I am watching Jamie Oliver's television show, Food Revolution, with rapt attention. Having worked in a similar school cafeteria, I find the subject extremely interesting and relevant. Interesting because my opinion of the subject is in-line with Jamie Oliver's---- many of our schools need an overhaul of their nutritional offerings. In fact, I assert that we are raising young people to eat fast food---- to crave it.
I believe taste and food habits are developed. I believe that one of the "jobs" of childhood is developing one's palate--- food predispositions. Children are developing their likes and dislikes and learning the subtle nuances of food. Providing school children with processed food, laden with preservatives, fat, and sodium, on a regular basis raises them to crave it as an adult. To crave processed food.
School lunches are not the downfall of nutrition if they are offset by healthy meals and lifestyles at home. Unfortunately, that's not often the case. We're all busy. It's much too convenient to grab fast food, frozen pizzas, or some other processed item after a long day at work. I know, because I do it. However, it's not the norm in our household. It is the norm in some of the households that rely upon our school lunch program for their child's breakfasts and lunches. In fact, the school lunch program provides the most nutritious meal of the day for many, many children. But I believe it's not good enough.
I remember the meals that most of the children ate in the elementary school cafeteria where I worked: highly sugared cold cereal, pasteurized eggs from a bag (thawed from the freezer first), pork patties, frozen waffles with "syrup" (maple flavored high fructose corn syrup). For lunch, we always offered hamburgers and chicken nuggets. There was an additional choice, but often the students went for the former two choices. They drank chocolate milk. As for fruit and vegetables, we offered a salad of iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing (the only choice), canned fruit (high-fructose corn syrup), and apples or bananas. At least there were those. One time, we offered kiwis but they were not cost effective.
I don't have an easy answer. I look at the struggle Jamie Oliver is dealing with and it overwhelms me. However, one of the strongest issues I have with the school lunch program is that children are allowed to choose between unhealthy offerings and healthy ones. When given a choice between a chicken nugget or a healthier option, they are going to choose the nuggets. As employees, we were not allowed to sway childrens' food decisions. Why?
In fact, when did our lunch program decide that children know what is nutritionally best for them? We don't allow children to choose between playing video games or doing their schoolwork, so why do we allow children to choose to eat unhealthy meals during their school day? That said, I believe in the concept of facilitating a child's sense of control over what enters their body, but give them healthy choices! Don't pit a healthier food item against fast food!
Again, there aren't any easy answers to this issue, nor the larger issue of childhood obesity. However, I believe that developing a healthy attitude and palate during childhood is one step in the right direction. I would like to see our school lunch program provide children with more nutritional options to promote this goal. I would like to see the program quit allowing children to choose unhealthy food. As for me, I'll continue to send nutritious lunches with my kids to school each day, like I have their entire school career.
Will Work for Food, new Food Corps program (based on AmeriCorps)