A man’s palate can, in time, become accustomed to anything
Outside Mullen Hall, a Massachusetts public elementary school on Katherine Lee Bates Road, just across from the Falmouth Public Library there is, inevitably, a traffic jam just before nine o’clock each weekday morning. Caused in no small part by the crossing guard who works at a perplexing pace, the confusing beehive of activity seems endless. Children hurry out of minivans by the dozens, backpacks dragging the ground as they run toward the school’s front door. Some parents linger and watch while their children cross the road. Others slam shut the doors and drive off, latte in the cup holder, cell phone in hand, the instant their children’s feet hit the pavement.
Since these children are still quite young most aren’t showing signs of obesity yet, but if their eating habits don’t change now they’ll soon be on the wrong end of the statistics. Many already are. The percentage of obese children in America today has more than doubled since 1970. Over 35% of our nation’s children are overweight, 25% are obese, and 14% have Type II Diabetes, a condition previously seen primarily in adults. Processed foods favored by schools and busy moms for their convenience not only contribute to obesity; they also contain additives and preservatives and are tainted with herbicide and pesticide residues that are believed to cause a variety of illnesses, including cancer. In fact, current research shows that 40% of all cancers are attributable to diet. Many hundreds of thousands of Americans die of diet-related illness each year. People in America today simply do not know how to eat properly and they don’t seem to have time to figure out how, so fast food, home meal replacements, and processed foods take the place of good, healthy cooking, and there couldn’t be a worse alternative.
Parents, pediatricians, and school administrators are increasingly concerned about children’s health as it relates to diet. Most parents don’t even know what constitutes good childhood nutrition and many feel they lack the time they would need to spend researching it. They rely, instead, on the USDA approved National School Lunch program to be providing their children with nutritionally balanced, healthful meals. Trouble is, they’re not. While most schools continue to try to meet better nutritional guidelines, they’re still not measuring up, and many are actually contributing to the crisis we’ve seen emerging over the last decade. Food is not respected, rather, it is something that must be made and consumed with increasing speed. In part, this is the result of the fact that there are more kids than ever in schools with smaller facilities, forcing several short lunch shifts. Decreasing budgets, in many cases, have caused a decline in the quality of school meals.
For the most part, school lunch has deteriorated to institutional-style mayhem. Walk through the kitchen or lunchroom of almost any public or private school and “fast food nation” will ring with striking clarity. USDA-approved portions of processed foods are haphazardly dished out by harried cafeteria workers to frenzied students hurrying to finish their food in time for ten minutes of recess. Nothing about the experience of being in a school cafeteria is calm—the din is deafening. Lunch rooms are vast open spaces filled with long tables flanked by dozens of chairs. There is no intimacy. No sense of calm. No respite from a morning of hard learning. Virtually all teachers hate lunchroom duty and view it as the most chaotic moment of their day—in fact the New York City Teachers’ Union recently won the right to stay outside the lunchroom. They now drop their students off at the cafeteria door on their way to find more restful lunchtime locations.
The noise and activity levels are not the only unpalatable aspects of lunchroom dining. A full 78% of the schools in America do not actually meet the USDA’s nutritional guidelines, which is no surprise considering the fact that schools keep the cost of lunch to between $1 and $1.50 per child. A parent in Colorado tells us that her child’s school insists that nachos meet the dietary requirements for a main course. Horrified, she exclaimed, “It’s not even real cheese!” The mother of an elementary student in Marstons Mills, Massachusetts was appalled to learn that even apple slices aren’t a nutritionally sound choice in her daughter’s school—to her horror, they’re topped with blue sugar sprinkles. Most kids do not even like the foods that are being served. A recent survey of local school children in Northern Minnesota revealed the food is so abysmal that not even old standby favorites like cafeteria pizza and macaroni and cheese were given high marks. It’s no wonder that kids are choosing fast foods, which are chemically engineered in many cases to be better tasting, over regular school lunch menu items. Kids today are bombarded with food advertising that is reinforced by the careful placement of fast food chains in strip malls, nearby schools, and even on public school campuses. The big chains, like McDonald’s have been aggressively and specifically targeting children for decades. When Ray Kroc first started expanding the McDonald’s chain he would hop in a Cessna and fly around looking for prime real estate as close to schools as possible. Today they use satellite technology to locate the same types of properties. These companies are literally stalking our children. They’ve even found ways to get inside schools and be part of the public school lunch menus. A mother from Aurora, Colorado told us that there is one Taco Bell and one Pizza Hut option available on every menu in her 6 year old son’s lunch room. She was told that the fast food program originally started as a “safety measure” to keep the high school and middle school students on school grounds because in spite of the fact that they had a closed campus kids were crossing busy streets to get to fast food restaurants near their schools. She thought that “the fast food thing just trickled down to the elementary program.” Of course the reality is that those schools were, and are, making money off million dollar multi-year contracts with fast food companies.
School lunch menus have undergone some changes in recent years and are marginally improved, but nearly all our schools continue to operate under the misguided notion that kids actually prefer to eat frozen, processed, fried, sugary foods. Because most parents don’t have time to spend in the kitchen the way the parents of generations past once did the lunch lessons children are getting in school are the primary guideposts available to them. Poor in-school health and nutrition education is causing children and, by extension, their families to make bad food choices that are translating directly into big health problems. It is up to us, the consuming public, to not only get fast food out of our public schools, but to improve the quality of school lunches, from the nutritional content all the way to the atmosphere in our cafeterias. The money to fund school lunches comes directly out of our pockets and we need to set an example for our children that will keep them healthy now and help them to make better choices in their adult lives. Everything we consume becomes part of us. Our food provides us with nourishment. It sustains us. It may also be our ultimate undoing. We literally are what we eat—good and bad. Changing the way we feed our children is not a luxury it’s an imperative. Concerned, informed, and involved parents and caregivers are the first line of defense.