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

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

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

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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