Monday, April 11, 2011

Mandatory school lunches and nutrition promotion

This article discusses how a Chicago school has banned lunches from home, except for students with medical issues. It's also discussed here.

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. I guess they don't have any Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Jain or vegetarian students, since there is no mention of exceptions for religious or moral reasons.

2. I understand some restrictions on food from home. My kids have gone to schools and camps that either limit food from home in some way (no peanuts, no nuts, no [insert other allergen], kosher food only, no meat), or have a "no outside food allowed" policy. In those cases, though, we were dealing with private institutions, not public schools, and the "no outside food" places had a logical reason for the policy (namely, that they had to be careful of food allergies and needed to maintain a strictly kosher facility when not of the kids came from families that kept strictly kosher).

3. From a public health perspective, this is totally counter-productive. Not only does the food on the tray look gross, but there doesn't seem to be any educational component. Kids aren't learning to make healthy choices - they are learning that lunch gets provided so you don't need to think about it. Wouldn't it make more sense to educate kids about what a healthy lunch from home looks like, and put some real effort into teaching families as well? You can prepare healthy food at home for less than $2.25 per meal, and the kids would develop healthy habits for life. Teachers can give out stickers for kids who bring fruit and veggies for snacks, and families in need can be given free or subsidized fresh foods.

The Yahoo article mentions that 85% of the kids come from families living near or below the poverty line and that the poor kids have higher rates of obesity - but the policy is defended on the basis that kids would bring Coke and chips from home. Either this doesn't make sense, or there are far larger issues at work. Why would a child who is eligible for a free or highly subsidized school lunch take food from home? Why would a family that is struggling to pay for basic needs be spending money on Coke?

How much of the problems that people have with keeping a healthy diet is related to lack of knowledge and skills? In other words - how many people simply don't know how to make quick, economical and healthy meals for themselves, and feel that they have to rely on junk instead? What would happen if people had simple and basic training in nutrition and easy-to-make meals? It seems to be that there is tons of marketing by the food industry telling us that fast food and highly processed foods are quick and convenient, and there is also marketing from the "Martha Stewart and organic" sector, which makes it seem that cooking is all about gourmet kitchens and difficult recipes, and that healthy eating is all about super-expensive and exotic organic specialty foods.

I wrote here about my personal new "fast foods", like eggs/egg whites and healthy boxed soups. Here are some other ideas that I used when I was a broke newlywed working insane hours:

1. Canned diced tomatoes

Dirt cheap ($.88 on sale) and nutritious, it's easily transformed into a base for stew, soup, curries, pasta, chili, etc.

2. Canned beans

Throw chick peas into a mini-chopper ($10, you don't need a full-size food processor) with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and some spices, and you have instant hummus - great as a veggie dip or sandwich filling. Do the same with black beans with some sundried tomatoes and extra hot pepper.

3. Slow cooker

I bought my little slow cooker for $12, and it makes cheap stuff taste great with almost no effort. Instead of a busy mom microwaving crap, how about a commercial with someone throwing in a can of diced tomatoes, can of black beans, scoop of whole wheat cousous, some sundried tomatoes, a chopped onion and some cumin and cayenne into a crock pot in less than 5 min in the morning, and coming home to find a hot, yummy soup ready to eat and filled with nutrition? Or showing how throwing a package of cheap stewing beef, a chopped onion, a handful of baby carrots, some chick peas, a splash of cooking wine, some spices and a drained can of tomatoes into a crock pot on Friday evening gets you an awesome hot beef stew for lunch on Saturday? As an added bonus, leftovers go in the fridge or freezer for convenient lunches.

4. Rice cooker

A basic model is also around $12, and it makes effortless, idiot-proof rice and grains. White rice has minimal nutrition, but the same technique works for quinoa, brown rice and other grains. Makes a good base for whatever you've cooked in the slow cooker with your canned tomatoes and beans.

5. Ice water

Yes, you can drink plain tap water, especially if it's cold. Add some lemon for a bit of extra flavor. A while back, I did an impromptu label reading-and-math lesson with the kids, and we figured out that the amount of sugar in just one cup of Coke was equal to 92 chocolate chips.

6. Frozen fruit smoothies

Fresh can go bad, but frozen fruit (as low as $3/bag on sale) is nutritious and effortless and makes a quick morning smoothie with protein powder.

7. Pre-made pancake mixes

On a Sunday, we measure whole-grain flour, oats and baking powder into labelled containers. Then, when the kids want pancakes, we don't end up with flour all over the kitchen, because I can dump the mix into the blender with eggs and milk, and have awesome homemade pancakes. Since they have a hot, fried treat, they don't notice that it's dirt cheap to make, or that they are eating whole grains and no crap.

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