Thursday, November 12, 2009

School Lunches and Saving the Planet

One of the selections on last week’s school lunch menu was: Macaroni & Cheese and tater tots. I suppose the side dish of canned peaches swimming in heavy syrup qualified as the fruit/veggie. Two of my children petition regularly to buy these lunches. Their favorite lunch is French toast sticks with hash browns. We have worked out a fragile peace plan allowing them to buy their lunch at least once a week, twice when their argument is compelling or I’m feeling particularly wimpy. So I am overjoyed to hear that Congress is getting ready to upgrade school-wide nutrition standards this year. The first time in 15 years!

President Obama has set aside an extra $1 billion for child-nutrition programs and has challenged the decision makers to get more fresh fruits and vegetables in to the mix - “We’ve got to change how we think about getting local farmers connected to school districts.” Amen is all I have to say to that. Now would be a good time to call your congressman/woman and share your thoughts on the importance of healthy and local food. There is a national farm-to-school program in place that 9000 schools have joined. Pick up the phone and find out if your school is on board.

My daughter, my most challenging child to feed, brought home a paper the other day that had 5 tips for eating smarter. She was very proud to tell me she already knew them all. These tips were taken from a kid’s version of the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I’ll share them with you here.

1) Try not to eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Love this one. I’m fairly certain my great-grandmother would not recognize a dinosaur shaped chicken nugget or Dipin’Dots ice cream. We had fun thinking of food that didn’t look like food.

2) Avoid eating packaged foods with more than five ingredients, or with ingredients you don’t recognize.

This one prompted one of my children to pick up the box of Cheezits, hoping to prove to me they were “healthy”. The list was nearly as long as the box itself. No dice.

3) Limit food and drinks that contain a sweetener called high fructose corn syrup. It has been linked to obesity.

Duh, mom. We know this one. I guess I’m a little over the top in my vigilance against the high fructose corn syrup. We all should be – they are dirty words.

4) Try to avoid food that doesn’t eventually rot. A food made to last forever is usually full of chemicals. Food should be alive and that means it should eventually die.

My daughter phrased it more simply, “Don’t eat foods that don’t have an expiration date.”

5) Be your own food detective. Read labels. Pay attention to where your food comes from and how it was grown.

And this really is the key. Give your kids some power over what they eat. Make them responsible for the choices they make. Talk to them about the impact of buying local versus buying global. Grow some foods together. Notice what’s growing in the fields near you and stop at the roadside stands and meet the farmers. Talk about why one food is good for you and another is not – and tell them why it is not.

One of my constant refrains is “Your body wasn’t designed to eat that food, so if you do, it’s very hard for your body to process it and that’s why it makes you feel sick.” I’ve explained to my children that one of the reasons people get sickness and disease is because they are putting things in to their body that there body was not designed to eat. It’s hard on a body to process this kind of food, making it weaker and more susceptible to illness. Just like putting the wrong kind of gas in your car – it may run, but it won’t run well and it certainly won’t run for as long as it was designed to run. Help your children make the connection between what they eat and how they feel.

We all need to talk to our kids about what and why they eat. If we teach this generation to make better choices – for their bodies, their neighbors, and their planets – things could change. In fact, I believe that’s the only way they will change. I grew up on programs like “green circle” and desegregation. My generation is measurably less racist than the previous generation. Granted there is still progress to be made, we wouldn’t be where we are if adults hadn’t started teaching kids about racial equality a generation ago.

The only way to bring about real, lasting change is to teach the children differently. We make decisions not only about what we eat, but how we live, based on the way we were raised. That stuff is hard-wired in there. That’s why it’s so much harder to break the TV, fast food, instant-gratification habits that most of us struggle with – it goes against how we were raised.

You have a chance to change all that. Your children could live differently. They could turn the tide on so many issues. They could literally save the planet. Don’t miss your chance to empower them. It starts at your table.

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