School Lunch: Who’s Holding the Bag?

The “What’s Cooking” column is a weekly feature of the newspaper I work for, the Wayne Independent in Honesdale PA.  Members of the staff take turns writing the column, and this week (8/27/2014) it’s my turn. We don’t archive this column to our website, so I thought I’d reproduce it here for you…

WHAT’S COOKING: SCHOOL LUNCH – WHO’S HOLDING THE BAG?

For some reason, when I was a kid, I wasn’t a big fan of soups, especially tomato-based ones. So one day, when some hearty chock-full-o’-vegetables concoction was the lunch du jour at my little Catholic school in Florida, second-grade me objected.

I raised quite a fuss, apparently; I believe words like “I demand an alternative” got thrown around a bit… Needless to say, the nuns were none too pleased by my defiant and ungrateful performance.  I mercifully have no recollection of the exact nature of my punishment, but I am sure that extended contemplation – not to mention forced consumption – of said bowl of soup was involved.

Nowadays, of course, things are a bit different.  School nutrition specialists – you know, the lunch ladies – are bending over backwards and tying themselves in knots, bless their slotted spoons, trying to provide meals and snacks that (a) are sufficiently nutritious, (b) fit within tight school budgets, and (c) kids will eat without physical coercion.  The problem is that most foods seem to fit into at most two of those categories.

Complicating matters is the degree to which politics – and profits – have become involved in what should be a fairly straightforward process. Surprisingly enough, usually practical and disciplinarian conservatives (who back in the day would certainly have supported the right of the nuns to make me eat that soup) are now backing the rights of kids to exercise their freedom of choice in lunch lines and at vending machines, while also trying to whack millions off school lunch budgets.

First Lady Michelle Obama and her admirable “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity have (with the best of intentions, mind you) presented school nutritionists with difficult-to-navigate schedules of daily allowable dosages for fats, sugars, and salt.  (You can get an idea of what they’re going through by going to www.projectpa.org and checking out the “Smart Snacks in Schools Webinar.”)

Budget considerations are driven by commodity prices, which depend on the subsidies in the Farm Bill passed by Congress (under the strong influence of agribusiness and the processed food industry) – subsidies that frequently result in lower prices for the less nutritious foods while making the good stuff more expensive.  As food writer and activist Michael Pollan says in his article “You Are What You Grow,” “The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow… The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.”

So in the face of all this craziness, what are parents of school-aged children to do? In a recent conversation, Karen Carlson, Food Services Director for the Wayne Highlands School District, pointed out the obvious place to start: setting good nutrition examples at home. “If kids are throwing away apples, that’s not a behavior they’re being taught in school,” she says.  Her colleague Barbara Zeiler at Wallenpaupack Area School District agrees: “The education process has to start at home and we need to get back to basics. Families need to garden and/or support local farmers; prepare nutritious foods together; and eat together as a family unit.”

Experts also suggest discussing nutrition choices with your kids, and getting them involved from the beginning in planning – and making! – their lunches.  Encourage open-mindedness in trying new and unfamiliar foods.

Sarah Wu, blogger and author of FED UP WITH LUNCH, suggests five ways that parents can improve school lunches by getting involved: (1) Starting a school wellness committee; (2) Rallying for salad bars; (3) Requesting ingredient transparency; (4) Fighting to increase eating time; and (5) Encouraging nutrition education across the curriculum. (All three Wayne County school districts have wellness committees, by the way; information is available at each district website.)

The school lunchroom has always been a place of barely controlled chaos – but now it’s also a place where a number of critical social issues collide. What happens there not only affects our children’s health and ability to learn – and hence their future effectiveness as citizens and workers –  it’s also connected to our management of the economy and the environment, and shows us just how willing we really are to “promote the general welfare” as our Founders intended. Whether as parents, students, or citizens, we all need to educate ourselves on the issues involved and make our voices heard.


 

And in the meantime, there are all sorts of resources on the Net for making lunches that are both interesting and healthy.  Here’s an easy and clever idea, for example – a RAINBOW LUNCH BOX: Create a colorful assemblage of red strawberries, orange carrots, yellow strips of cheese, green celery sticks, and blue corn tortilla chips!

And here’s another that sounds right yummy – HAM AND CHEESE MUFFINS:

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
2 tablespoons maple syrup or honey
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup ham, chopped fine

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine the first 5 dry ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine.
  3. In a separate bowl whisk the eggs, oil and maple syrup and stir to combine.
  4. Add the buttermilk to the egg mixture and stir.
  5. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour and stir until just combined.
  6. Fold in the cheese and ham.
  7. Scoop the batter 2/3 of the way up into greased muffin cups and bake for 18-20 minutes (15 minutes if using mini muffin cups).

 

 

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