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