Today is Food Day 2012,* last week was National School Lunch Week — so it seems like a good time to check in on what our kids have been eating in school.
While our county public schools advertise all the right buzz words — whole grains! local produce! fresh fruit! — the menu could still use improvement. My son loves a hot lunch, though, so I mostly allow him to choose whether he wants to buy or bring a lunch. Here’s my assessment of the menu thus far in this school year.
- The Good: Local and fresh fruits and vegetables. There are always two or three fruit and vegetable options and usually they are fresh and raw, not the stereotypical over-cooked, limp and blah veggies.
- The Bad: Chocolate milk. My kindergartener discovered quick it was up to him which drink to choose. And then proclaimed to me, “TruMoo Chocolate Milk is healthy because they serve it at school!” (Um, yeah. THIS IS WHY SCHOOL LUNCH REFORM MATTERS. You can preach nutrition in the classroom all you want but it doesn’t matter if you don’t offer them nutritious choices in the cafeteria.)
- The Curious: Last year, Meatless Monday options were provided every other week. They’re gone this year. Now, there is a choice between two entrees each day, but nearly every other day an Uncrustable is one of the options. Um, what?
On the menu today:
I’m pretty sure serving Uncrustables *on Food Day* is a cry for help, don’t you think? (Never mind that they’ve been recalled.)
When I pack lunches, I keep it simple. A fresh apple, always, and even after school the boy’s been known to snack on one or two more before dinner. (We have a “you-can-always-have-an-apple” rule in our house.) He isn’t a big fan of sandwiches, but he likes mini whole wheat pita pockets or (all-natural nitrate-free) lunch meat and (organic) cheese slice roll ups. I even made a homemade Lunchable one day (organic crackers, Newman-O — don’t usually include dessert, but that was a special treat).
Part of the reason I let my son buy the hot lunches is that, done right, they can encourage kids to try new things. In preschool, my son had healthy hot lunches served family style and he would often eat things he had turned down at home. When sending lunches, unfortunately, kids are so easily influenced by what their friends are eating. One day last year, my son came home asking for a Nutella sandwich, because his friend X got one every day. So I explain that some foods are only to be eaten as special treats, and try to make healthier versions if possible, like with the homemade Lunchable.
Last night, I attended a local event organized by parents in neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia, who are conducting their own campaign to reform school lunches. As part of the event, four teams of high schoolers competed to prepare a salad bar on a school budget and within the USDA new healthy lunch guidelines. Each team presented something delicious that they were confident their classmates would eat. As one of the team members emphasized, after surveying classmates, “We would eat healthy food if given the option.”
DC Central Kitchen Chef Ed Kwitowski spoke, offering his experience from cooking meals for nine DC public schools. He explained that when they introduce new items to the menu, they’ve had great success by hosting tastings in the schools — beets prepared several ways, for example, or just introducing new flavors like their new harvest salad with barley, mushrooms and squash.
Chef Ann Cooper, known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, was the keynote speaker at the event. Naturally I was nodding along in agreement at her presentation, which emphasized that we have to reinvest in kitchens in schools and make healthy food delicious if we want to teach children to enjoy it. She also argued for school gardens — more on that soon.
If your schools aren’t moving fast enough to make school lunches healthier, there are ways you can take action. Visit The Lunch Box toolkit for ideas. Join your school’s wellness committee, if there is one, to learn about what’s already being done and identify a first step to take. Maybe it’s chocolate milk, maybe it’s offering local produce — any big change begins by taking that first step.
What are your kids eating for lunch today?
*Food Day is a national event to celebrate and advocate for healthy, affordable and sustainable food for all. Visit their website to learn more and to find local events taking place this week.