“It tastes like…” my six-year-old friend paused to search for a word disgusting enough to describe school lunch. “Throw up,” she concluded. Her sister, a fifth grader, nodded in agreement.
Really? I’ve heard fantastic reviews of the cafeteria director there. No doubt, he is doing everything he can to provide the most nutritious yet tasty breakfasts and lunches the school can afford.
But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Food that the school can afford. The government sets the budget at $1.58 per breakfast and $2.93 per lunch.
The cost of good food isn’t just food. Because healthy food must be chopped, peeled, washed, cooked, or otherwise prepared. And that preparation takes equipment and know-how from skilled cafeteria staff. Junk food, on the other hand, requires little more than a freezer, a microwave, and minimal human effort.
Schools that serve junk food save money on the actual food and spend less preparing it.
And even when a school can accomplish what it takes to produce good food within the confines of its tight budget, there’s no real benefit unless the kids actually eat it. You can bring a kid to vegetables, but you can’t always make them eat. Most American kids will gladly inhale a plate of mac ‘n cheese, a cheeseburger, or pizza. Broccoli is a harder sell.
Kids, however, can eat (and even enjoy) healthy food. Sometimes it takes some effort by grown-ups to help them get used to new foods and flavors or to help them get excited about familiar ones.
My friend’s kindergartener came home one day to announce that her favorite apple variety is a Golden Delicious. Her class did an apple tasting of many varieties and the teacher tied it in with a language activity about the letter A.
Sure, the kid was already willing to eat apples, but maybe now she’ll be more eager to have them as a snack instead of, say, potato chips.
Lessons aimed at introducing kids to healthy foods can include tie-ins to academic subjects. Science is a natural fit, but students can hone math skills by measuring ingredients in a recipe or boost language skills as they read or write stories about food. What’s Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss? It’s a story about a picky eater who won’t try a new food, only to discover in the end that he likes it.
To meet picky kids halfway, schools can come up with kid-friendly healthy recipes — but only if they have the resources to do so (skilled labor, well-equipped kitchens, etc). Bean burritos are an easy win. Veggies can be undetectably blended into tomato sauce and served on pasta or pizza. However, don’t even try serving overcooked canned green beans.
Why should schools go to so much trouble to feed students well? They are schools, after all, not restaurants. That’s true, but hungry and poorly nourished kids don’t learn very well. Some kids react strongly to chemical additives commonly used in foods, like artificial food dyes, which are linked to hyperactivity in some children.
Feeding students food that detracts from their ability to learn is nothing short of educational sabotage.
Furthermore, at a time when health care costs make up a whopping 18 percent of the economy and many of our top killers are diet-related chronic illnesses like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, teaching our youngsters to eat well is a matter of public health.
As America’s kids, teachers, and cafeteria staff begin a new school year, let’s recommit ourselves to transforming the food served at schools into the foundation of a healthy generation.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.