Friday, October 1, 2010

What's for lunch?

My kids are eating a school lunch today.

If you aren't yet yelling "Eek!" and jumping away from your screen, it's because you either a.) have never eaten a traditional American school lunch; b.) have an extremely poor grasp of nutrition; or c.) probably lack the taste buds to differentiate between decent food and what's served at school.  

The fact my kids are excited about it is what alarms me so.

I ate school lunch occasionally when I was a kid, and I was fine with it.  Fat, greasy, fried nasty lunch, with hundreds of calories in a few mouthfuls.  Yep, that's it.  I was fine with it because I had a problem with my weight and when my mom packed my lunch, I got things like pickled beets and cottage cheese, which did NOT make me the most popular kid in the class.

I ate school lunches when things got hectic at home, when both of my full-time-working parents didn't have the time to make me lunch or someone didn't stop to purchase whatever was needed so I could make my own (darn!  we skipped the cottage cheese again!).  As a teacher, though, I'm well aware that the majority of kids who eat school lunch every day do so out of economic necessity, not because they particularly love the taste of stale, cold fries and greasy fish.

It's something to think about--how the school lunch program is there to support all children, to ensure everyone gets a decent lunch, and yet children who rely heavily on that program are more likely to be, well, heavy.  In a program where funding is as short as time and imagination, most kids don't get what most of us would consider a healthy meal.  Instead, they get a massive amount of carbohydrates, sugar, fat, and sodium, not to mention a wide array of additives and preservatives. And we think it should do.

There's a tremendous amount of literature out there about the potential health risks as well as the potential addictive traits of these food components.  As a person who's struggled with my weight, I can tell you personally that nothing does it for me like a pint of Ben and Jerry's.  I have friends who rely on chocolate as though it were air.  Studies have shown that rats respond to these substances as though they were drugs, continuing to ingest amounts far past satiation, resulting in obesity and eventually death.  

Probably one of the reasons most of us are content to sit on our duffs and lament over how gross school lunches are is because we don't have to eat one, and neither do our kids.  It's an easy thing to turn a blind eye to.  Besides, in our economy, most people aren't looking to increase their taxes so a bunch of little kids can have a fresh apple instead of processed and sweetened applesauce.  And for people whose kids have no other options, life is generally tough enough already that nobody is going to make a huge issue over school lunches.  I mean, why fight over a hamburger when you're struggling to pay your rent?  At least your kid gets to eat, right?

Nutrition affects our mental awareness, which in turn affects educational learning and output.  If you really want to raise scores in the nation's poorest schools, a lot of things need to change--support systems, materials, teaching strategies.  But also, school lunches.  Our nation's twist on raising test scores by practicing unhealthy habits--limited recess and P.E., stressful classrooms, and yes, poor nourishment--will only continue to be reflected in numbers as the affluent grow in their rewards and the poor continue to lose the battle.

Who knew?  School lunch--crack for the underage masses.

I'm feeling the need to pack a couple lunches.

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