Friday, September 10, 2010

Food for Thought: Thoughtful Food

Today was “lunch buddy” day at Ramona and Charlotte's school. Actually it’s grandparent’s Day, and the kids were encouraged to invite their grandparents to come and have lunch with them at school, but in the interest of inclusiveness, any family member could come. So off I took myself to school, to eat a school lunch.

Now, I had seen the menu, I knew what to expect: “Beef fingers, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas, fruit/vegetable bar, milk.” But I have to say, having eaten that food, I feel assaulted by my lunch. I had hoped that “fruit/vegetable bar” meant that they have a salad bar? But I was wrong. There was some watermelon in a cup. I asked a teacher about the salad bar, and she looked confused; then she said they must have meant a bar, like a granola bar type thing. I didn’t see that either, though. I was also told that they choose this lunch to serve on “lunch buddy” day because it’s one of the best things on the menu. I don’t want to be too negative, but let me just say: it wasn’t good. And it wasn’t healthy. Usually food manages to be at least one of the two, but I guess if it needs to be inexpensive and easy to prepare, too, then something’s gotta give.

The “beef fingers” – and I don’t know why that term seems so icky when I’m okay with “chicken fingers” – were definitely flaked and formed beef of some variety, covered in batter and fried (at some earlier point in time) and reheated. The mashed potatoes, which were the most appetizing thing on the plate, were potato flakes, peas were canned, “texas toast” was a thick piece of white bread with something yellow smeared on it (butter? maybe?) There were three different kinds of milk: chocolate, 1% plain, and “vanilla shake” milk. The girls both chose the latter. I looked at the label and there were 22 grams of sugar in there. That’s 8 more grams than is in a serving of the vanilla ice cream in my freezer. And the packaging of “vanilla shake” milk was almost indistinguishable from the plain milk, which is significant when you realize that a fair number of those kids can’t read. In the whole lunch, there were no whole grains and not much fiber, especially if you consider that most of the kids threw their peas away. Charlotte and Ramona started on the watermelon, then ate the peas, and each ate a little bit of the meat sticks. They weren’t interested at all in the potatoes or the toast.

Now, I don’t fault Oklahoma, our school lunches back in California weren’t much better, although at our elementary school there was a salad bar. What saddens me in this case is that almost every kid at this school eats the school lunch. And in a situation where 56% of the kids get free or reduced lunches, and this lunch that they get is going to be their best opportunity for balanced, nutritious food for the day, I feel like we are letting these kids down. My girls bring their lunches to school every day, because I have the luxury (and believe me I know how luxurious it is) to have the time and money to do that.

I know I’m not saying anything new; Jamie Oliver has had an entire TV show on this subject, and there is also an excellent blog written by an anonymous teacher who has resolved to eat school lunches every day of the year and write about it. It’s hard to feel so powerless about it. I only have the power to protect my own children from this, but change has to happen. I just don’t know how to do it.

One thing that I did do was to email the girls’ teacher and tell her that I’d be interested in doing something food-related with the class. She had asked me earlier if there was anything I was really passionate about that I’d like to come and talk to the class about, because the kids love it when parents do that. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything (I mean, I’m not going to go in to a first grade class and do a Zumba presentation, am I?) but now I remember exactly what I’m passionate about. Fresh, healthy, tasty food.

I felt compelled to compensate for the lunch; snack was peaches, home-made hummus, and multi-grain crackers
Much enthusiasm ensued.
Score! For hummus!
Except on Elsa's part.


  1. The class will really benefit from your passion. I wonder if it's possible to get the nutritional break down of the school meals from the district.

    Your pictures are beautiful. The light is especially lovely in the picture of Elsa.

  2. Thanks, Claire. I had to turn off the flash and hold real still to get that picture of E. There were many blurry ones thrown out!

    I imagine I could get some info about the school meals from the district; I'm sure they meet the USDA guidelines, but maybe it's the guidelines that need to be changed. I am scheming about how I can do little individual home-made pizzas in the class. The teacher says they have a little portable oven. I would have to make the dough at home, since it takes time to rise, but it would still be fun, right?

  3. Probably some of the food was artificially enhanced "food bombs", particularly the beef sticks. Looking at the ingredients you will probably see an array of artificial "nutritional" supplements that allow them to check off boxes on the USDA requirements.

    Given the amount of free and reduced I can see the dietitians thinking that they need to get calories and vitamins in the things they actually eat. They know they don't eat the peas. In reality I doubt most need the calories, they aren't starving. They get plenty of McDonalds at home.

  4. It's really sad because what you eat as a child is what you learn to like as an adult. Your kids like veggies and good stuff because they have had them all their lives. Between the starchy heavy food and the lack of exercise kids get nowadays, we are looking at a generation of diabetics with heart disease and stroke risk. Keep spreading the word!

  5. I want to come over to your house for snack time. :) Yum! May I suggest that you contact the superintendent of schools in Oklahoma? It can't hurt. Your passion for the health of all children is inspiring, and I am so proud of you, Autumn.

  6. Your passion is definitely inspiring. It's disheartening to read about the pathetically poor state of nutrition for American kids... but I'm so impressed that you're being proactive. Thank you for taking such good care of the girls and wanting to share your knowledge with a wider audience. :)

    PS Is that a tattoo on Elsa's arm???