Elementary school lunches were amazing when I was a kid. Sure, I took a packed lunch about half the time, but the hot lunches were pretty extraordinary.
And they were made from scratch.
My mom worked in our school cafeteria, arriving at 7:30 everyday to cook alongside the other hair-netted, white-aproned ladies to make lunches that weren’t just like homemade, they WERE homemade (just at school).
From baked chicken and real mashed potatoes to green beans and pizza (dough made right there, flour, water, yeast and salt), we ate real food.
Then came the 1980s and ketchup was declared a vegetable. Today, very little actual cooking is going on in school cafeterias and pizza counts as a vegetable (thanks to the powerful food lobbies) despite the admirable efforts of the Obama administration.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost our “food way.” I don’t know exactly when it happened, but my mind goes to Lunchables as being the symbolic moment, if not the actual one.
Somehow (maybe all the advertising?), we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that prepackaged, processed food was a solid, efficient substitute for the real thing. We believed that we deserved a break from all that shopping and cooking. We accepted all the additives and preservatives, and even accepted our own ignorance about what actually constitutes a chicken nugget. Over time, this acceptance has come back to bite us in our big, fat, diabetic asses.
Much of this discussion is reflected in the broader dialogue of the nation right now: are we better when the government invests in certain things that lend to the well-being of society as a whole or aren’t we?
I think we only need to look back to some of the most successful, prosperous times in our history to know the answer. When did we lead the world in health, education, transportation and technology? When we, as a nation, saw that it was good for us all to invest in those things collectively.
School lunches are one small piece of this puzzle. But this piece speaks volumes. When we cut corners and sacrifice quality for cost, we take short-term ease over long-term success. (Though I would argue that this concept of “ease” is a myth. Food preparation is not that hard.)
Certainly, school lunches aren’t to blame for all of our current health problems, but they signify lowering of standards all the way around. From what parents deem acceptable nutrition to trimming opportunities for physical activity, we choose to believe that cutting corners for time or ease is worth it.
I heard a story on NPR a few days ago that illustrates how there are people out there fighting the good fight. And I think lots of parents are on board. But for those who aren’t or can’t for whatever reason, we have to think about our responsibility to society’s kids as a whole and create a meme that bucks the processed food trend that has taken hold over the last 20 years or so. That food is about nutrition as much as or more than anything else needs to be out there as a visible, tangible idea.
The results are in. We know that kids who eat better are healthier, behave better, and do better in schools. There is growing scientific and anecdotal evidence that kids who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, for example, behave and focus better when processed, dyed foods are pulled out of their diets.
While we push our schools to do better, we must do better. Fresh, whole foods should be the norm in our homes and in our kids’ lunches. If it comes in a box or some plastic package ready to eat, we should reject it. We have the ability to set high standards as norms for our kids and to call out reckless advertising as deviant and abnormal. And maybe one day as our voices are heard, the lunch ladies of today will be looked at with as much affection and regard as the lunch ladies of our youth.