Fed Up With Food: The Case of the BIG COOKIE

A couple of years ago our local elementary school principal invited a nutritionist from a nearby university to come speak at our monthly PTA meeting. The speaker showed the video embedded above, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map that graphed obesity rates in the United States from 1985 to the present. It is a sobering 30 seconds. Throughout the US, obesity rates currently hover at between 20-30% of the population–with approximately 33% of adults and 17% of children ages 2-19 identified–and the numbers just continue to rise.

The CDC isn’t studying obesity because it is concerned with personal aesthetics. Wherever higher rates of obesity occur, higher rates of diabetes also exist. In 2007, medical costs for diabetes in the US were 116 BILLION DOLLARS. One way to rein in rocketing health-care costs, then, would be to keep kids’ body mass indexes down so that type 2 diabetes had less of an opportunity to develop. 

Knowing this, our school principal had a goal: he wanted to improve the nutritional value of our school’s lunch menu–particularly for children who rely on school lunches as their primary source of nutrition–and he wanted the support of the district parents in order to make it happen. He referenced studies linking nutrition to academic performance as he explained that target number one on his school-lunch hit-list was going to be THE BIG COOKIE (a dessert-plate-sized chocolate chip cookie that was our cafeteria’s number one best-selling item).

“I want to get rid of THE BIG COOKIE and I need your help,” he intoned. “I walk into this cafeteria and on any day I will see kids eating THE BIG COOKIE for lunch. I want to see fewer BIG COOKIES and more fresh fruit on our kids’ lunch trays.”

The meeting immediately exploded into conversation: “My kid loves THE BIG COOKIE!” was heard throughout the room. “He can’t take away THE BIG COOKIE. It’s not fair! First they take away birthday cupcakes, now this!”

As it turned out, the food service that the district had contracted with also loved THE BIG COOKIE–because it offset losses the food service had to take on elsewhere in the menu in order to adhere to federal guidelines. The BIG COOKIE disappeared from the menu for a couple of months but ultimately returned.

Personally, I was filled with moral outrage: Cookies for lunch! Imagine!

Prior to this meeting, nutrition was already a hot topic in our house. Both of my sons  had been diagnosed with  sensory processing disorder by this time–so writing with a pencil was arduous, sounds were too loud, tastes were too sharp, and focused reading resulted in headaches. For us, an unforeseen bonus of the diagnosis was that after hours spent arguing over homework, we could immediately transition into a full-court battle over food, as well…the phrase “picky eaters” does not begin to capture the gagging, the tears, and plea-bargaining that went on nightly as we tried to move the boys beyond the six foods that they were comfortable eating…

Things have steadily improved, but to this day, fruits and vegetables are still a challenge for the 12-year-old (the one with health issues–so: no pressure there). In an attempt to broaden his palate, we’ve tried:

  • Hiding vegetables (per the suggestions of Jessica Seinfeld)
  • Growing our own vegetables (Google “Biblical plagues” for images of our garden),
  • Joining a CSA (so that we could scrape organic, sustainably grown vegetables into the garbage),
  • Getting the kids involved in cooking (preparing food does not automatically lead to eating it yourself, as it turns out. It can, however, lend itself to experimenting with dish soap as a condiment), and
  • Preparing bento lunches.

My son loved the way those bento lunches looked, showed them off to his friends at the cafeteria table, and then regularly threw them out and bought himself A BIG COOKIE for lunch, instead.

Out of everything we’ve tried, though, we’ve gotten the best results from watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution together as a family. For some reason, when I talk about food, I am “nagging.” The same idea coming out of Jamie Oliver’s puckish pie-hole? Is imminently reasonable. After the first season of the show, the child who’d been eating BIG COOKIES for lunch started lecturing his table-mates on the evils of flavored milk–which, frankly, I am willing to call progress.

Fed Up With Lunch by “Mrs. Q.” Image credit: Chronicle Books.

The BIG COOKIE melodrama made me realize how difficult it is to effect lasting, meaningful change in our school lunch programs. In my elementary school, the issue split parents into two opposing factions: those advocating for an edible schoolyard-styled (garden to table) nutrition curriculum were on one side of the debate, and those who felt menu changes would either be too expensive (or a form of Big-Brother-y government-control) sat on the other. Meanwhile, at the same time that everyone else was picking sides, a rogue “bring back the birthday cupcakes” task force was quickly coalescing in the back of the room. PS: I live in a school district where 31% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch plans, and as we’ve all heard by now, Congress has just made pizza a vegetable.

How do you even begin to create consensus in a situation like that?

If it had existed then, I would have suggested that the PTA sponsor a community book read of  Sarah Wu’s new book Fed Up with Lunch. Wu is a speech therapist in a high-poverty, inner-city Chicago elementary school, and after eating and photographing the lunches at her elementary school for a year and immersing herself in the minutia of school lunch programs, she came up with this wish-list for change at her school:

  1. There should be a salad bar in every school.
  2. Ingredient transparency needs to be a priority.
  3. Processed meats should be removed from school menus.
  4. “Meatless Mondays” should be incorporated into school menus.
  5. Chocolate milk should be removed from schools.
  6. Children should be given 30 minutes of recess every day.
  7. A wellness committee (with the student voice represented) should be started in every school.

This seems like a good set of goals to begin with. Wu’s book is a quick, uncomplicated read but chock-full of statistics and resources. I recommend it unreservedly.

As for our district, we haven’t done too much to change the menus since that first meeting a couple of years ago. One change that I do find helpful (albeit a bit Big Brother-y) is that, this year, kids are being asked to scan their IDs when they buy food from the cafeteria. Parents can then go online and monitor what their children are buying and ideally a dialog about healthy food choices ensues.

We still have a long way to go to get to healthy, balanced, sustainable, menus at the school…but at least now I know when anyone’s eaten a big cookie for lunch.

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