I love food shows, enough to be sucked into watching the first two episodes of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” (I also only have basic cable, so no more Food Network. Sigh.) Last week we followed Oliver as he created a new lunch menu for an elementary school in Huntington, West Virginia, the CDC’s unhealthiest city of 2008. And what did we find? Oliver’s menu of baked chicken, brown rice, and fruit did not meet the USDA standards for a well-rounded lunch. He wasn’t offering two grains! Heaven forbid! Oliver resorted to toasting hamburger buns to serve with the lunch, all the while complaining that this extra starch was just going to make the students fat. The USDA-approved lunch, however, met the guidelines–a slice of cheese pizza is two grains. I think they threw a few carrot and celery sticks and a piece of fruit on the tray as well. Which would you rather your child have for lunch? Well, it doesn’t matter because the USDA demands they have the pizza.
As a child of a lunch lady, I know that the ire for the sub-par school lunch is often directed at those who prepare and serve the food and not at the true culprit: the USDA. I asked my mother exactly how the lunches are planned at her school, and I learned that she is given a menu each week which she must strictly abide by. The only alterations she can make are to remove spices, butter, and anything else that may add any actual flavor to the food. Can she incorporate any local foods? Can she tailor the menus to local tastes? Absolutely not! Them’s the rules, lunch lady.
My mother, and countless other lunch ladies (and men!) across the country, LOVE what they do. They enjoy feeding the children. They like to see empty trays returned to the kitchen. They truly care about the health and well-being of the kiddies who walk through their line everyday. But they are given no opportunity to create lunches that kids actually want to eat. Instead, they are forced to reheat mostly processed foods and require each student to take a carton of milk, only to watch the unopened cartons go directly into the trash. Talk about a waste of money.
Nutrition is first taught in the home. Parents must take their responsibility as educators seriously and not depend on the schools to teach their children. And parents must take a more active role in their children’s development rather than believe that the government knows whats best for their children. The USDA thinks they know what is best: cheese pizza and chicken nuggets for lunch.