Friday, May 25, 2012

The Real Price of a "Free" Lunch

Our morning routine is packed with things to do and on a very tight timetable. So, once I found out that Princess Jasmine qualified for the free school lunch I very happily stopped packing her a sandwich every day. It may have only taken me 15 minutes or so to throw her lunch together, but I was still giddy with excitement about getting that time back because it meant I might actually be able to sit down for a few minutes and drink a cup of coffee.

Princess Jasmine hung the school lunch calendar on our fridge, so she could scope out her lunchtime favorites ahead of time. I didn't really pay too much attention to it, other than to take down the old one each month and hang up the new one. That is, until two days ago when I had to take the Princess for some fasting blood work. The test was in the middle of the day, which meant she had to forgo lunch. As we sat in the waiting room she was about ready to eat the furniture, she was so hungry.

"I can't wait to be done so I can eat." She said, salivating. "I wanted to eat that pizza today, but I couldn't. It wasn't fair!"

"Oh, was it pizza day today?" I asked, surprised that they had pizza mid-week. Back in my day we were only allowed pizza on Fridays.

"We can have pizza any day." Princes Jasmine said, giving me a look that clearly said "Duh! This is common knowledge!"

"Really?" I said, feeling horribly behind the times. "Well what else do you eat at lunchtime? You don't eat pizza everyday, do you?"

"No, that would get boring. Sometimes I eat healthy stuff, too."

"Oh good. Like what?"

"Sometimes we have chicken nuggets or mac-and-cheese."

"Right, but what about the healthy stuff you mentioned? What is it?"

I got another "Duh" look from the Princess. "Mom. That was it."

"What! No, I don't think so. Mac and cheese isn't all that healthy and neither are chicken nuggets. Don't they give you guys any real food over there?"

Princess Jasmine looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, sometimes we have corn dogs."

Even though Princess Jasmine assured me every kid was required to also take a small dish of salad with their entree, I was still horrified.

When I was a kid there was no such thing as "kid" food. You ate what your mom put in front of you, like it or not, and that was that. At school the lunch ladies actually cooked our lunch from scratch. Typical offerings were meatloaf with carrots and mashed potatoes, spaghetti with meat sauce, or pot roast with boiled potatoes and cabbage. The closest we came to today's "kid" foods were sloppy Joes or pizza on Fridays.

I'm not quite as hard-core about every kid cleaning their plate, no matter what, as my parents were, but I do require that everyone at least try everything that is on their plates. I usually give them more than one fruit and vegetable at every meal, and I let them trade with each other if they want. If one kid ate a double portion of broccoli while another had two slices of watermelon, I'm OK with that. What I will not do is cook multiple meals or permit a child to not eat a food I know they are able to eat just because they would rather have something else instead.

One of the most important things a parent can give a child - at least in my opinion - is healthy attitudes about food and the ability to eat a wide range of foods. To my mind, filling kids up with highly processed foods full of saturated fat and preservatives every day at lunch is putting them on the fast track to all kinds of health issues in the future. It also doesn't say much for the level of confidence that our schools have in the ability of children to learn to eat and appreciate a wide range of foods. It just seems like a needless waste of an incredibly important teachable moment to me.

So, although the lunch at school might technically be "free," considering the hidden future costs of obesity, hypertension and diabetes that might come with it, I think we'll just stick with brown bagging it for now. 

Now I send both Princesses off with turkey and cheese on whole grain bread, two pieces of fruit and a juice box.

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