Welcome to The Friday Five!

Early September, my daughter started school for the first time. I dreaded this moment – I mean, we’re talking full throttle tears, sniffling nose, heaving and kicking things cry… maybe not really… um, let’s not talk about it – but I knew it had to come.

So, to make life easier on myself, I’ve become [way too] involved in Mini-me’s school. PTA, volunteer teacher, parental representation on the school’s leadership board, you name it… I’m doing it. They need it, anyway, and I have the time… when I’m not blogging, of course.

We’ve written about cooking for little ones, feeding little ones, school lunch programs, and all of that here on this very blog. We’ve talked about the inadequacies of the USDA and how badly we want them to fix it. We’ve talked about “why does the government need to feed kids at all?” here. We’ve even talked about Jamie Oliver and the shortcomings of his self-proclaimed Food Revolution, which basically could be summed up in one word:


Now, when I was an adolescent, my grandmother was my babysitter… and in her housing project community was a “free lunch” room where we could go to get something to eat for free. (Bologna, two pieces of white bread, “American cheese,” and a half-pint of milk.) And as a youngster in Cleveland, I attended a school that had no cafeteria and, therefore, very little in the way of a lunch program. When I moved to my lovely little suburb in Indiana, not only did we have a full on cafeteria, but we had fast food. We had vending machines with ice cream, soda, candy, whatever we wanted. Where there was money, there was the opportunity to spend it. Needless to say, even though there was a fair share of fried junk, the quality of food was very much different.

As an adult who makes very different choices in food and as a blogger who writes about how people can make lots of little changes in their eating habits, spending time in the school environment has been immensely valuable in teaching me why, in fact, some things are the way they are. We may not like them, but they are, in fact, realities we have to face about our school systems and if we want to change the food, we have to change the entire chain that leads up to that link that affects our children’s food intake.

Five things I’ve learned from this experience?

Your children will not eat what you pack for them if they think the school is serving something… “better.” The average sandwich and a banana won’t cut it, baby. Those kids aren’t simply swapping out their lunches for something better. They’re full on refusing to eat their lunches or hiding their lunches altogether so that the teachers will take pity on them and give them a school lunch. The little buggers are “smart.” You’ve got to get that school lunch calendar… and then out-cook them. Every. Day. Otherwise, they’ll be getting their “vegetable servings” from… a pizza. Or pasta. With tomato sauce. Because a tomato, apparently, is now a vegetable.

Your school is tied all-the-way-up into a network much larger than itself; tied up in a web of contracts amongst friends, meant to put money in their pockets while they offer your child subpar food. Want a prime example of this? Take it all the way to the White House: While your school is given something like $2.91 per child per day by the federal government to provide for the school lunch program, less than half actually goes to the food. The rest goes to labor. Meanwhile, lobbyists for big processed food manufacturers managed to slip in a second round of excessive subsidies and payments to themselves within the updated version of policies like the debt reduction bill and the updated farm bill. You could just as easily bypass those subsidies and drop that money into the schools themselves so that they could potentially afford the new regulations, but no. Your friends gotta eat first.

This also, for the record, also ties into why – if Congress has its way – there will no longer be any limitation on potatoes (read: french fries) and why tomato paste could be considered a vegetable. This is pandering to large corporations to help them get the exposure they want.

“If schools change their standards to stuff my business doesn’t offer, I’ll go out of business!”

Well, you could just as easily change your offerings..

“Change? Who said anything about change? We’re not changing!”

Oh, okay.

To make a very long story short, there is money to fix these things… it’s just going to the largest corporations first. The rest of us are still waiting for it to “trickle-down.”

There are children coming to school with the sorriest excuses for a lunch that you’ve ever seen. And no, this isn’t a critique of the money a family has available to spend on a lunch. This is a critique of the contents of that lunch. I literally witnessed a little boy who, upon being told he needed to go grab his lunch, pulled a BIG bag of cheetos and a can of mountain dew (I didn’t even know they still made that stuff) to go get in line. And – consider this a bonus – teachers are paying, out of pocket, for kids like him to get a school lunch because it is a more nutritious option for him. Hug your child’s teacher. Shoot, hug A teacher.

There are children coming to school with NO lunch at all, and have eaten no breakfast either. They come in cranky, unable to focus, lethargic, whiney and difficult to teach. There’s a reason why carbs can be valuable in the morning. They help stimulate brain function. Sending your child to school with no food in their belly is pretty much a recipe for struggle. Yes. Struggle.

Your child’s school receives “donations” in the way of potato chips from giant brand names because of something called “brand loyalty.” You know how we talked about advertisers marketing to children? It’s not just commercials, and it’s not just environments where there needs to be money exchanged for their product. Processed food manufacturers donate their goods to the school as a “snack,” or a “treat.” This is an investment. If a child receives a bag of Tostitos chips as a “treat” regularly, they can and do develop loyalty to that brand. Any other brand might not afford to offer up their goods for free, and no other brand would or could stand a chance against that.

No parent, either. Let’s face it – how do you fight “free?” By paying for a cup of pineapples and bringing it to your child upon hearing of the descend of Team Doritos on your child’s school? Good luck. (In all fairness, we’ve seen apples and oranges, too…but I’d personally prefer it if we only saw apples and oranges, so to speak.)

I’m pretty confident in saying that the school lunch program is pretty corrupt, but it has good intentions. At the same time, we know what the road to bad habits and health problems is paved with.

The question then becomes… what do we do?

Photo: Flickr