It’s just before noon and I’m casing the school cafeteria. Empty-bellied kindergartners stand at the “Garden Bar” with giant silver tongs in their yea-big hands. They stare at the cucumber, cauliflower and celery bins curiously — the way you’d expect them to look at tide pool anemones. Not at lunch.
“How am I supposed to know what it is?” a boy says after serving himself some wilted green salad. “I thought it was something else!”
Today’s hot entree is a triangular calzone. “Those look good,” a teacher says to the worker behind the counter. “Are they freshly made?”
There’s an awkward pause, then a chuckle: “They’re freshly made somewhere!”
I’m here after attending a talk by nutrition experts about the poor quality of school lunches. Here’s why we should care:
Our childhood obesity rate is twice as high as it was in the 1970s. Forty percent of all cancer is diet related. And the USDA last month recalled 143 million pounds of potentially tainted beef — more than 35 million of which was distributed to schools through the National School Lunch Program.
The experts suggest that parents visit their children’s schools to see what’s being served. Since it’s rare that smart people implore me to eat a $2.25 lunch — and since it’s been way too long since I used a spork — I pop into Washington elementary to sample the menu.
And what I find isn’t entirely unappetizing. The Garden Bar is great. Students get a Styrofoam tray with six compartments. One’s for hot food, another’s for milk. The rest beg to be filled with something, and produce is the only option. Most kids choose baby carrots, corn niblets, trail mix, or sliced pears from a can.
I see a seven-year-old pop a cucumber disk into his mouth and tell a friend, “These are good!”
To be fair, the school is more progressive than some. The Santa Barbara district is slowly swapping out packaged and processed grub for made-from-scratch meals using fresh, local ingredients. Some schools tend organic gardens and eat the harvest for lunch.
An overhaul of the national lunch program is overdue; it was created in the early 1900s to serve underfed children. Now that our kids get too much to eat — too much fat and sugar, too many calories and chemicals — the menu has to change.
“It’s something that’s making so much sense to people that it’s really unstoppable,” says Demian Barnett, the Washington principal. Still, it’s tricky. How do you convince nugget-raised kids to eat whole wheat chicken wraps? And if you make it, and no one eats it, how do you pay for it? And if this is a child’s only hot meal of the day, as it is for some low-income students, shouldn’t it be one he devours rather than dumps in the trash?
It’s not until later — after creeping through the lunch line with my mortified, mom-disgraced fourth-grader, and plopping down on the grassy hill where he and his buddies scarf their mid-day repast — that I fully digest the complexity of these issues.
“Last week,” says a fifth-grader, “they served chicken on a bun with mayonnaise and spinach.” He spits out the word as though he were still trying to clear his mouth of it a week later.
For these students, nutrition is not a priority. They’re more interested in what their food can do: whether the cheese off Wednesday’s pizza can bounce, or the beans off Monday’s quesadilla will stick to a wall, and whether a pudding cup is a fair trade for a bag of Cheez-Its.
As they inhale their home-packed lunches, I bite into the lukewarm calzone. The crust sticks to the roof of my mouth and red, meatish mush squirts out the center. I eat the whole thing and feel terrifically sick afterward.
But before I finish, the boys inexplicably stuff their wrappers in their pockets and bolt. “Hey!” I call. “Where ya going?”
“To play,” my son explains. These kids may not be eating ideally at school, but they’re certainly learning their math. “See, the longer you eat lunch, the shorter your recess.”