The New York Times ran a piece this week about the results of federal legislation mandating healthier school lunches beginning this year. Because of puritanical restrictions on fat and salt, the healthy food has no flavor and many kids are just rejecting it.
Monica Eng of the Chicago Tribune has also done fantastic reporting about the insanity that is lunch in the Chicago Public Schools. (Eng is everything a food writer should be–actually expending shoe leather talking to the cafeteria lunch ladies and the students.) Chicago regulations prohibit adding any salt to vegetables, when, of course, as the story I linked to points out, the vast majority of salt in our diet comes from processed foods, not from a pinch of salt added to something made from scratch. There is an additional irony in that the Chicago approach to healthy eating occurs in schools that generally lack kitchens that allow for the preparation of fresh foods. It’s all reheat-only.
So the kids throw their lunches out or eat out of vending machines. Talk about counterproductive!
If you want kids to eat vegetables, here’s a hint: They should taste good.
Our experience at the Lake Avenue Elementary School Garden Project is entirely different. We not only garden with the kids, we cook with them–and seriously! For example, faced with the world’s most beautiful green cabbage in early September and hot weather that suggested it would soon rot and be eaten by slugs, we made pierogi with it–namely, smoked pork and cabbage pierogi, as well as potato, ricotta and cheddar pierogi. We grew the potatoes, too.
This was the opposite of a low-fat, low-sodium meal. Serious amounts of sour cream, pork fat, and butter. But it was delicious! And a lot of kids who never particularly liked cabbage before now like cabbage.
In fact, we find that the kids in our increasingly popular club will eat almost ANYTHING they grow and cook. And I am including beets and bitter eggplants. My partner Carol Maxwell and I always make sure that the recipe is delicious. We are both food people without any fear of bacon fat or cream, olive oil or sea salt, and she is truly a kick-ass cook who expands my horizons as well as the kids’.
But the truth is also that the vegetables that come out of our garden are so delicious in themselves, that the kids will eat them without prodding.
My feeling is that until you have tasted locally grown or homegrown vegetables, you have never tasted a vegetable. So “healthier” school lunches made with tired sad produce shipped all the way from California, or frozen or canned vegetables, are probably not enticing.
Look, institutional cooking is hard. I understand that. But many of us live in places surrounded by superb local farmers. I would bet that if you tapped that resource, as my school district does, and gave the Food Service people wider creative latitude–and kitchens they could cook in–healthier eating would move out of the realm of theory and policy and into kids’ lives.