Last night I attended a meeting of fiery radicals intent on reforming society at the most basic level: moms at my daughter’s elementary school who want healthier school lunches. (Interestingly, no fathers attended, although there was one precocious 12-year old young man.) We met for the reason many parents are meeting around the country: we are appalled at what our children are fed at school. For example, today’s breakfast is “French toast sandwich” while the lunch is “cheesy chicken bake,” or mac ’n cheese, each served with breadsticks. Most students supplement this with heavily sugared chocolate milk. My husband and I wage a daily battle with our daughter, who often refuses to eat her packed lunch, opting instead for the warm, heavily salted and sweetened school lunches. Often, she doesn’t eat much of anything, since the lunch is a mere 20 minutes with recess directly afterwards. As studies have shown, proper nutrition is essential for students to learn. However, I would also argue that an understanding of food (how it’s grown as well as how to cook it) and nutrition is an important life-long lesson, as important as any other subject.
Like many public schools, ours does not have a kitchen that is equipped to cook food from scratch; instead our kitchen offers “pre-pack” foods that are prepared elsewhere and reheated on site. The director of our city’s public school food services met with us and explained the constraints facing reforms of school lunches, most of which are cost-related. We feed our children for two dollars: less than the price of a latte! Do we really value the health of our children so little? With healthcare costs soaring, it makes sense to examine these causes of unhealthy eating habits. I watch as my kindergartener happily devours information about the world every day; shouldn’t knowledge of nutrition and food be one of our core lessons in schools?
As a college teacher, I see the results of the unhealthy eating habits. I teach an interdisciplinary course on the culture of food. One of the requirements is that students complete an “experiential exercise”: taking the food stamps challenge and eating for $21/week, eating locally for one week, or tracking their nutritional intake for one week. Some students have come up with their own unique challenges: one vegan student wants to eat meat for a week, and another wants to base her family’s meals around a traditional culture (one of Pollan’s recommendations). My role as teacher is certainly not to police my students’ nutritional choices. However, when I read their food logs, I am often horrified. Some students routinely eat one meal a day while others eat “gas station food”: prepackaged processed microwavable items far, far removed from any notion of fresh or local. I have yet to read a student’s food log that contains an adequate intake of fruits and vegetables. Most students judge themselves healthy if they desist from fast food. Price is a concern, but most students do not have the cooking skills or confidence that would allow them to cook nutritious, tasty, and affordable meals.
Happily, there are positive changes afoot. President Obama has pledged an extra 1 billion dollars to child nutrition and Michelle Obama has made healthy eating one of her focus issues. Congress is about to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. Learn more  about the act and consider contacting your local legislature to urge better nutrition in schools. In addition, ABC will be airing British chef Jamie Oliver’s efforts to reform school lunches  in West Virginia. While I applaud Oliver’s efforts, it’s pathetic that a foreign celebrity chef shows more initiative in improving the quality of our children’s food than our own government.