"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Yucky Healthy School Lunches

Many American families serve raw vegetables and dip as 'hors d'oeuvres' - healthy, cheaper alternatives to caviar, pate, and smoked salmon.  Yet as any cook knows, the flavor of broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower is released through cooking.  Raw vegetables are only tasteless vehicles for the cream cheese and onion.  Healthy starters are entirely for show.

As food and nutrition studies have amply shown, the American diet is far from healthy and overloaded with fats, carbohydrates, salt, sugar, and fast food.  There is good reason for this. Sugar, and fat taste good; and while we no longer need the extra calories given our sedentary life style, our bodies still crave them.  The food industry long ago understood that any food high in fat, sugar, and salt would be popular and profitable.

More educated families have learned not only how to limit these ingredients but as importantly how to prepare vegetables in tasty, attractive ways.  Their children have grown up to enjoy vegetables cooked and prepared properly - baked whole cauliflower with Bay and Cajun spices, drizzled with olive oil; broccoli sauteed in browned garlic and hot pepper; roasted beets in their skin served with lavender salt and European-style butter.

Children of well-off and poor families are disgusted by school lunches and their raw carrots, barely-cooked green beans, and limp cucumbers.  Those used to cuisine find the school offerings tasteless and inedible.  Those used to bacon, fatback, corn meal, burgers, and Krispy Kreme are equally disgusted.

Current federal guidelines mandate healthy food for school lunches, and if school districts comply, they get extra funding.  Here’s what the students think of the healthy food (article by Vivian Yee, Washington Post 10.5.12):
Not only is the new, healthy food just as unappetizing as the carrot sticks, the portions are smaller and the price is higher.  No wonder most of it goes into the trash.
Because the lunches must now include fruits and vegetables, those who clamor for more cheese-laden nachos may find string beans and a peach cup instead. Because of limits on fat and sodium, some of those who crave French fries get baked sweet-potato wedges. Because of calorie restrictions, meat and carbohydrate portions are smaller. Gone is 2-percent chocolate milk, replaced by skim.
“Before, there was no taste and no flavor,” said Malik Barrows, a senior at Automotive High School in Brooklyn, who likes fruit but said his classmates threw away their mandatory helpings on the cafeteria floor. “Now there’s no taste, no flavor and it’s healthy, which makes it taste even worse.”
A number of years ago, Florida State developed and ran a very successful advertising campaign to encourage teenagers to stop smoking or to never take it up.  They knew that appeals to better health, sweeter breath, or whiter teeth had not worked in the past, so they tried something different.  They put up posters of a Monopoly-like fat-cat capitalist, smoking a cigarette, and added the tagline “Every pack of cigarettes you buy, is money in his pocket”.  It was a huge success because it tapped into teenagers natural rebelliousness.  In the past teenagers smoked because it was bad for their health, a defiant ‘up yours’ to over-protective parents.  Kids are giving the same ‘up yours’ to parents, teachers, and school principals on healthy food.

Forcing healthy food on students is another case of social engineering.  It doesn’t work.  Students don’t eat the food and easily resort to brown-bagging it.  These days more and more kids make their own sandwiches, so can easily make P&J, throw in some Oreos and Doritos, and skirt the rules.  The schools performance on which they are evaluated for the additional funding is based on their purchase and distribution of healthy food, not on its consumption.  If they measured the food served and the food in the trash, they would have a better evaluation.

By the time a child gets to school his/her nutrition habits are already formed for better or worse; and forcing unpalatable food on them is a doomed enterprise.
Students organized lunch strikes in a suburb of Pittsburgh, where in late August the hashtag “brownbagginit” was trending on Twitter, and outside Milwaukee, where the Mukwonago High School principal, Shawn McNulty, said participation in the lunch program had fallen 70 percent.
“There is a reduction in nacho chips, there is a reduction in garlic bread, but there’s actually an increase in fruits and vegetables,” Mr. McNulty said. “That’s a tough sell for kids, and I would be grumbling, too, if I was 17 years old.”
Perhaps as bad as the tasteless, poorly-prepared food, the higher cost and the smaller portions is the calorie limitation:
According to the new restrictions, high school lunches must be no more than 850 calories, middle school lunches no more than 700 calories and elementary school lunches no more than 650. Before, there were no maximums.
A normal adult lunch intake is 600 calories and even with an active lifestyle adults are still semi-sedentary compared to a teenager.   Imagine what these hormone-fueled, high-energy teenagers need.  Definitely more than 850 calories. 
Few school districts have been as extreme in their efforts as Los Angeles, which introduced a menu of quinoa salads, lentil cutlets, vegetable curry, and pad Thai last fall. When students began rejecting the lunches en masse, the district replaced some of the more exotic dishes with more child-friendly foods, like pizza with whole-wheat crust, low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce.
But this year, even the whole-wheat pizza is gone, replaced by calzones, fajitas and other, smaller entrees with side dishes of fruits and vegetables.
Some food psychologists say that these programs will “eventually” work, and with repeated exposure, kids will grow to like carrot sticks. Very hard to believe.  What these researchers underestimate is the intense herd behavior of kids.  Carrot sticks are the symbol of adult repression and even if they were chocolate-coated, kids wouldn't eat them.

Moreover not only do these psychologists and school administrators overestimate the power of 'good' food; but they underestimate the importance of a school lunch as a behavior-modifying instrument. Repeated carrot sticks at school will have no impact whatsoever on the composition of family meals.

Schools inherit bad behavior learned at home and are expected to change it.  Students who have never been taught discipline, respect, honesty, and hard work at home will never learn these values in the classroom.  The same is true about nutritional behavior.  An appreciation for good, tasty, and healthy food begin in the high-chair; and no unpalatable, steam-tray, previously-frozen-and-reheated school lunch will ever do.

Better to end school lunches entirely and save taxpayer money.  Let children bring bag lunches of pizza, chicken nuggets, and donuts until their parents reform eating behavior at home.

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