Thursday, August 26, 2010


The kids are at a new school this year. To make a long (very long) story somewhat less long, there was a county-wide redistrict, and it turns out that we were one of the families who had to switch. So now instead of going down the mountain to a small, overcrowded rural school, we go up the mountain to a small, under-enrolled rural school. Frankly, although many of my neighbors will tell you otherwise, it's not a very big change.

Except for breakfast.

The new school has a higher percentage of students in the free lunch program than the old school did (and yes, this is the root of the reason my neighbors are so upset). This puts the school over some arbitrary threshold set by the federal government and means, among other things, that the school also has to provide free breakfast. To every child in the school. That's right, every child, even the ones who ate breakfast at home. Oh, sure, a parent may forbid her child from eating the breakfast. A parent may even notify the classroom teacher of this prohibition and the classroom teacher will have to enforce it. (Sounds like a good way to get off on the right foot with a teacher, doesn't it?) But the default is to offer all the kids breakfast when they walk into the room in the morning.

On the surface, this may seem like a fine idea. So the kids eat an extra bowl of oatmeal when they get to school in the morning. Big deal. In practice, however, there is no oatmeal on the menu. Pop Tarts, yes. Coco Puffs. Pastries. But no oatmeal.

So here are my options:
1. Look the other way while my children tank up on empty carbohydrates every morning,
2. Forbid them from having it and become both Mean Mommy and Problem Parent, or
3. Call the county's Director of Food Services and try to get the menu changed.

Three guesses which one I picked.

The Director of Food Services, like so many of the school system employees who field my complaints, agreed with me in theory. "But," he said, "I'm sure you've seen Food Revolution."

"Sure," I said, because I wasn't about to trash my credibility by admitting that I don't have a television and instantly being pegged as Crazy Hippie Lady who Probably Feeds Her Children Tofu for Breakfast. Plus, everyone says this to me, so even though I haven't seen it I actually knew what he was talking about.

"Well, that's what happens when we offer them healthier options," he said, meaning that the kids refuse to eat those foods.
When the school offers, for example, yogurt and fresh fruit, the kids simply don't eat. Since they haven't eaten at home, this means that they don't get any breakfast at all. Furthermore, if they do eat at home they get things that are even worse than those that the school offers. At least the Pop Tarts the school serves are whole grain.

"ARGH!" I thought, but did not say. "Well," I did say, "everything we know about children's eating habits tells us that you have to keep offering them healthy foods over and over, and eventually they'll try them."

Unsurprisingly, he was familiar with this research. I told you, they all agree with me in theory. "But when they don't eat it, we have to throw it out," he said, "and we don't get reimbursed by the government for meals we don't serve."

"AH HA!" I thought, but did not say. "Well," I did say, "um." Because, to tell the truth, I couldn't really think of anything to say to that. Basically, he was telling me that the school system can't afford to provide healthy meals for the students. The free meals program is rigged, in fact, to make this impossible. Children are used to eating sugary, processed foods at home, and therefore that is what they expect at school. When they don't get it, they refuse to eat. When they don't eat, the system doesn't get the money it needs to provide food the next day. Thus, the schools are forced to offer choices that the children are familiar with so that they will eat them and the program will survive. For the school system to break this cycle would require a massive input of resources that it simply does not have.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the nutritional guidelines for school lunches (and breakfasts) are woefully out of date. The United States Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are required by federal law to jointly issue updated dietary guidelines at least every five years. The most recent document is from 2005, and a new one is due out this year. But the nutritional requirements set out in the National School Lunch Program (which, curiously, is also administered by the USDA) are based on the guidelines from 1995. Why? Good question. To give you an idea of just how long ago 1995 was, those guidelines do not even mention whole grains or trans fats.

I told my kids that they have to eat their healthy breakfast at home, and then if they're still hungry they can have some of the school breakfast too. So far, at least according to their reports, they haven't been eating much at school. If that changes, maybe I'll reevaluate. But there's a bigger problem here than just my kids finally finding out what a Pop Tart is. These kids who refuse to eat fruit and yogurt are going to be running things when we're old, and it would be good if they didn't all have type 2 diabetes and chronic heart disease by then. The whole School Lunch Program needs a serious overhaul, starting with the way it's funded and going right down to the Pop Tarts. Get busy, Congress.