The new food fight has nothing to do with airborne tater tots. Rather, it’s a daily battle for the minds—and stomachs—of children the world over. The casualties include weary parents, temper tantrums and trans fats. Pizza sauce will be spilled.
From Michelle Obama to Jamie Oliver, everyone is turning their celebrity gaze to what kids are actually consuming in the plastic trenches of the cafeteria. And the truth is hard to stomach.
Despite the country’s new collective consciousness toward wellness, school cafeterias are among the last hideaways of the endangered chicken nugget and the nation’s shrinking gravy reserves.
However, many forward-thinking districts like Bellevue have introduced once-taboo foods like whole-wheat bread, brown rice and, gasp, fresh fruit. But a stigma still remains toward the lunch line.
“For a while they’d buy a couple times a week and then they just started thinking the school lunches were gross,” says Diane Karl, Bellevue Club mom. Her kids were in third grade and in kindergarten when they rebelled.
“I wish they’d buy, but they literally just refused,” she says.
Now at age 11, her daughter Amanda is more apt to crinkle her nose at trans fat than broccoli.
“She literally won’t eat anything with trans fat,” Diane says. “One of her friends taught her that.”
Diane, or her husband Rob, packs lunch for Tyler and Amanda. The lunches are fairly standard kid fare with a sandwich, chips, fruit and a cookie, but subtle differences boost the nutrition level.
“Neither of them will eat American cheese and we also use whole wheat bread,” she says. “We try to make the sandwiches as balanced as possible.”
After more than a decade of daily sandwich making, Bellevue Club personal trainer Mary Worley has gotten lunch packing down to a science. Like Diane’s, her kids—Eleanor, 16, and Isaac, 13—are dubious of the “hot lunch” served at their local schools.
“I’ve always packed their lunches,” she says.
Eleanor and Isaac have literally eaten thousands of Mary’s lunches throughout their scholastic careers.
Instead of a brown-bag democracy, she employs a benevolent dictatorship approach with her kids.
“You give them options—you say, ‘do you want cherry tomatoes, peapods or carrots?’” she says.
Mary also slyly pushes against her kids’ culinary comfort zones.
“I keep getting more and more healthy bread, pushing toward the flax-seed extreme, and when they complain, I’ll take one step back, but they’re still eating healthier bread than they would have before,” she says. “I do the same thing with peanut butter.”
As a working mom, Mary tends to keep it simple, avoiding complex menus when she wakes up at 4:30 a.m.
“I get up, start the coffeepot and pack three lunches (one for her husband),” she says. “I basically make the same thing for each of them every day. A turkey and cheese sandwich, vegetable, snack and almonds.”
At the local grocery store, Mary has seen her kids’ friends spending lunch money on less-than-nutritious options.
“They’ll be buying candy before baseball practice,” she says. “If you give your kid lunch money, you basically have no control what they do with it.”
Cafeteria Culture Shock
When Linda Floyd returned from India with her family one year ago, it wasn’t culture shock that got to her children—it was cafeteria shock.
“We lived in India for three years, and my kids ate lunch at the school there every day. It was very healthy with dal, rice, fresh fruit and lentils,” she says. “When we got back, they were shocked by dried-up chicken nuggets and some sugar dessert. I thought it was ridiculous that my kids had much better food in India than they did here in the U.S.”
So she decided to do something about it.
Joining up with other Mercer Island moms, including Bellevue Club member and dietician Nisha Shah, they’ve spent the past year working to bring healthier foods to the district’s schools.
“There has been a history of (food advocacy) on Mercer Island, but it fizzled out,” Linda says. While the past group was successful in introducing whole wheat, Linda says they are now focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables.
“The glaring thing for us was the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. “They would serve hamburger with french fries, and we’d wonder ‘where are the vegetables?’ And, of course, the fries were considered the vegetable.”
Working with Chartwells, the company that provides the district lunches, the group came up with a new test menu that includes fresh fruit or vegetables on the tray every day. The more colorful meals will debut in the fall.
But will the children eat it? Linda believes they will.
“Kid’s aren’t eating hamburgers and pizza every day at home,” she says. “You can’t just be listening to what the kids want, we really need to lead by example.”
She sees parent volunteers in the cafeteria as instrumental influences when it comes to healthy eating at school.
“We want to be there to encourage the positive,” she says.