nationwide, students and meal service employees have grappled with the real world application of laudable aspirations, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. According to an L.A. Times story last year (L.A. Times, 4/1/14), LAUSD “students throw out at least $100,000 worth of food a day”, a very unappetizing situation.
This past winter as a part of my work as a community wellness advocate, I gained further insights when I listened to a panel of food service administrators give their side of the story. While it’s clear the staffers really wanted to find a way to feed our children well, I saw for the first time how the system itself works against rosy outcomes. It starts, of course, with cost. The food service reps cited a gamut of daunting federal guidelines and strict price constraints. We also heard about the queasy relationship between what kids prefer (chips and other snacks) vs. what they don’t (whole fruits) and how a meal service organization needs to keep the customer happy to make their budgets work. The meal suppliers see students as the customers, not their parents, but, frankly, no one’s all that happy. And, by the way, why are we blaming the children for the shortcomings of a system that can’t get better quality ingredients or create food that satisfies? If the system can’t meet reasonable demands for nutrition and taste, it’s probably time for the system to change.
Which brings us to how the meal program deals with fruits and veggies.
Under the 2012 regulations, “the meal selected by each student…must include at least one fruit or vegetable.” Right, so does this mean we can put any old apple or carrot stick on a tray and call it a day? Thanks, but pass the baked French fries! I’m pretty fanatical about healthy food but even I won’t eat just any fruit because I, like our children, have had so many bottom-of-the-barrel experiences. What’s worse, this “good for you” lunch item often sits off by itself. That’s practically daring a kid to ditch it. By treating plant-based nutrition in this way– as a money-wasting, begrudging afterthought– we’re demonizing fruits and vegetables and it’s getting us exactly nowhere.
So, what do we do? Well, the good news is that around the country many people are already working on creative ways to tackle this longstanding problem. With support from national initiatives like The Edible Schoolyard Project to regional efforts like the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, folks have warmed to the idea that our kids deserve better lunches, not to mention, breakfasts and dinners. We need to look at how we source, prepare and serve the food that our children need to fuel their days of learning. It won’t be easy because it requires a cultural shift at home as well as at school, yet meals that use nutritious ingredients in tasty ways are not only possible, but necessary. After all, we’re not just feeding our kids, we’re feeding our future.
Copyright 2015, Lori Fontanes
Sorry, but this is where I get in trouble. The way that I see this is that it’s what happens when the parents delegate their responsibility to the government to feed their children. When I went to school, my mom, and most other mothers, packed a lunch for us to take to school, and we ate healthy, and what we also liked, since mom knew what our tastes were. Now, in their quest for the all mighty dollar, both parents work, leaving the schools to raise their children. Yes, we have more toys, but the children we profess to love so much suffer for it.
Jerry, I am always happy to hear everyone’s point of view, no need to say sorry! I always packed a lunch for my daughter, too, when she went to public school so I hear you. The question for me is not whether or not we should be feeding children at school–that’s an even more complex topic, and you touched on a few of the aspects–but more that if we *are* feeding children at school, we should feed them well. Well doesn’t necessarily need to cost more if we spend time working on a better system. Frankly, most improvements to a food system that helps children will probably help the rest of us as well. Thank you for your input!
Another problem I noticed, while working at the school, was that kids base a lot of their opinions and habits at home. In after school programs, NY state requires teachers/caregivers serve a snack made up of one fruit/veg, one grain, and a drink (usually water or 100% juice). A lot of the kids I dealt with came from homes where unhealthy 5 minute “insta-meals” were the norm. They didn’t like the flavors of Natural foods. When we tried to convince them that it was good, we often came against “mom/dad says we don’t need it.”
While I can understand that a poorer family might not have access to a full array of fresh foods (I was raised by a single mom in a trying situation ), there is no excuse for telling your kid something like that.
What I never understood was why more schools don’t have gardens of some sort (even in-classroom ones).
Thanks for this comment! So, a couple of things. Your story is particularly useful to me because I work on wellness issues here in Westchester County (howdy, neighbor!) and so I can add it to my knowledgebase, thanks! Can you tell me how long ago you were doing this work? That would be good to know if you don’t mind sharing that. In terms of school vs. home, I would say that it goes beyond any individual family’s preferences and enters the realm of cultural norms. And those cultural norms are deeply affected by advertising–millions and millions of dollars worth, every year. Advertisers know, too, that the younger they start the influence, the better for them. And it’s very hard to change habits once started. Those parents were once children who were affected by those same cultural norms. We have a heavy lift ahead of us changing a situation that has been in place for decades but I think we can see some signs of hope around us. Thank you again for joining the conversation!
Oh, don’t get me started on this one Lori. Here in Ireland our own local schools don’t provide lunches so my kids go with packed lunches – which is fine. But where school lunches are provided it’s the same issues as you have described. Jamie Oliver did great campaign in the UK but not sure how effective it was in the end. From what I hear France is one of the few countries that does it right. At the end of the day I believe we as parents must give our kids the basic knowledge and understanding about what real food is – and that chips and their like are just treats like sweets to be had occasionally!
I don’t mind getting you started, Karina, please wade in! (I don’t use this blog for this sort of story very often so we might as well go, er, whole hog!!!) Thank you for that comment about the celebrity angle. It’s hard to measure any single advocate’s influence usually but I think we are seeing a range of people speaking out now and collectively we are moving the very large ship in a new direction. And in terms of treats, absolutely! The French call it “un petit plaisir”. It’s perfectly OK to have a little pleasure within a generally well-balanced life. Unfortunately, I think we are completely out of balance and in ways that we’re not even aware. See authors Michael Moss (“Salt, Sugar, Fat”) and Melanie Warner (“Pandora’s Lunchbox”) among others on the pernicious effects of industrial food. Thanks so much for your comment!
Many thanks for reading tips Lori – will search those out. I like that french too – “un petit plaisir” – very appropriate:)
Avec plaisir! 😉
When my dad was growing up in a small farming town in SE Colorado, he said schools looked down on the lunches many brought with them from home. Many had a lunch consisting of pinto beans wrapped in a flour tortilla. Sometimes, homemade chili (salsa) and maybe cheddar cheese and/or hamburger was included. That is not a bad lunch at all in my book. At school, that lunch would be taken away and substituted with a bologna sandwich. When my dad was old enough, he had lunch at the pool hall – eating anything he wanted with a soda.
When I went to school, I looked forward to the days when we had sloppy joes, hamburgers, corn dogs, and pizza. The mac-and-cheese was so-so, but couldn’t eat because of my dairy allergy.
When my daughters went to school, it wasn’t bad because they could pick-and-choose whatever they wanted. One week, Deborah and Elizabeth always chose the taco pizza everyday. But, for the most part, they took their own lunch from home. Spending $2.50 per school lunch, which would be half-eaten is a waste of money – particularly mine.
The solution is to restore some common sense to the program by taking out the regulatory mandate and give the kids some decent choices. And, let the kids bring cupcakes and cookies from home to celebrate their birthday. It’s nonsense to take it away and say “it’s not nutritious”.
The soapbox is now available. 🙂
I’ll step back up, briefly. 😉 Thanks for a very detailed response, David. I love this part about WordPress, BTW, a place where you can have a respectful, thoughtful conversation among parties with a range of views. See, Congress? It can be done! But I digress… 🙂 OK, so first, you’re making me hungry thinking of that homemade pinto bean tortilla with salsa. Yum!!! But, second, I have to agree with your conclusion on this: common sense and decent choices. Who could argue with that?!
Great blog Lori!
Thank you kindly!!! 🙂