Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Battle of the Bulge in a Food Revolution

A few nights ago I watched the TV special “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” where the celebrity chef went to Huntington, West Virginia, in an attempt to revamp the public school system’s student lunch menu. His purpose was to phase out the ever-present frozen chicken nuggets and pizza, and replace them with fresh produce and scratch-made real food. No processed meats, no flavored fun-colored drinks, no high-carb anything.

You would have thought he was trying to force-feed oddities like bangers-and-mash or spotted dick based on the reactions he received. He encountered resistance with every effort, from lunch ladies, the principal, and the kids themselves. God forbid they feed these young kids fresh food that’s not full of preservatives, excess sodium, and other ingredients with names so long even the teachers can’t pronounce them.

Mr. Oliver’s motivations were pure. He saw the epidemic of obesity in American children and wanted to use his knowledge and talent as a trained chef to make a positive change. How mystifying that he was met with such disdain. School officials accused him of only being there to make fun of them for the purpose of sensationalistic TV.

What boggles my mind, though, is that many of today’s school leaders are Gen Xers who grew up in schools that served these real-food lunches that Mr. Oliver was pushing for. This is not a new concept, it’s something we all grew up on only a few decades ago!

I attended public elementary school from 1977-1982. I usually brought my own lunch, but would buy the cafeteria selection 2-3 times per month. One difference in school lunches between then and now is the choice factor.

We had none.

There was one balanced lunch served each day, and you could take it or leave it (and it always included a vegetable). The favorite dish at my school was the Mexican Hat, a delicious concoction of sliced baloney, a scoop of mashed potatoes, and a slice of American cheese melted over top. There were the less favorites, too…most memorably a pasta-and-sauce dish nicknamed “Barfaroni.” But whatever the day’s selection, it WAS eaten! If you didn’t finish your fruit cup, there was a hungry kid next to you who would gladly take it off your hands. I remember seeing kids go back for seconds of cooked spinach. I never would have done that, but there were 7-year-olds who gladly did so. Why? Because they were hungry, and that was what was offered.

Too much choice can be a bad thing for young kids. They don’t have the capability to make the wisest nutritional decisions for their bodies because they’re simply not old enough to understand everything that goes into nutrition. They don’t know additives or phosphates or saturated fat levels. But they do know hunger, and that is the more important need to be satisfied.

I was appalled during the TV show when the woman in charge of the county’s school food services department (including purchasing, menu decision, and adherence to USDA regulations) said that one of the requirements for them approving Mr. Oliver’s menu changes was that “there must be acceptance by the kids.”

Really? When did we allow 7-year-olds so much power? They are not capable of making the best decision in this matter. Their knowledge base is limited. Their ability to consider future consequences of immediate choices is undeveloped. This is a situation that clearly needs adults to be the responsible decision makers, and to place a strong consideration on future consequences and not simply keeping the kids happy for today. Kids with full bellies are happy kids. Kids without excess weight are happy kids. Kids with all the vitamins and minerals that they need to grow, without excess sugar and preservatives and hormones that they don’t need, are ultimately healthy adults. We have to think long term on this subject!

I get that there are budgetary restrictions and bureaucratic USDA food pyramid requirements and all that. I get that it’s really hard to feed hundreds of mouths economically and efficiently 5 days a week with the smallest amount of waste. But I also know that nobody is doing any child any favor by pacifying her with a tray full of over-processed food-like items that may plug a growl in a belly and not actually nourish the whole body.

I applaud Jamie Oliver for his effort. It’s a huge undertaking to undo years of gradual bad choices across the country that are entwined in federal and local regulations. But come on…we’re talking about feeding our children. Kids who are repeatedly misfed today become the overweight, diabetic, high-blood pressured, and high-cholesteroled adults of tomorrow. This is not a subject that should be controlled only by the monetary cost of doing business. In this month where national healthcare is the biggest debate, we must consider the huge population of future health problems that is being slowly and methodically created by our public schools every single day.


  1. Great post and very interesting on several counts. I'm an organic farmer as well and I've often thought about how nice it would be if my kids were getting the same good nutrition at school as they do at home.

  2. It would be awesome if smaller private schools, especially charter schools, would make commitments to utilizing local organic farmers to provide 100% of their produce for school-provided meals, to set the bar for public schools to reach. I think nutritional offerings will become another aspect parents look at when choosing what school their children will attend, equal to academic offerings, sports programs, and extracurriculars.

  3. With all the push on organics and the overwhelming green attitudes, you'd think parents would be more amenable to their kids appetites following along a healthy path. Sadly I believe their reticence has to do with two things: laziness on their part to stray from the offered path; and their unwillingness to pay more for 'the good stuff'.

    I saw the ads for the Jamie Oliver show but forgot to set the DVR. I'd have been interested to see his solutions, but I think the reactions might have pushed me over the edge.

  4. I really was amazed at the amount of resistance he encountered, though I fully understand the economics of it preventing many families from making the switch. We're slowing making the change ourselves. The wallet sure feels it, but I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing I'm doing better for my health, supporting growers striving to be better.