Children, Nutrition, and Food That’s Good to Eat

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act was in the news a lot recently, and YEAH!, it finally passed. The gist of the thing is that healthier food in schools would mean healthier kids in school which would mean healthier learning for those kids so that they have a better chance of being successful in life later on. Oh, and the First Lady thinks that a part of better nutrition would be to get kids moving around instead of sitting around. Seems to make good sense, no?

Nutritious school food is not something that has never been. My grandmother was a lunchroom lady back in the really dark ages when my mom was in school. She made food from scratch every day. Her hot yeast rolls developed back then, and they turned into favorites that the kids she fed still remember as well as the rest of her family. She made soups, vegetables, meat. There were no salads, but there was no box of stuff in the freezer that she couldn’t identify as real food because it was made mostly with ingredients that she couldn’t pronounce.

Even back in the dark ages when Paul and I were in school, back when there wasn’t technology greater than the big floppy disks running rampant, there was healthy school food. There were people in the cafeteria who actually cooked most of it. Hamburgers? Made there. Vegetables? Made there. Mystery meat? Yep. Made there too.

Was it all good food? Well, no. But it was nutritious without being full of fat and sodium. It wasn’t something that just had to be reheated. There was always fish on Fridays. Chocolate milk and pizza (those rectangular slices that are pure nostalgia now) were special treats that you earned once a month for being good in the lunch room. And, whether you liked the vegetables or not, you had to eat them. Paul didn’t have it because he went to a larger school, but my elementary school teachers didn’t let us leave the cafeteria until those vegetables were gone. Maybe that was a reason for bringing your own lunch or for learning creative bargaining, but you ate real food. In fact, it wasn’t until I went to private school in junior high that pizza and chicken sandwiches and chips and cokes were available as daily options.

So where did it all change to the point that this bill is needed?

I didn’t realize how much things had changed until Patric was in school. He complained about the food, of course. I expected that from my own forced vegetable consumption. But his complaints were different. A commonly served meat was breaded fried chicken rings. I don’t know about you, but the only parts of a chicken that are rings are not parts I would want to eat. There were vegetables, but they didn’t have to get them on their trays or eat them if they didn’t want to. And sometimes, too often really, those vegetables were still cold. The meats were still frozen in the middle. The milk, chocolate or white, was sour and past its serve-by date. Does this happen all the time at all schools in the city? No. But the fact that it happens at all at any school in the city is not a sign of a healthy food system.

Why did this happen? In my opinion it was because there wasn’t a lunch lady back in the kitchen. There wasn’t someone who liked to see the children smile when they saw that today’s lunch was one of their favorites. Instead, there were people who had to know how to warm things up. Sometimes these people were employed by an outsourced food service instead of by the school. But what it boiled down to is that there was no one in the kitchen who actually knew how and wanted to cook food for children from scratch, even though the recipes for them were out there.

There are a lot of reasons behind this — lower labor costs, centralized and consistent food sourcing, food producer and agricultural lobbies. But while the intentions of it all may have been good and not just about profit margins, the results have been less than stellar. The systems seems to work from a misconception that children won’t eat food they don’t like, and that the food they do like is fried and salty with a big dose of sweet on the side. It’s not true. If children are offered fresh fruits and vegetables that aren’t cooked to mush every day, even the picky kids (I had to have the crusts cut off of my sandwiches, and you would never have seen me eat green peas at home.) will learn to like some of them just as much as the processed foods they eat today. Yes, there will always be some things that some or even most children just won’t like. I shudder as boiled Brussels sprouts come to mind. But they’ll also find plenty of things that they do like just from repeated exposure.

In Memphis, the importance of healthy food in schools cannot be underestimated. For too many students, the food they eat at school is their primary source of nutrition. Through no fault of their own, these children need that food for breakfast and for lunch. It’s easy to point blame at the people who aren’t providing it at home for whatever reason, but that doesn’t solve the problem or help the children. They need healthy food. They need to learn what healthy food is. They need to know that a good meal has more than one color on the plate. Personally, I believe that if their parents had been taught more about that, these kids would be a lot more likely to get that at home.

It would be great if they could all eat locally grown food with no pesticides or chemicals added for preservation. It would be even better if they all could learn to grow gardens to always have that food. It would be wonderful if they could all be taught to cook healthy meals with that food. It would be good. But that can’t happen, at least not without taking resources away from dealing with the other problems in our schools.

So it’s up our government to encourage it and up to us as parents and citizens to make sure that they get at least one good, reliable thing — simple, healthy food with the occasional slice of square school pizza thrown in.


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