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Another salvo in the school lunch wars. April 12, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,

Silence Dogood here. I’d promised our friend Ben that he could write today’s post, but was so appalled by a news item this morning that I’m hogging our blog space again. (Tomorrow, Ben, I swear.) A Yahoo! news feature really set me off: “Chicago school bans homemade lunches, the latest in national food fight.” What!!! No homemade lunches?!!

Mind you, my own idea of a homemade lunch was shaped by a book, not by my mother, who was an intellectual and writer, not a domestic goddess. I’m sure the idea of packing a child’s lunch never even occurred to her, just as I can’t imagine her eating lunch herself, unless you consider coffee and cigarettes to be lunch. My siblings and I grew up eating our lunches in the school cafeteria, and let’s just say that many of the foods I’ve loathed throughout life had their origins there. (Canned peas, anyone?) Yes, we all survived the experience, but what joy to graduate to a high-school cafeteria that served something resembling actual food. (And believe it or not, the food at my college cafeteria was actually good.)

It wasn’t until I became a vegetarian after college and stumbled on the seminal vegetarian cookbook, Laurel’s Kitchen, that I became a bagged-lunch convert. Here is the description of the “bag lunch” that Laurel packed for her husband:

“No lunch pail was in sight, just  a big wicker basket… Then I saw the sandwiches: thick slices of dark [homemade] rye around an egg salad sparked with sweet red peppers and parsley… A fragrant barley soup with translucent pieces of zucchini, celery, and mushrooms went into a wide-mouthed thermos carefully preheated with boiling water, and a tiny packet of grated cheese went in alongside to be sprinkled on top of the soup. She rinsed and dried lettuce and cherry tomatoes and put them in a plastic container with a tiny bottle of herb dressing, then got out a cantaloupe… and packed one of the halves with cottage cheese and a sprinkling of toasted sunflower seeds. [She adds homemade peanut butter-date-carob candies rolled in coconut.]… I watched while Laurel fixed two more thermoses (one of decaffeinated coffee, one of hot malted milk spiked with a protein supplement) and put in napkins, a spoon, a fork, and an orange, carefully scored for easy peeling…”

Carol Flinders, one of the coauthors of Laurel’s Kitchen and the one relating this eye-popping experience, goes on to say how it made her reconsider the knee-jerk bag lunches she was packing for her husband and kids every day. She didn’t attempt to “pull a Laurel,” but she did make more of an effort to add variety and make sure the dressings and other likely-to-sog-down ingredients were packed separately from the sandwiches.

Like Carol, I was awed. I can’t say that I’ve ever packed a thermos of hot soup for OFB, much less a perfect cantaloupe. But I’ve sent him off many a time with delicious sandwiches, homemade hot-sweet pickles, perfectly packed salads, Ziploc bags of Triscuits, crudites and dip, and trail mix, and a thermos of hot coffee, all thanks to Laurel’s influence. 

So when I saw this headline, I was outraged. How dare schools condemn kids to cafeteria fare when they could be eating healthy, delicious homemade lunches?! But apparently, the school in question has a point, a point driven home by a teacher who’s quoted in the article. The teacher, who, like me, was outraged by this ruling, announced that the meal she packed for her school-age son each day was way cheaper than the $2.25 the school was charging for its cafeteria meal, and just think what the lucky kid was getting: “We don’t spend anywhere close to that on my son’s daily intake of a sandwich (lovingly cut into the shape of a Star Wars ship), Goldfish crackers and milk.”

Indeed. Here is the supposedly educated mother of a growing boy, who is “lovingly” cutting off part of his sandwich every day. Then she’s tossing in a pack of Goldfish crackers, which, as far as I can see, have no nutritive value whatever and no fiber. The only difference between them and a bag of potato or corn chips is that—as far as I know—they’re baked rather than deep-fried. Sub baked chips and there’s no difference at all, unless potatoes or corn count as healthier than white flour. Then there’s milk, apparently to make up for the lack of nutrition in the rest of the meal. (Because, face it, once you’ve added a carton of milk and a bag of Goldfish crackers, how much is left to spend on that cut-down sandwich to make the meal cost so much less than $2.25?)  

