Thursday, October 7, 2010

School Lunches Are Not the (whole) Problem

Cheetos brand cheese-flavored cornmeal snack o...Image via WikipediaThis year I have 1st grade lunch duty.  Indoor only, thank God.  I have the dubious pleasure of watching 6 and 7 year olds eat junk food for 25 minutes. I walk around, I open milks and baggies of snacks, and I chant motivational eating-related phrases: "Munch, munch, munch your lunch, lunch, lunch!" Because I'm silly.  Overall, I kind of like this time I spend with them every day.  I teach every student in the school, but the 1st graders I tend not to know as well as the students I've known and build relationships with for years. This year,  I knew every child's name by the end of the first week.  Some I know all too well.  But they're (mostly) darn cute, they're (usually) sweet and fun. Hey, it sure as Hell beats middle school duties. So I am the certified teacher body in the room, the lunch aides and I keep 'em in line during that 25 minutes of crazy before recess.  A recent piece on CBS Sunday Morning featured school lunches in France.  Holy boulibase, are they amazing.  Fresh produce, homemade stews, nothing frozen, and the only thing fried is the broccoli florets, dipped in a light cream sauce. Likewise, Time Magazine featured the nutritious gourmet diets of the preschool set of Paris. Now, I don't expect fish-based soup and locally grown roasted seasonal vegetables, but all these good eats got me thinking about what my cute little American students consume for lunch.
So I took note for a week or so.
Now, I'm a teacher, and I'm a parent, too.  But above all:
  I'm appalled. 
Lunchtime: The average kid will come in, get their lunch from the line - paying with a pin number that accesses an account that their parents deposit money in by check - and "eat". Yes, there is goofing around, talking, shouting, throwing stuff, etc. It's elementary school lunchtime. The kids who are buying come back to the tables with their trays.
Today the lunch choices were: 
  • Grilled cheese, hot dog, or Uncrustables PB&J (on white bread with the crusts crimped off)
  • Tomato Soup
  • Whole apples or oranges
  • Jack & Jill ice cream bar
  • Milk - chocolate, strawberry, and I think they have plain but I've never seen it on a kid's tray.
...a somewhat balanced lunch has been offered here.  I'm sure it meets state standards.  Ketchup is not the offered vegetable, so already we're eating better than when "Salisbury steak" was scooped onto my own lunch tray, back in the Reagan days.
Among the population who bought lunch on this particular day, here is what was consumed by most: 
  • Half a hot dog OR 3 small bites of a grilled cheese sandwich
  • Most of the ice cream bar
  • Chocolate milk
  • Half a bag of Doritos or Cheetos from the snack bar, purchased with this pin number money that their parents deposit.
I did see one taking a bite of the soup.
And this was a cold, yucky, rainy day.  "Come on, guys! It's a soup day! Eat up!"  They look at me like I'm cracked and ask if they can go back to the snack bar to get a fruit punch.
So some parents are mistrustful of school lunches and their child's ability to select healthy meals from the menu.  What about those whose parents "care" enough to pack a lunch?  Two, exactly TWO 1st graders I have eat a healthy packed lunch every day.  One mommy sends dried and fresh fruit, a sandwich on whole wheat, and pretzels.  Another mommy actually sends *gasp* greek yogurt. as her son's main course, because he's just not a sandwich kid. He added some strawberries yesterday.  Brilliant.
And in sickeningly sweet contrast, here is what one of my more average lovelies brought to school today: 
  • A Lunchable consisting of Ritz crackers, processed cheese & turkey squares, a Capri Sun punch drink, and a peanut butter cup.
  • A bag of Cheetos
  • A Fruit-by-the-Foot candy roll
  • Hi-C orange drink box 
So yes: two sugar non-juice drinks, 3 snacks to go with his meat, cheese, and crackers.  This lucky little guy?  He ate everything except the meat and the cheese. Cause they're "yucky".
Yes, yes they are.  
His whole lunch is "yucky"!
3 snacks?
NO FRUIT OR VEGETABLES? They make cut-up apples in baggies, people!  Already washed and peeled!  Carrot sticks come the same way. Would it be so horrible if he had to eat a box of raisins, even? 
How can you go to the trouble of packing a lunch (costing you way more than the state-subsidized lunch program meals cost, for sure), only to pack your child a load of crap with a side of sugar? 
So they play, yell, trade twinkies eat for 10 minutes.  Then the cafeteria workers call for "Snack Bar".  This is in a different section of the cafeteria, so we don't confuse it with the "healthy" choices.  Ice cream bars, ice cream cups, and let's not forget the Cheetos, Pop Tarts, and Doritos.  There is Smart Pop popcorn, but I've never seen a 1st grader buy it. They come back to their lunch with the snack, which they dig into happily, then they might nibble on whatever is on their tray or in their lunch box. At this point, the 25 minutes they have for lunch is over.  
Then these children have recess, come back to class, and are tired and cranky.  I mean it when I say I've picked floppy 1st grade bodies off the floor in my afternoon 1st grade Music classes.  3rd graders space out at an alarming rate.  They need some protein, some complex carbs, and yes, a little snack at the end, to keep them at their best throughout the  afternoon. What they get is simple carbs, empty calories, and a blood-sugar hangover around 2 o'clock.
The problem is not that school lunches are entirely unhealthy. At least none that I've seen in my district, and lunch menus are regulated, anyway. School lunches are NOT failing our kids, period. A moderately healthy lunch is served at school daily. At times the cooked carrots look a little suspect, but they are there, and they are not being consumed.  The vast majority of the children are not making healthy choices.  We, the people who watch these kids each lunch, cannot force them to eat the apple on their tray.  We can't even make them take an apple from the serving line. (Any parent who didn't want dietary suggestions for their kid coming from school staff could become vocal, let's just say that.)   We encourage them to eat the healthy stuff, but we have no parental-type powers whatsoever.  It sounds a little tired, but the kids have to be taught to make good choices. This is a home and school responsibility, but their eating habits have been formed well before they come to us for 1st grade lunch.  If you really want to be sure your child is eating a healthy lunch that will keep him or her alert and fueled for the second half of his school day, here's my advice:
Don't pack more than one snack, and make it a decent one (popcorn, pretzels, triscuits, peanuts, whole grain cereal, etc. There's a million of them out there). 
Pack them something with protein that will fill them up. 
Pack them a vegetable: carrots, celery, snap peas - get a thermos and pack them hot green beans and a fork!
Pack them a fruit: dried fruit is a much-coveted treat, I've noticed. Especially the electric orange mango strips this one girl brings; they are eyed up, let me tell you!  Oh, and there is nothing, not a darn thing, wrong with giving your child a thermos of good old water.
That said, treats are great and - get this - I actually have a few who eat their lunches and THEN enjoy munching their little cupcake or teddy grahams.  I love to see it, I congratulate them heartily on a meal well eaten, and wouldn't you know it?  Those kids are on the ball an hour later when they're in my room for Music.
Go fig. 
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Anonymous said...

