I have to preface this by saying I didn’t grow up eating school lunches, for the most part, and (to my credit) I hated the food in my college cafeteria so much that I just ate salad and sandwiches (and lost a lot of weight, actually). However, I don’t think I am the norm. Most people don’t mind eating deep-fried whatever day after day, or mounds of potatoes at every meal (yes, the school I taught at did that). Most people don’t mind if their veggies are overcooked — they weren’t going to eat them anyway.
Kids are especially vulnerable to bad food choices. Recent research has shown that fatty foods can actually be addictive, and unhealthful foods like fast food or frozen pizzas are also much cheaper and quicker for poor and busy parents to use than buying (more) expensive fresh ingredients and concocting a healthful meal. Especially when their kids will probably fight them over it. It’s much less stress to simply feed them what they’ll eat and save money and time. Except we as a nation are grossly obese. I say grossly because kids shouldn’t be overweight, as much energy as they all seem to have, and when other people are starving, it does seem quite selfish to overfeed your child and cause health problems. But that’s another rant.
Kids are not only growing up feeding an unhealthful food habit, they are growing up ignorant about what is actually healthful to eat. It’s all fine and good for schools to say “Eat your fruits and veggies”, but if kids think potatoes are a healthful vegetable and can’t identify a fresh tomato, then we’ve got a bigger problem. Jamie Oliver, one of Britain’s top chefs, came to the US recently and tried to revamp kids’ ideas about food, as well as the actual food served in the school cafeteria. He was shocked at how little kids knew about what was healthful to eat, and he met with nothing but difficulties in attempting to change what the cafeteria served.
I understand that schools are on a tight budget, and, for the reasons mentioned above, it is very hard to serve anything healthful and keep costs down. Not to mention kids’ propensity to eat junk and keep said junk in their lockers or get it from vending machines. And what child, when faced with veggies in the cafeteria, wouldn’t just snack on potato chips instead? My principal in Bangkok had a good idea, and that was to limit the hours the snack area would be open, and limit the choices to healthful items only. If kids were hungry and needed to snack, they only had options that were decent to eat and wouldn’t send them into a sugar spiral with empty carbs. But you should have heard everyone complaining at first! You’d have thought we were starving the kids by not serving them fatty, sugary snacks! I figured if the kids were actually hungry, they’d eat something healthful. Maybe.
In this week’s Time magazine, there was an article about a company, Revolution Foods, that is working to develop healthful, ready-made foods for school cafeterias without making them go over budget. That’s hard enough to do, but they also have to have food that the students will eat! Kids are notoriously picky about what food looks like as well as what it tastes like, so even pizza cut in squares instead of triangles met with doubtful disdain (Although Little Caesar’s pizza is cut in squares, so I’m not sure what the problem was). Revolution Foods has central kitchens that make meals fresh every morning and ship them to area schools in time for lunch. They make things like spaghetti, but instead of the usual white-flour pasta, they use half-white, half-wheat pasta that is still “normal”, but better for the students than the empty carbs of white pasta. They also don’t sell junk food in the cafeterias, so students can eat the healthier food available or bring lunch from outside. They help suppliers develop healthier “normal” food, like the spaghetti, and they help raise revenue by selling selections in local grocery stores as well.
It is very easy to eat food that is bad for you, and difficult to eat more healthfully, especially when prices are high and time is low. But we all need to make a concerted effort, not only to eat better ourselves, but to take the responsibility to serve our children the best food possible. This means taking forethought in planning healthful meals, not just running to KFC, Pizza Hut, or Dairy Queen when someone decides they’re hungry. And not trying to find 101 ways to serve potatoes in the school cafeteria. Popular or not, we are eating ourselves into our graves and it’s got to change.