Monday, March 7, 2011

The Dreams of School Kids And The Harsh Realities That Dash Them

Steak, lobster, McDonald’s. Those are the top three things New York City public school kids want in their cafeterias, says Ariel Kaminer of The New York Times.   

I find that really funny. It’s as if they’re saying, "Let’s dream BIG. And if you’re really asking what we want to eat at lunchtime, let’s go with a dream meal. Steak – definitely; lobster – why not?; and, whoo-hoo, Mickie D’s to make lunch a really special occasion."

Kaminer reports that the parents aren’t much more helpful. They want the food to be restaurant quality. Well, I guess, if the restaurant is White Castle (no offense to the great purveyor of the square hamburger), then no problem. Sorry for the aside, but THIS should be in the category of Strictly Illegal.

This New York City story coincides with the problems my gorgeous Jamie is having over in LA. He wanted the LA schools to be his next place of reckoning. The only wrinkle was that they weren’t interested. They did welcome his input into the nutritional and outreach aspects of his Food Revolution. They just didn’t want it all on-camera and the school district to be turned into the next reality flashpoint.

I understand that. But the shame of it is that if Jamie could engender enough publicity, enthusiasm, and especially CASH, with a few more of these highly touted nutritional makeovers, maybe there would be enough resources to take his program national. I think his goal was legitimate that if it can be done in Los Angeles, it can be done anywhere.

All of this is well and good, of course, but I also can’t help feeling that the hard truth is that FEEDING SCHOOL CHILDREN WELL STARTS AT HOME. Definitely self-servingly, I’ve always believed that if my kids ate absolutely no (or hardly any) crap in MY house, then even an occasional ghastly school lunch wouldn’t do them in. And I completely admit to many moments of relief when they told me they were going to buy lunch that day or the next and I didn’t have to think about what to put in their recyclable, renewable and reclaimable lunch bags.

I know I’ve told you the story before of my daughter’s trauma (one of the many, she would say) at my hands, when she was in preschool. It was the day after Halloween. Like every good food police lieutenant, I let the kids have whatever they wanted ON Halloween, then I carefully doled out the rest for a week or two, after which I got rid of it. (Ok, who am I kidding? I HID it from them and kept it for me and the VERY occasional sweet tooth of H). Anyway, one November 1st, I packed her an apple with her sandwich and milk. When I picked her up from school, she was deeply distressed. She had been the ONLY kid who didn’t have candy to trade and she felt like a freak. (This was in the days before swapping candy was like trafficking drugs.) I learned my lesson. The next year she took a pillowcase FILLED with candy to school and all was well.

But back to the real issue of school lunches and how important they become when they ARE a kid’s main meal of the day. That thought alone is truly heartbreaking and the major reason why it’s critical to get the junk out. School lunches shouldn’t cater to the lowest possible denominator – i.e. school kids who hardly ever have to eat them and get plenty of fresh food elsewhere, but to the HIGHEST denominator of children, who depend on them for their main nutrition and don’t always know how their next meal is being cooked.  

THAT’S why Jamie’s revolt against revolting school lunches is so important. I wish the LA school system would take the bitter with the better and suffer the cameras to get new nutritional programs in place.

I hope that even if they don’t take up the fight on-air, Jamie will still agree to their plea to develop wonderful in-school menus with the state’s nutritional guidelines AND a budget of 77 cents per meal. It’s probably a deal that would be a long shot for even the devil, but it’s one worth making.   


The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

I went to a suburban, upper-middle class school back in the 80s and even then the food was crap. We didn't have vending machines in school and there was no soda to be found, but we have things like spaghetti with french fries or tacos that made Taco Bell look a bastion or freshness. School lunches never were and probably never will be a priority with any government - federal, state, or local. With energy prices soaring and budges getting cut everywhere, I suspect that things aren't going to get better.

I remember during my senior year there was some major student tennis tournament happening at my school. To impress the coaches and students at other scohols, my cafeteria actually started up a salad bar option. It wasn't the best salad bar out there, but it was better than the sandwiches and hot lunches offered. They left it there for two weeks before taking it away again.

Sue said...

Hi Rach,
You're right, The whole situation is pretty disheartening. That's pathetic that your school only had the salad bar for show. There are so many problems now, not just with school menus, that it's hard to know where to start.

Merut said...

Maybe the kids chose steak, lobster, and Mc-D's because they figured after the adults said no to steak and lobster, they'd have to compromise on the McDonalds. Either way, thanks for the informative article.

Sue said...

Hi Merut,

That's a really funny way to look at it and very clever if the kids were that smart.

Thanks for stopping by. I just visited you for the first time. I'm so sorry about your scary car trouble. I hope things move in a more positive direction.

Sheila said...

Great article Sue! This is an issue I'm so passionate about! I mentor at the elementary school near my home and part of that involves having lunch together. They get 13 minutes to get through the line, find their seat and stuff their face. They pick at their plate. They're told to hurry up. I get so mad. I sit there and just fume!

Quality food and decisions does start at home. We make our own baby food here (EASY!) and plan on keeping meal time, family time. My heart just breaks for the children who don't have that at home. I really hope school lunches improve! I think its going to take a LOT of involvement from communities and parents before that happens though.

Anyway, loved the post! I'm stepping off my soap box now!

Sue said...

Hi Sheila,
Oh my gosh! I forgot about when my kids were in school and had so little time to eat! It really was an outrage. And if I ever asked the school about it, they always said their schedules were so tight that something had to give. I don't remember it being quite as bad as THIRTEEN minutes. That really is unbelievable.

Homemade baby food is the best. Adam is a lucky boy.

Emily said...

I completely agree with you on all of this.

I like ths story about your daughter and the candy. I don't remember doing that at school.

Anonymous said...

If Jamie's smart he'll go ahead with it anyway even without the cameras -- if it's successful I'm sure he'll find a way to get the word out. You and I had a discussion about celebrities who parachute into important issues and suck out all the oxygen. This needs people who will stick around even when the cameras aren't there, and it would be great if Jamie could be one of them.