Last night, the Fairfield Board of Education (BoE) held a meeting to hear a number of issues. Not least of them was a presentation by the Fuel for Learning Partnership, an organization sponsored by the PTA Council that advocates school lunch nutrition.
Michelle McCabe, who heads up the organization, gave a 20-minute speech detailing all the reasons why we need to take notice of what our kids eat for lunch. You may think your child is eating healthy when chicken tenders and broccoli are on the menu. But chances are, the kids aren’t eating the broccoli. They are, however, eating the chicken tenders processed with too much sugar, salt, fat, and preservatives.
Most alarming, McCabe gave a comparison between a standard school lunch and a meal at McDonald’s. Guess what? McDonald’s has fewer calories and less salt than the popcorn chicken your child ate yesterday. (McDonald’s still wins in the fat category, but not by much.) What planet are we living on when a Happy Meal is a healthier option than lunch in the school cafeteria?
This isn’t just Fairfield. This could be any town in any state across the U.S. We are feeding our kids…well, crap. But what’s the big deal? Six hundred and fifty milligrams of salt in a plate of chicken tenders never hurt anyone, right?
Think again. We have a rampant obesity rate in children. We have a massive increase in juvenile diabetes in just the last decade. We have an increase in food allergies, in some cases to a fatal extent. We have behavioral problems such as hyperactivity on the rise that much of the research available has linked to poor nutrition.
Studies show that children who eat an unhealthy meal stop learning. Math class and music? Don’t count on it after lunch. Nothing will sink in. It’s all the processed food. (Neon orange macaroni and cheese comes to mind.) Children who consistently eat healthy meals, however, do not exhibit abnormal behavior patterns in comparison to their peers.
But we’re grown adults. We know what’s good and what’s bad. We know the right foods to eat. We know what our children should eat. This is not news. This is common sense. The issue here is that parents think their children are getting a good meal when they clearly are not. When you’re child is ingesting enough monosodium glutamate to choke a horse, it doesn’t matter what form it comes in. It’s just not food.
“No matter how many fruits and vegetables your kids consume,” said McCabe, “it doesn’t erase the rest of the menu. Eating foods with empty calories doesn’t support them through the rest of the day.”
McCabe went on to say that the USDA recommends only 10 teaspoons of sugar per person per day. A chocolate milk has 8 teaspoons. I don’t think I need to point out the obvious here. You can do the math.
McCabe made another good point. Our consumer science classes are teaching kids about healthy eating. But we diminish those lessons every time they eat in the cafeteria. And for some kids, the only real meals they get are the ones in school. “We’re sending them mixed messages about nutrition,” she said.
The Fuel for Learning Partnership is only one organization taking a stand on school lunch nutrition. But they are among a growing coalition of parents that want to see a change. What’s more, trained chefs are jumping on the bandwagon. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution has been getting good buzz recently. And for quite some time, Chef Ann Cooper, known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, has been working to change highly processed lunches into organic ones. Her web site, The Lunch Box, a project of the F3: Food Family Farming Foundation, provides quick and easy recipes for any lunchroom to duplicate.
In a previous article on this site, we discussed Two Angry Moms, a local documentary about school lunches. Amy Kalafa, the film’s director and a Fairfield County mom who collaborated with her Westchester counterpart Susan Rubin, a nutritionist, is still pushing to have schools incorporate better food in their cafeterias. (The next screening of the film will be in Westport on June 1. See the web site for details.)
On their web site, Kalafa says, “I was frustrated that our family’s healthy eating habits were being undermined by a school system that prides itself as being among the best in the nation. I was tired of being marginalized by the dominant fast food culture…And I was ANGRY that my kids were tossing or trading their homemade lunches (food that they really do like) in favor of pop tarts, rice crispy treats and other non-nutritive, sugar and chemical laden crap offered without any supervision or guidance in the school cafeteria.”
While Fairfield’s BoE vowed to “look into it further,” the statistics—let’s call it frightening information—seemed to resonate with members of the group. “I think this is something important to move forward on,” said BoE member Perry Liu.
Obesity. Juvenile diabetes. Food allergies. Behavioral disorders. It’s not just something important. It’s something our children’s lives depend on.
Image courtesy of Flickr via FitnessGuruNYC.com.