24 October 2009

Thoughts on School Lunches, Pt. I

About two or three times a month, I like to meet my boys at their school for lunch and talk about how their day is going. I usually come unannounced because I love watching their faces light up when they see me. Of course, it is exciting for me as well, to know that I had such a positive impact on their day. I remember the first time I ever showed up to Luca's school—he spent half his lunch going around the lunch table introducing me to everyone— "This is my dad, Mr. Olivieri," he would say. The last time I went in to their school for lunch, I witnessed Luca at the "allergy-free" table eating lunch with a girl from his class who has a severe peanut allergy. They were the only two at the table. I asked him why he was sitting there. He told me that he did not want her to sit alone. I was incredibly proud of him.

Most of the time, I sit at the tables with his entire class. Even the first time I went into have lunch with him, I immediately noticed that Luca was one of the only children at the table who brought his lunch from home. Approximately 90-95% of his class purchases lunch at school on a daily basis. My wife and I prepare our children's lunch every day, which invariably consists of a sandwich—peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat, tuna fish with mustard, salami on ciabatta, a cheese stick, yogurt, some kind of fruit and vegetable: apple, strawberries, grapes, raspberries, pears and the usual lunchtime vegetables: carrots, celery sticks, or edamame beans. The students around us who had purchased their lunches were literally eating foods that I could not even identify. Honest. One student had a side of corn. The corn was completely unappealing to me. It had a light brown hue and looked liked it was drenched in butter or some sort of mystery brine. So, with the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I am absolutely appalled at the choices our district/state/country makes with regard to school lunch choices, and the scores of parents who willingly allow their children to eat these foods. Here are some of the choices at my children's school during the month of October:

Hot dogs, chicken nuggets (although sometimes in the form of the always popular "popcorn chicken," grilled cheese (at least five times during the month), pizza (at least five times during the month,) chicken tenders with dipping sauce, mozzarella sticks (a shoddy bar-food appetizer at best,) with red dipping sauce and french toast sticks—French freaking toast sticks!
The secondary choices on one of the days—to accompany the already stellar, highly nutritious first course of foods like the aforementioned french freaking toast sticks—consisted of seasoned spiral fries, glazed carrots and sliced cinnamon apples. Seriously, is it that difficult or costly to prepare carrot sticks or edamame beans, or some type of fresh fruit?

I have neither the time or energy to lead yet another crusade, directed at school boards, who award multi-million dollar contracts to food service corporations like Aramark. Their are plenty of well-intentioned, brave souls who fight that battle. Food service corporations supply school districts across the country with high volume troff-style feedings. Perhaps I am being extremely cynical, but the real bottom line of food service corporations (or any corporation for that matter) is to make money. I understand that. To be fair, Aramark's education website: (http://www.aramarkschools.com/food nutrition/index.php) uses language that would lead one to believe that they care a lot about nutrition and the health of students. Perhaps the real problem is how the food is prepared. Do carrots or snow pea pods need to be glazed with anything? They are pretty sweet already if you ask me. My children eat them willingly, and even request them often! Apples do not need cinnamon. What's wrong with children learning how to eat this food without all the excess sugars?

Nutritionists often site the high rate of diabetes in low income, African-American communities as a result of consuming low cost , high fat, fast food. Even on the way in to work this morning, I saw one fast food restaurant offering a one dollar double cheeseburger and I have to admit that I felt a little like Ivan Pavlov's puppy for a second or two. I think we are all witness to the long-term cost and outcome of eating poorly and a sedentary lifestyle. Heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and a laundry list of other ailments await those who practice poor eating habits and do not exercise.

Part of my job as a parent is to educate my children the best I can about making smart choices with regard to what they put into their bodies. Apparently, the school lunch programs do have something referred to as "sensible choices." I guess what I want to know is why all the choices are not well-balanced "sensible" meals. One glaringly obvious fact I've learned about nutrition is that when we eat well, we feel well, and we perform better. Many of the foods on my children's school lunch menu are foods that would make most healthy eaters feel sick, groggy, even cranky. I do not want any child to eat that way. Unfortunately, like my cousin Matthew who lost 72 pounds over his two and a half month stay with us two summers ago, the solution (as I see it,) requires a massive lobotomy on the part of all the parents and food preparers. If you give children a choice between pizza and grilled cheese as your primary options, they are allowed to choose from two relatively unhealthy choices.

Children go to school to receive an education. Why not turn lunch into a place of learning as well? Instead of presenting these unimaginative choices to students, why not stretch their young palettes with fresh fruit (that does not need to contain extra sugar,) new vegetables—artichokes, asparagus, spinach salad, arugula, the myriad of legumes: red and brown lentils, pinto, garbanzo, black and red beans, and fruits that they might not be familiar with like kiwi, pomegranate, figs, quinces, kumquat. You could even make theme months like "Tree Fruit Month:" cherries, apricots, apples, plums, pears, or "Citrus Fruit Month:" Oranges, Clementine, Lemon, Limes. Children could also learn the nutritional information of the food they are eating as well. Their is a great resource that I learned about that lists the nutritional information for all different types of fruits: http://www.thefruitpages.com/sitemap.shtml

Coming Soon: Thoughts on School Lunches, Pt. II: Replacing soda machines for Snapple and Gatorade.

As always, I look forward to your comments, criticisms, and expertise!


EasternClimber said...

I think you would enjoy the documentary, "Food, Inc."

EasternClimber said...

one more thing:

Kelly said...

Awesome post, Mark! Ryan is a taker not a buyer, and even he comments on the unhealthy state of the buyer's lunches. I'm at a loss of what to do on a big level, but you are so right when you say it begins at home. We have to set good examples for our kids, and teach them healthy eating habits.

Oh, and one more thing...French freaking toast sticks?!?!?!?!?!?!

Medievalist86 said...

Wow, the Oliveri men are so great: 1) I used to love when my dad would come in for lunch 2) Props to Luca for sitting with that girl so she wouldn't be alone.

Jacquie Tumminia said...

I too am a lunch packer...PB&J most of the time until I found out that my son had to sit ALONE because they decided not to have the kids with the allergies be separated. Instead, they had the kids who brought penut butter separated...hmmm...anyway, rather than packing high fat/ high sodium pepperoni (his lunchmeat of choice) I bought soy nut butter. He loves it and now he can sit with his allergic friends :)