Where are the fresh veggies and fruit in this lunch? Where is the big, multigrain, healthful sandwich that will fill the poor kid up and help him grow? If you want to add chips, why not add a Ziploc bag of the yummy veggie chips by Terra that are made from sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, and other nutritious veggies? How about some string cheese for snacking, and a small container of hummus for dipping the fresh veggies? Baby carrots, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, and colorful red, yellow, orange and green bell pepper strips are fun and delicious to eat when you can dip them in hummus or tzatziki (Greek yogurt) sauce. And speaking of yogurt, would it have killed this woman to add a carton to her kid’s lunchbag?

Geez. The school in question is apparently concerned about the nutritive value of the kids’ bagged lunches, since most of the students come from poor homes and 44% of children who live below what we euphemistically call “the poverty line” are obese, given that starch and cheap fat (margarine, Crisco and lard) are the most economical sources of calories obtainable. They’re also concerned about kids bringing in hi-cal, tooth-rotting, diabetes-inducing, nutrient-free but sugar- and chemical-laden sodas to drink with their bagged lunches.

Okay, okay. I see the point. If an educated woman is sending her son to school with trash for lunch, God knows what working-class people who are struggling just to feed their families are doing. Maybe enforcing a cafeteria-meals-only rule makes sense, especially when 86% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Maybe feeding students whole foods and fresh veggies and fruits might even teach them to enjoy real food.

But then again. The school-lunch photo that accompanied the article was hardly encouraging, with its white-bread hotdog bun, unidentifiable chiplike thingies, and five baby carrots with nothing to eat them with to boost the flavor. To make matters worse, schools are now reducing the calorie count of their lunches even as research shows that most poor students consume most of their calories for the day at school. The schools assume they’re fighting childhood obesity. But instead, they may be starving poverty-level students, rather than giving them a hearty and healthy lunch that could improve their health, stamina, and brainpower.

This is heartbreaking, and should be seen and acknowledged as such. A healthy bagged lunch. A healthy school cafeteria lunch. Both should be encouraged. It’s not that hard to create guidelines to send home to parents who wish to send their kids to school with homemade, healthy lunches.

Depriving poor students of healthy but calorie-dense meals in the name of fighting childhood obesity is a moral as well as a commonsense failing. Please God, give these kids at least one filling, flavorful, healthy meal a day. It may be the only one they get. If you’re going to feed them anyway, feed them well. And please, don’t sanction hunger as a moral imperative, be it from cheapo starship-shaped sandwiches or state-enforced calorie restrictions. Our children deserve better of us.

               ‘Til next time,




1. Becca - April 12, 2011

Silence, you have made me hungry! We recently cut WAY down on all types of carbohydrates, in an effort to level out hormones and blood sugar. I never thought of those terra chips (and they’re GOOD!)

I’m feeling hungry too, Becca! Our local Mennonite bulk-foods store carries all the sorts of Terra chips as well as their own packaged dried veggie mix, which includes dried green beans. Now, if it would just occur to somebody to add dehydrated onions…

becca - April 13, 2011

mmm…dehydrated onions…would be wonderful to have a store like that around here. 🙂

It’s wonderful, Becca! We love Echo Hill Country Store!

2. Jen - April 12, 2011

As a working mom who has to get up early to pack two healthy fresh school lunches every day, my first thought was “those lucky moms” (kidding)

My kids HATE the school lunches, and I’ve seen so much food wasted in the school lunch program – kids throw away the salad and green beans, unfortunately.

It’s a tough one. Maybe it does make sense for this particular school and others with a similar demographic. But why not outlaw candy and soda as a start?

Good point, Jen! Outlawing candy, cookies, soda, chips, and etc. would certainly make sense. But yikes, kids throwing out salads?!! Maybe they need fresher dressings, better toppings (like shredded white Cheddar and roasted pepitas), and more diverse, crunchy ingredients. But hearing that brings tears to my eyes…

3. the Manic Gardener - April 14, 2011

Oh, that’s appalling. Thanks for reminding us that there might be a good reason–but not one that’s good enough.

BTW, I too remember discovering Laurel’s Kitchen, and I remember clearly Carol’s description of that lunch Laurel prepared, and Carol’s sense of inadequacy as she compared it with what she generally packed for her husband. Very effective!

I confess that I was never too taken with the recipes in the original Laurel’s Kitchen, Kate, but I often reread that intro to this day. It somehow seems to epitomize the ’70s…

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