Thanks SO MUCH, Meg, for this! I've been grousing about this for years, but it was really brought to my notice when I worked at school. Because I accompanied my students to lunch and recess, I saw what the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders ate everyday for lunch. The school lunches WERE NOT the problem!!! Fruit and vegetables were offered every day. I can think of exactly ONE student who brought from home a very healthy whole wheat bread-fruit-hummus-water-veggie combo lunch every day. This student was also one of the brightest, hardest working students in her grade. At the other end of the spectrum was the student who brought from home lunches of SODA, candy, chips, Tastykakes, etc. EVERY DAY! Needed extra help with his schoolwork, and was absent or late 2-3 days a week. Sadly, the majority of kids leaned much closer to the junk food lunch than to the granola girl's lunch. Just drives me NUTS when I hear people blast the school lunch program! Again, it always comes back to the PARENTS and their lack of responsibility for their childrens' health and education! I'll get off my soapbox now.
Love, Mom :-)

Anonymous said...

We have the same problem at our school! I have 3rd grade and 5th grade lunch duty this year and it is really disgusting what the kids are eating. Our school lunches are pretty balanced, but it only works if the kids take all the options! We even have a fantastic salad bar and I have seen several students get a nice salad to eat. However, 95% of the time they take the main meal ( chix nuggets, hamburger) skip the veggies or fruit entirely and then get a snapple as a drink. The thing that bothers me the most is that although the school has been limiting the treats students get during the school year (not giving food as a reward for good behavior), they still are allowed to get snack EVERY DAY! There are many kids who eat 25% of their lunch and eat all of their ice cream. How is that healthy? How is that helping in the fight against obesity? Our school ( and probably most schools in NJ and around the country) have a long way to go to being healthy. Jennifer Louise

Vicki T. said...

I love this! You are right on the money! I am grateful to your Mom for sharing it with me. Upper Merion Area School District has implemented a no-sugar treats policy for birthday snacks. Keep spreading your word and it will eventually catch on.
Linda Korpel

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