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School Food Wars

My kids' school is awash in fresh fruits and vegetables this year.

As one of a handful of schools in our community that received the federal Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant--available through the USDA for largely low-income schools--we are spending Sunday mornings buying produce at the local farmers' market, a few blocks from our school. Monday nights a group of parents gets together at a church across the street from the school building and washes and chops the produce, then loads it in the school fridge so the fourth and fifth graders can pass it out three mornings a week.

As labor-intensive as this whole process is, it is intensely rewarding. Watching the kids gobble up watermelon on the playground, or try cherry tomatoes for the first time in class, and hearing the comments about snack: "Cool! Green beans!" is a big lift.

It is especially gratifying since so many of the kids who are getting this snack are not familiar with fruits and vegetables. Many have never seen a fresh tomato before, let alone some of the more exotic veggies we are trying this year, like jicama and kohlrabi.

Certainly they are not getting that sort of thing at lunch in school.

For years, parents in our school district have been complaining about the deep fried French toast sticks and cocoa puffs in the breakfast program and the hot dogs and fries and cheese sauce at lunch.

Across the country, school lunch programs are under tight budgetary pressures. “The big issue is money,” Frank Kelly, the director of the Madison Metropolitan School District's food services department told the Wisconsin State Journal recently. “You can’t serve gourmet food for $3 a lunch. We’re squabbling over pennies for meals.”

But there is another issue, too, and that is a cultural and ideological one.

For Kelly and other people who serve food to kids in the public schools, there is a real sense of antagonism toward what they perceive as a bunch of high-income, helicopter moms with too much time on their hands--that is, the folks who want the lunches to be healthier. As Kelly sees it, these people just don't understand kids.

“We have two customers — parents and kids — and they want totally different things,” Kelly told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Parents want us to serve big chunks of vegetables, but kids won’t eat that."

For kids who rely on free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs, the thinking goes, just getting something to eat is so important, we can't afford to be fussy about nutrition. People who think you can make kids eat vegetables, in this view, are kidding themselves.

In fact, Kelly went so far as to suggest that these health-conscious parents don't even know what their own kids eat.

“I see so many kids walk into cafeterias and throw their sack lunches in the trash can. Who knows what they’re actually eating," Kelly says. "We have to offer things kids will actually eat.”

In a nation that is experiencing an unprecedented childhood obesity epidemic, that is a sobering thought.

I actually have some sympathy for Kelly's point of view. Like Michael Moore, he sees himself as a champion of regular folks with a lot of suspicion for elite liberal ideas about making poor people better themselves.

And as a parent, I am familiar with the idea that the "eat your vegetables!" approach to trying to make kids healthy can backfire.

But I also know that not ALL kids eat only junk food, and that what we put in front of them makes a difference.

I sat with my daughter at lunchtime once, and watched a classmate of hers eat the bag of peanut M&Ms and drink the soda she'd brought to school. That was her lunch.

Fast-food and convenience-store eating have taken deep root in our culture, especially for kids of busy, stressed parents who don't have the time or inclination to cook.

But it doesn't seem to me that this is driven by kids' refusal to eat differently. It is simply what they are used to, what they are surrounded by, and what even school officials seem convinced they want.

I sat in a second-grade classroom yesterday, and watched a kid demolish a pile of cherry tomatoes as big as his head. He liked them. His teacher also happened to think they were awesome, and spent the class period talking about how great our fruit and veggie snack is, as she served it up, with a quiet, non-pushy expectation that the kids would enjoy it.

We know kids need healthy food. We know the way we are feeding them is leading to a rate of type-2 diabetes previously found only in extremely overweight adults.

What IS the right response?

There are some small changes in the school district's hot lunch program this year. They have added a pasta salad with some veggies. I recently heard a food services employee and a farm-to-school advocate disagreeing about whether the kids are eating it or throwing it in the trash. It sometimes seems as though people see what they expect to see.

What we expect kids to do is often self-fulfilling.

At our school, there is a large population of Hmong immigrants. Many of the Hmong families have garden plots and farms. Many of them are on the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program. I've noticed that my daughters' Hmong classmates bring containers of vegetables and rice to lunch.

Why do you suppose children raised in a different food culture are eating those
vegetables? Are they somehow different? Are non-immigrant children somehow hard-wired to eat only mac and cheese?

Some of our Hmong families have relatives who are selling us the cucumbers and jicama we are serving in our snack program.

We have only been doing this for a couple of weeks so far, but I am really interested to see what we learn as a community, sharing food together.

As a school, a district, and a nation, we have so much to learn about nourishing
ourselves and our children.

One thing is clear from all the evidence about our children's health: we need to make a change.

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