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The New School Lunch

There has been a lot of palaver about the so called damage Michelle Obama has perpetrated against the national school lunch plan. The school lunch program started after World War II. It helped kids get a meal when there were no meals at home. The USDA Child and Adult Food Program started in 1948 to ensure that children in care outside their homes had a diet that would encourage them to grow.

The basic principal of either lunch program is, was and always will be to feed certain foods that will encourage health. The problem is that not all foods encourage growth and development. Now, much of a child’s diet is “bulk” and only encourages weight gain. Working within the guidelines of the program gives a lot of leeway, and somewhere along the line, “bulk” took over the program, and that was fine for the kids until a bulky diet became a bulky body type.

The formula for the food program is not hard to understand. At breakfast, children should have a grain product. a fruit or veggie and milk.  At lunch we add to the grain and fruit or veggie, and milk, another fruit or veggie and a protein. A snack is a food from two different food groups. That’s not rocket surgery!

So here’s an illustration:

At School A, the kitchen serves a poptart, canned fruit and milk.

At School B, the kitchen serves a whole grain, homemade muffin loaded with extras like wheat germ and coconut, and the child gets half an orange and milk.

Both schools are in code.

At lunch, School A serves a hot dog on a bun, canned peas and tater tots.

School B serves baked chicken, French bread and butter, real mashed potatoes and half an apple.

Both schools are in code.

At snack, School A serves a graham cracker and milk.

School B serves a homemade whole grain brownie and milk.

Both schools are in code.

What Michelle Obama is trying to do is upgrade that bulk to a fresher and better menu, but her concept is trespassing into kitchens that have been trying to feed children on the cheap and lazy for a long time. What she has inadvertently managed to do is reduce the calories on the plate to a dangerously undesirable formula that is not working. The food is still there, but it’s not working because menu planners are not on board. The formula is the same and so is the money.

When a child is in care for ten hours a day, most of what he will eat will be provided by the care provider…so do it right. Right lost it’s definition a long time ago. Few would agree If a provider doesn’t know how to cook, she’s in the wrong business, or if a provider doesn’t  like to cook, she’s in the wrong business, or if a provider refuses to learn about this very important part of child care, she’s definitely in the wrong business. At a workshop I gave several years ago, a woman said she made the same thing for lunch for her family day care kids every day: boxed pizza, French fries and applesauce. She was in the wrong business.

It’s the same in big school. When the kitchen menu planners are looking for boxes and bags, instead of fresh and homemade; when dessert is a focus of the meal, when canned is the go to before fresh, somebody is in the wrong business. Lunches aren’t free, and for the price of a school lunch, something better than what’s on the plate can be done anywhere.

Cooking for children is a balance between what they will eat and what they should eat and working with the bad habits of simply not eating or the eating battle that goes on in many homes. Getting children to try things that really do taste good is the first order of feeding children and it’s not easy. That’s why keeping it simple, desirable and fun is key. Kids don’t like elaborate. They like filling things they recognize.

In any kitchen preparing a meal for a child, the first priority should be quality of food. Quality food does not come out of a package or a mix or a frozen box or a can, If the ingredients have to be listed, there are too many along with too many chemicals. Cooking fresh is not hard and it’s not necessarily more expensive than opening a box. But it is horrendously hard if there are five hundred options to keep up with. Reduce the options and offer ONE quality meal sans dessert with a good bread and something fresh. Focus on less and produce more.

Instead of name calling and laughing at what the First Lady is trying to do, maybe what should be done is to re-examine the menus we are “fixed” on and re-evaluate their quality and try to incorporate more fresh and less processed food for the children we say we love.

It’s not rocket surgery.