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Eat This: Unpacking School Lunch

As a vocational food writer, it goes without saying that what my family eats is of great importance to me. My young daughter has been eating everything from asparagus to grilled salmon since she was in a highchair. And before anyone is tempted to cast any aspersions of upper class privilege, let it also be known that I spent two years as a single mom, beginning when my daughter was just three-years-old. Single parenthood notwithstanding, I have more or less successfully thwarted the ranks of tastes-like-chicken nugget pushers so determined to dumb down my child’s palate.

And then, she entered kindergarten.

This week, the new challenge of navigating the public school cafeteria has been visited upon us. Yesterday, my daughter brought home the school cafeteria menu and a voracious appetite for spreading her little gastronomic wings. It was the first of many “all my friends are doing it” moments we will have. And I was completely in favor of allowing her this morsel of well-earned autonomy, until I actually read the menu.

Let me explain.

On average, American school children will eat something approaching 2,300 lunches in school cafeterias over the course of their primary and secondary educations. If they are opting in to school lunch programs, much of their long term nutrition is inevitably dictated by the choices the school district provides. It’s as simple as that. No matter how much value we place on healthy eating at home, our school children are confronted daily with bureaucratically and fiscally determined food choices. And too often, these options are either unhealthy or simply not age appropriate.

The Westport School District elementary school menu for the month of September includes items such as meatball grinders with cheese, Sloppy Joe sandwiches, and French toast sticks (presumably a popular item on the district’s regular “Breakfast for Lunch” days). Sure, there are healthier alternatives kids can choose, like a spinach salad with fat free vinaigrette. But it’s difficult to imagine ranks of five-year-olds passing up a Sloppy Joe for spinach, no matter how neurotically determined their parents were in their efforts to instill healthy eating habits. So much over-processed food adds up to empty calories for our kids and the potential to create lifelong health issues.

Remember 2008’s Pixar blockbuster Wall-E ? Where humanity had to vacate Earth because of all the garbage we created? And the result was a space-roving race of lazy, overweight, disconnected, disaffected and embarrassingly familiar people who could barely be bothered to chew their food?

At the risk of overstating things, I’d say we’re well on our way to realizing this culinary post-apocalypse.

But don’t just take my word for it. The National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) found in 2008 that approximately 18 percent (or 12.5 million) American children and adolescents aged 12 – 19 years are obese. The same study found that 20 percent of children aged 6-11 are also obese. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines childhood obesity as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. The CDC regards a child as overweight if his or her BMI falls between the 85th and 95th percentiles. In plain speech, millions and millions of our nation’s kids are not just struggling with their weight, but have clinically diagnosable weight problems with long term consequences.

Such numbers should turn the stomach of every American parent.

Connecticut, for all its affluence, is far from immune to this epidemic. A 2007 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that 25.7 percent of Connecticut children aged 10 – 17 years qualified as overweight or obese. While this ranking is mercifully lower than many states, it still shakes out to more than one quarter of the state’s fifth through twelfth graders suffering weight problems requiring medical intervention.

I could go on to stuff you with statistics about high cholesterol, high blood pressure, gallstones, fatty liver disease, low self-esteem and other short and long term side effects of childhood obesity. I could cite statistics that show obese children are exponentially more likely to grow into obese adults. But by now, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had your fill.

Parents across the state should be outraged. We hold our schools to the highest academic standards. We expect them to encourage our children to achieve above average scores in reading, math and science. Many of us settled in Fairfield County precisely because of the promise these schools hold for our kids and their futures.

So how can we collectively settle for less when it comes to something as elementary as school lunch?

The simple fact is, we shouldn’t. Creating affordable, healthy, age-appropriate lunch options for our children isn’t just possible, it is essential. All that is required is for parents to give a damn and for schools to open themselves to change that is real and lasting and isn't breaded or packed in heavy syrup. The current and future health of our children depends on our commitment to holding schools accountable for more than just standardized test scores.

It’s time to start thinking outside the school lunch box, before it’s too late.

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