In the December 9th issue of USA Today the cover story was “Schools don’t meet fast-food standards.” Apparently the quality of the meat and poultry used in the school lunch program is sub-standard compared to what is used by Mc Donald’s, KFC and The Campbell Soup Company. “Spent” hen meat and beef that wouldn’t pass most safety rules is purchased by the USDA and donated to almost every school district in the country. This substandard meat is also used for pet food. Since I don’t give my pup commercial pet food, school kids are getting meat each day that I literally wouldn’t give to a dog.
When I visited several school lunch rooms and tasted their fare as part of serving on a Nutrition Advisory Committee for school lunches I was taken aback. Lettuce and fresh fruit were available but the main course, what kid’s are counting on for most of their calories, was dull, empty calories. Corn dogs, cheesy pizza sticks, and hamburgers were top choices. In all cases, the food was less tasty than the same dish purchased at a drive-through. Cafeteria workers will tell you that sure you can serve healthier stuff but the kids won’t eat it. They want the junk food.
Why do we allow the school lunch program to make our children bottom-feeders? After pondering the dilemma I came to the conclusion that more parent education was part of the solution. Lots of good folks like Dr. Susan Rubin of Better School Food and Ann Cooper the Renegade Lunch Lady are making strides on the government and cafeteria level. Attention is needed on the parent level too. What are children being taught to prefer at home?
Erin Barnett of Local Harvest reminded me of the connection between school lunch and dinner at home in her most recent newsletter where she wrote, “There is much attention being given these days to the need to improve the quality of food served in our nation’s public schools, and rightly so. To serve our children the best food, grown with care by farmers who are also part of the community in which the children reside is a sensible and widely beneficial thing. But let us also remember the value of the meals we share at home.”
If stressed parents sit their kids in front of the TV with microwaved chicken nuggets and call it dinner, what does this teach them? On the other hand, if we demand the time to create a simple homemade meal and sit down together to bless it and eat it, what difference will this make?
A dramatic difference has been reported in terms of test scores, avoiding drug use, coping skills and increased vocabulary for children and teens who share family meals. Taste buds are also affected. What you serve at dinner on a regular basis is what your kids come to think of as “normal”. If they are used to food that has true flavor without being masked by liquid smoke or smothered in cheap cheese they may develop a palate that rejects a nugget made from a spent hen.
During the holidays we tend to gather around the table and eat the best food we can offer. This offers nourishment on countless levels. Maybe we can pledge to do this more often in the coming year, knowing that this commitment may have a rippling effect that reaches the school cafeteria.