Read an Excerpt From Lunch Wars
By Rita Arens on September 21, 2011
BlogHer Original Post
I’ve been collecting this list of myths since I began my quest to learn what could be done to improve school food. They’ve been chanted to me like mantras, repeated by force of habit. Henry Ford famously stated, “If you think you can do a thing or can’t do a thing, you’re right.” It’s all about attitude. Here are some of the myths, and some ideas for addressing them to help change attitudes about wellness in your school community.
The kids won’t eat it; the kids won’t like it. Most kids are more flexible than we give them credit for. If new foods are introduced properly (tasting, learning about what the food is and where it comes from), children learn to like them readily. Not all kids like every food, but in every example I’ve found, more students preferred the new food -- with some exceptions like nuggets and fries -- these were tough to wean from and were phased out over time.
Kids need choices so they can learn to make good choices. Offering children unhealthy foods and drinks at school contradicts what they are taught about good nutrition and sends a mixed message. Why shouldn’t all the choices be good choices? We don’t ask kids if they’d rather have recess or math! Limiting choices, especially in the younger grades, helps kids develop a taste for good food, and good eating habits. When kids choose soda, candy, and junk food instead of eating a meal, they don’t get the nourishment they need to learn properly.
We don’t have many obese kids in our school, so the food is not a problem. Obesity is only part of the problem. Most of the nutrition messages we hear are focused on obesity, but America’s children are developing chronic diseases at earlier ages and emotional, behavioral, and learning disorders are epidemic. These behaviors have demonstrably improved in schools that have eliminated junk food.
There’s no such thing as bad food; you’re contributing to eating disorders by making kids anxious about food. This is a myth perpetuated by the food industry. Junk food addiction is its own eating disorder and causes disease. Our children are being exploited by the food industry and that shouldn’t be allowed in school. Teaching children a healthy skepticism about processed food and exposing them to a wide array of real food choices will enable them to make decisions based on knowledge rather than fear.
It’s calories in, calories out. Kids just need to get more exercise. A common myth is that protein is protein, regardless of its source, and that feeding children manufactured, standardized, industrialized food products fortified with vitamins is a healthy diet. This myth blames the kids for being fat and lazy but doesn’t take into account that their lack of energy may be due to the lack of life force in the calories they are consuming.
It’s only one meal a day. 180 days a year x 12 years = 2,160 meals -— double that if there’s a breakfast program. That’s a lot of food. For many kids, especially low-income kids, school food makes up two-thirds or more of their diet.
It’s the parents’ fault kids don’t eat well. America is now raising its third generation of fast-food babies. Many of today’s parents did not grow up in households where food was freshly prepared. As a culture, we are losing our food knowledge. We also have become a society of single parents or two working parents who have little time to prepare meals. Schools therefore need to help teach children what their parents often cannot.
This is a matter of personal choice; parents should decide what their kids should eat, not the schools. That’s basically what Sarah Palin is saying. Unfortunately for her argument, educators make decisions on behalf of their students every day. From curriculum content, to where they should go on field trips, to whether the district must cut the music and arts budget or the athletics budget, parents can give input but must ultimately rely on school administrators to act on our behalf.
Who needs it -— let’s just drop the meal program and let them bring lunch. I heard this argument in Darien, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest school districts in the country. I’ve also seen it in conservative op-ed pieces. According to USDA regulations, as long as one child in the district qualifies for a free meal, the school must sponsor the meal program. It exists for the kids who need it; those who don’t can bring their own.
Sales will drop. Districts that have improved food quality report that sales may go down initially, but recover and surpass previous numbers within about six weeks. Out of sixteen schools surveyed in California, thirteen reported that sales of à la carte items dropped, but more children bought school meals, which increased overall revenue. Maine, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania school districts have also reported positive results.
It costs too much. This is the pay now or pay later paradox. We can spend money on good food for children now, or spend far more on their health care down the road. Annual costs for treating diet-related diseases in America have increased by 400 percent over the past thirty years.
It’s too much work. It is more work but it’s not too much work. A return to real food in schools means increasing job skills and part-time local employment opportunities. Even staff members who are initially resistant to change will come around when they receive proper training.
We don’t have trained staff. There is technical assistance and skills training available from the government as well as local volunteer efforts. You may find that your staff morale increases as they gain skill, confidence, and positive feedback in the cafeteria.
We don’t have a kitchen. Smaller districts in some regions are banding together to share a central kitchen. Others may contract with a local caterer to provide food that meets their specifications.
We don’t have the right equipment. Ask your PTA, apply for a government grant, find out if your district has a fund or a bond for improvements. Kitchen equipment manufacturers and local appliance stores are also good places to seek donations.
We can’t do this in every school. How about beginning in one school and growing from there?
We can’t get better food from our approved vendors. Food service management companies (FSMC) may make this excuse and if they do, then fire them. Your district has hired the FSMC to deliver a meal plan that meets your food policy guidelines, which should be specified in their contract. If they signed a contract that specifies local or organic ingredients, then that is what they must deliver. They need to find better vendors.
We can’t purchase fresh food. Even a district that relies heavily on commodity food has some flexibility in the food budget. If the food service director (FSD) can’t or won’t find sources for fresh food, parent volunteers can take on this task. Once the initial arrangements have been made, the FSD may find it simpler to manage than anticipated.
We can’t store or process fresh food. In that case, your district may need to team up with another by pooling resources and developing a campaign to build a kitchen that has the capacity to store and process enough food to supply several schools. This model is proving efficient and economical even in some rural areas where the schools are spread out.
If we made fresh food, how could we ensure it’s safe? Every school cafeteria is required to have a HACCP plan and a ServSafe-trained employee. Nearly every one of the food-borne illnesses that have made headlines in recent years have come from the industrial food sector, not from local farms or small producers. Proper food handling procedures are not difficult to learn.
The school food movement is elitist. Some of the best examples I have seen of model school food programs are in districts where more than half of the students qualify for free meals. New Haven, Connecticut, and Berkeley, California, are just two examples. In fact, research shows that children from low-income families take up the new foods more readily than those in more affluent districts.
We have too many other academic priorities -— school food isn’t an educational issue, so it’s not my job. A school superintendent told me this one. The USDA requires nutrition education and a school food policy, so clearly the government feels that it is an educational issue.
We’re already doing a great job. Our food is healthy; we meet all the USDA requirements. Yes, you are. The families in our district want to support you and help you go beyond the USDA standards. We want to work with you and help figure out what resources you need to meet the standards of our new food policy.
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