Food Fight: Schoolkids Choose the Wrong Enemy

Photo credit: Librado Romero, the New York Times

Last week, the New York Times ran a story entitled No Appetite for Good-for-You School Lunches, about a new protest movement: that of students against the new healthy lunches now being served in public schools. I couldn’t stop thinking about the article, so I wrote a response to it. Here it is:

So, kids are throwing away healthy school lunches—what else is new? The Times’ report about public school kids chucking parts of their new and improved healthy school lunches in the trash took me right back to the fluorescent lights of the cafeteria of my own alma mater, a private and prestigious Quaker school in Philadelphia. Every day I would open my brown paper lunch bag, eat my sandwich, and then walk methodically over to the trashcan and drop the apple that my mom had packed for me into its depths.

I wasn’t the only one. The problem got so bad that the school had to designate a table where kids could put their unwanted lunch items, so someone could deliver the cache to needy people in the neighborhood. Now, when I think about the food that I wasted, I cringe. I would certainly never do that now. But I was a kid, and all I knew was what tasted good and what didn’t. My point is, the vast majority of kids dislike healthy food, and it’s certainly not a phenomenon that’s limited to public school students. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep encouraging kids to eat healthy food, or that they should be allowed to determine what they’re fed at school. The simple truth is that kids don’t know enough to make good decisions when it comes to food.

I’m a perfect case in point. After my apple tossing days in lower school, I was given responsibility for my own lunch, and I remember some of the culinary highlights I created in middle and high school, such as my daily morning brew of bad cafeteria coffee and powdered hot chocolate mix, accompanied by a three-pack of crumbly chocolate chip cookies. Then there were the days of cutting classes with my best friend to go eat Chicken McNuggets, accompanied by various sugary sauces. Perhaps the height of my grotesque eating style came during my junior-year internship in Center City, when I prided myself on buying lunch for under a dollar. My secret formula was a bag of Cheetos and a Snickers bar. (Prices have gone up since the Eighties, ahem).

Photo credit: Greenpeace

Do you think that I should have been in a position to determine what other kids were eating? The answer is obvious. The students that are protesting their school lunches today are simply doing what kids do—rebelling against what they’re told is “good for them.” But like most kids, they don’t understand the world well enough to know that the real focus of their rebellion ought not be their parents or the school system, who in this case would simply like to see them grow up strong and healthy. These kids’ real enemies are the food corporations who relentlessly advertise to children in order to get them to buy the high-fat and sugary treats they’re hawking. What if this youthful outrage were directed at the makers of genetically modified foods who don’t think that the public deserves to know when their food is genetically modified, or the health insurance companies who profit from the growing number of Americans made ill from eating the very garbage that these kids are protesting they want more of? Now that’s something to get fired up about!

Let’s face it: typically, kids just don’t care about being healthy. At their age, most kids don’t experience serious health issues, and they look great naturally. The motivation to eat right and work out comes later, when the assets of youth start to fray. My friends are in their 30’s and 40’s, and many are in the best shape of their lives because they exercise, have quit smoking and boozing, and make an effort to eat well. Schools and parents can do their very best, but most kids will invariably go through a protracted stage of eating junk-food. None of which invalidates the importance of setting an example for kids at home by eating healthy. Expose kids to fresh, nourishing food at a young age, and it will become their comfort food when they’re out in the world on their own. I know that the reason I came to my senses as an adult was because I grew up in a home where unprocessed food was the norm.

Sure, a number of today’s kids are complaining about getting enough calories to feel full, and that’s a real issue. Feeling full in a way that lasts necessitates eating some fat, but healthy fats aren’t cheap. The Mayo Clinic lists healthy fats as nuts, seeds, avocadoes, fatty, cold-water fish, and poultry, all expensive products when you only have $2.60 to spend on each lunch. Perhaps some of the subsidies that currently go to factory farms to produce the corn and soy that have given us today’s historically cheap meat and a plethora of junk-food could instead be directed to small farmers who could supply these healthy fats to schools. For the record, I still don’t enjoy plain apples—they’re too acidic to eat on their own. But give me some almond butter or peanut butter to spread on each slice and I’ll happily eat the whole thing.

To the kids that have stood up and mounted a rebellion against healthy school food, more power to you. I take it as a good sign that you will grow up to be politicians and activists who effect real and positive change in society by speaking up and demanding that your rights as human beings be met. But for now, we have to keep looking out for you. Sorry, kids, I know that the carrot sticks are not particularly exciting, but believe me: you’ll thank us later.

7 thoughts on “Food Fight: Schoolkids Choose the Wrong Enemy

  1. Sure, I remember protesting when my parents insisted
    I eat Grape Nuts or Shredded Wheat for breakfast, and
    literally cheering when my great aunt would bring us
    Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries! It’s a tale as old as
    time, and you’re absolutely right; we still need to take a
    a stand and instill good eating habits in our kids now, or
    forever hold our tongues if they don’t grow out of the junk
    food phase that we indulged them in. Great story, and a
    powerful point of view.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Sara! I remember actually liking Grape Nuts (I think they have a decent amount of sugar in them), but Shredded Wheat was a real bummer. Hey, the important thing is that your parents tried, and as an adult you know that super sugary cereals are not a smart choice. And bless your Great Aunt for spoiling you, all kids should have someone like that in their lives!

  2. Gradual change is our best hope, our school came out with local Colorado peaches for a couple of months last September and it was hard breaking to see how many of them ended up in the compost pile, some with just a couple of bites taken out of them. Maybe if they had the chance to try a few slices 1st and then if any was left they could be turned in to yummy gluten free whole grain muffins for the next day.
    Here is what award winning chef Ann Cooper has been doing in Colorado:

    1. Nushin,

      That is heartbreaking! I think you’re absolutely right, give the kids a few slices, or find a way to work the peaches into another dish. As I mentioned, I think that eating a whole, raw fruit can taste too intense and acidic, especially for kids whose palates aren’t fully developed (I love bitter tastes now, but hated them as a kid). Peaches in smoothies, sliced on top of cereal, or in healthy baked goods like you mentioned could be very successful. Thank you for sharing the work of the wonderful Chef Ann Cooper here!

  3. Great response to the article Louisa. You are spot on. You put into words what we parents of teens have been trying to articulate forever. I get it! They eat what tastes good, don’t really care about health issues yet, and their palates have not quite developed. Aha. My job is to have on hand “the good stuff” and encourage and enforce what I can. I make a balanced home cooked dinner every night so I know they are eating at least once a day right!

    My staple in high school lunch was a three pack of Ding Dongs and milk. I lived for that lunch! In grade school I stuffed my stewed tomatoes in my milk carton and tossed it in the trash right in front of the Lunch Monitor, with a smile!

    Fun posting, thanks.

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