I grew up eating homemade lunches at school. My (very) small Montessori school had no cafeteria, and so I didn't confront the perils of the lunchroom until I was in 8th grade, by which time I'd had enough life experience with real food to know that the items on offer--from pasty "chicken" nuggets to reconstituted potatoes--were food-ish, at best. I avoided school cafeteria food until I finished high school, opting for peanuts out of the vending machine on days when I forgot my lunch at home.
I don't think much about school lunch these days, being many years done with high school and without any children of my own. Recently, however, this subject has moved to the front of my mind, as the impending renewal of the Child Nutrition Act has begun to shine a spotlight on a culinary experience that is of huge national importance, albeit one that most of us would sooner forget. The act, which will be renewed in September, governs the National School Lunch Program, which sets the guidelines for the meals that over 30 million children in our country receive each day. While the 2004 reauthorization of the act took some worthwhile steps in requiring all school districts to adopt wellness policies, we are still a long way from serving fresh, healthy food in our public schools. However, as evidenced by the many grass roots campaigns currently underway (links below), 2009 presents an opportunity for all of us to get involved toward making some strides in that direction.
In a new book, David Kessler, the former head of the FDA who took on big tobacco, argues that we are effectively conditioning our children into a lifelong desire for unhealthy food by feeding them such salty, fatty, and sugary processed meals at this phase in their development. In the book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, he makes a host of interesting arguments around the connections between the powerful food industry, the salt-fat-sugar trio, and the resulting brain chemistry that makes it so hard for so many of us to make smart food choices. Although some may label him a conspiracy theorist, it stands to reason that the way young, developing brains learn to interact with food is as experience-dependent as any other domain. I offer my own experience as testament to that fact; by the time I was presented with "salisbury steak" and gloopy "gravy," I'd learned too much about real food to be tempted; it just didn't look, smell, or taste like anything I'd ever seen on a plate. But, as Kessler argues, many children who aren't so lucky find such high impact processed food far more appealing than a plain old apple, even irresistible.
Good nutrition, in addition to the obvious health benefits, has been shown to help children perform better in school, which translates to a serious impact on their future, and ours. Even if your children are grown or you don't intend to have children (or you do have children but can afford to avoid public school lunches altogether), all of us stand to gain from raising generations of healthy individuals who can achieve their full potential. And, even if you are not moved by the individual stories of obese young children with type II diabetes, the economic and social costs of not changing our ways are to steep to ignore. Only a few months remain to make an impact in this very important part of our food system--please visit the sites listed below for more information on how you can join the many voices speaking out for change.
*Click here to sign the Food, Inc. petition to serve school lunches that include "low fat and safe dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains." (Over 50,000 signatures were delivered to Congress on June 24th, but it's not too late to sign!)
*The Healthy Schools Campaign is also organizing to move the act in a healthier direction, providing information and help in contacting your local legislator on their website.
*Slow Food USA has a great campaign and platform, and you can find more information here.
*To hear Kessler speak about his arguments and the ideas behind them on a recent episode of On Point, click here.