Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Chair at the School Lunch Table

I was waiting in the parking lot to pick my kids up after sports practices on the first day of school. Both kids ran to the car when they saw me. At first I thought they really missed me and I could barely contain myself. But as they got in the car I found out why they had been in such a hurry. In unison they both said, “Dad, we’re hungry can we stop for a snack?”
Talk about deflating your ego. Maybe that made me a little defensive or maybe it was the tight-wad Dad in me coming out. Either way, my response was; “I pay good money for your school lunches and Mom has supper ready at home, you can wait.” Again a unison response, “We’re so hungry we can’t wait until we get home!”
Home is only six miles away and I am used to the eating habits of teenagers; 1) there is never enough food and 2) the food is never good enough. So I asked, “What did you have for lunch?” Child #1’s response was, “It was really good, but they didn’t let us have as much to eat as we got last year.” I pondered all of this while the kids ran into the convenience store for snacks.
When we arrived home the kids told their mother about their plight while devouring the supper she had made. Of course, Jennifer was on top of the issue and had witnessed it at the elementary school level earlier in the day. The culprit seemed to be new guidelines for school lunches.
This led me to a discussion with many other parents in many other school districts in several other states and the problems all seemed the same. A one-size fits all dietary solution to kids of all sizes, shapes and activity levels. Protein is limited to 10 to 12 ounces per week for grades 9-12 and with a calorie level of 750 to 850 per meal. The problem seemed simple enough, not enough protein and not enough calories for active kids in sports and other activities. However, like most problems, it was not simple and the solution was far more complex.
The idea behind the new guidelines was great. Childhood obesity is a very real problem and leads to very real problems as those children become adults. As a society we have developed terrible eating habits, we consume too many processed food and too few servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. On top of that many kids get too little physical activity. The idea of limiting calories and fat and introducing more fruits and vegetables is one I whole heartedly agree with, but I am also concerned that our very active growing teenagers need more.
I know that the kids and parents are frustrated by the portion size. I know the cooks are frustrated trying to balance preparing meals for hundreds, in a timely manner, and meeting the guidelines. I know the people implementing the guidelines are frustrated because they have spent a great deal of time and professional effort coming up with them. This is how a simple problem (hungry teenagers) becomes a much more complex problem meeting the many different levels of nutritional needs, teaching good, healthy eating habits, preparing those healthier foods in mass quantities and doing all of this on a more limited budget.
Add into the mix, kids who don’t get enough physical activity, families with very limited financial resources who struggle to provide adequate levels of nutrition at home and a generation of parents who; work more, cook less and have poor nutritional habits themselves. The portion problem becomes even more exasperated when the kids won’t eat the fruits and vegetables on their plates because they have never learned to eat them in the first place.
All of this sounds really frustrating and maybe even daunting, but there is hope. I have talked to many, many parents, school personnel and officials in charge of the school lunch program and we all want the same thing. We want youth who are healthy, happy and learning good eating habits that will serve them well as they become adults and eventually parents. We just have to work together to find those complex solutions. So just like we should all do each night at the supper table, let’s all pull a chair up, sit down and talk.

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