Back-to-School: What’s for Lunch?

I homeschool my children. We’ve been talking in the past couple of weeks about what we want to cover this year. We’ve decided to focus on food. My daughter’s big list of questions included requests to learn to make “yummy foods from all over the world,” and my son’s questions included “what is the most common American food?” (Corn, and that is a story worth telling here.) We plan to bring food questions into our cultural geography, chemistry, reading and writing, art history, even our newest addition, philosophy.

In preparation, I have been rereading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006). I have the recorded book on my iPod and the book on our homeschool table. I’m still in the middle of the first meal: corn syrup, corn-fed creatures, a dizzying array of corn-derived additives, all in a car fueled by ethanol made from industrial corn.

It’s tough to say no when children want sweet and fat foods. We evolved as humans to desire both, but the exploitation of the desire for sweet and fat and the changes in our culture and in own bodies should be enough to inspire any parent to create positive, healthy eating patterns for children.

One of the points I have tried to make in my Monday Morning Smoothie series is that the nutrients of vegetables and fruits is more easily available and in higher quality when we eat foods raw. Cooking changes nutrition—not that this is bad (though I do count many raw foodists among my friends), since many foods are made more digestible by cooking. Industrial processes of breaking down natural foods into components that can be reconstituted in the form of food, though, has had a vast negative effect on the health of the people of our planet. We suffer a long list of food-related or food-exacerbated diseases as a result of the industrialization of our food chain—diabetes, heart disease, eye disease, autoimmune diseases, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and, not the least, obesity.

When I read that children don’t want to eat healthy lunches created through programs like Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and Slow Food USA’s Schools Project, I think the media coverage is more than a little superficial.

In my limited experience in my little homeschool of two students, I find that when children are given accurate nutritional information they are able to overcome the exploitive advertisements of fats, sugars, and processed goo as food and make their own choices. I encourage, but I don’t (often) enforce. They generally eat in moderation.

When my daughter said that she felt happier and more energetic all last week than this week, I pointed out that we were having vegetable-rich smoothies every mid-morning last week. This week, we slacked off a bit (well, a lot actually). She really felt the difference, and now she is the one who is leading the way with reminders.

I think what it takes is not anti-sugar or anti-snack food propaganda, at least not with children who are older like mine, but enough information that children can make their own informed decisions. Maybe the kids who reported that they thought healthy school lunches were “yuck” weren’t given enough context. It’s tough to make decisions that delay gratification, especially for children but still true for any of us. The chain of consequence isn’t necessarily as simple as, “Hey, kids, if you drink that high-fructose corn syrup soda, you have a better chance of getting diabetes.” Actually, the link between high-fructose corn syrup and diabetes has been made quiet clearly through studies, so maybe it is just a matter of making the connections for kids.

When food is engineered to get past our defenses, we need to equip our children with stronger defenses.

What to do as your children head back to school? Find out what they are eating for lunch. If you don’t like it, meet with other parents and start a healthy school campaign. Sustainable Table has a great article on school lunch referencing a lot of information and educational materials you can use to make a change for your children. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has an excellent collection of resources you can use to start your own local campaign.

  • You can send your children to school with foods closer to their natural state, real whole foods.
  • You can give your children accurate information about nutrition, so they will make their own better choices.
  • You can encourage your schools to improve nutrition and reduce the amount of processed food offered to children. Take small steps if they worry about big steps.
  • You can get many more ideas at the Green Moms Blog Carnival, the August Green Schools edition hosted by Organic Mania.
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