Friday, May 24, 2013

School Lunch by Democracy Or, when that whole menu-voting thing goes horribly wrong

One last post on school lunches before the bell rings and it's summer!

“We got to choose the school lunch!” said The Kiddo.

“That’s great, honey, but you never eat that lunch,” I replied.

“I’d like to eat it that day, Mom, and will you please come, too? It’s a special lunch we planned and you’re always working. The other moms come.”

Oh, the Working Mom Guilt card. I hate that card. Almost as much as I hate school lunch. But, I was intrigued. The kiddo caught my interest with the menu she voted for; a stir fry, fruit salad, veggie dishes. I thought, Hey, maybe they are testing some new healthy menu items and getting the kids to participate through voting!

So, I moved heaven and earth. Or, at least a few meetings, and I went to school for lunch. One day, very soon, my child won’t want me anywhere near her at school, I reminded myself. I focused on how happy The Kiddo was to see me, and on my visions of actual food. I held her hand and walked in our single file to the lunchroom.

I was a bit shocked to see the school principle at the head of our line handing out brown paper bags to each of us. I was a bit more surprised to see the food selections; hamburger, hot dog, chicken patty, and the obligatory and neglected dried up carrot sticks in a bag and bananas. I was quite stunned to see potato chips count as a vegetable. And really shocked that kids could get a juice and chocolate milk both, and “ice cream.”

After bending double to take my seat at the kid-sized table, I unwrapped my “patty” as best I could with my knees up at table height. Looking at The Kiddo with my characteristic one eyebrow raised and a “WTF?” expression, I said, “So, where’s the stir fry?”

“Well, Mom, I voted for those things. But, the other kids all voted more for this menu,” she said.

“Oh.” And my mind left for a moment, contemplating the age-old philosophical question: which came first, the chicken or the nugget? If we want our kids to eat better, when do we quit feeding them the same old things with a resigned, “Oh, they won’t eat anything else.”

I love the idea of giving kids control in food choices. When it works, the voting method was designed to help kids feel in control of making healthier choices like chicken stir fry or veggie-loaded pizza on wholegrain crust. The key is that all the choices need to be healthy ones, not giving them the chance to vote more junk foods onto the menu. Hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken patties/nuggets/fingers/fries should not have been on the ballot with chips and “ice cream” as running mates.

The answer just does not get simpler: kids will quit eating nothing but these foods when we quit serving nothing but these foods. Further, when we do serve these occasional foods, they should actually be food, not chemicals and fillers binding together a bit of cheap food.

So, what was in that "ice cream?"

As an example, let’s take a closer look at that “ice cream” that was “made with loving care” as the ingredients list proudly claimed. Here’s what else that ingredient list had to say:

By regulation, the ingredients have to be listed in the order of the quantity of each. You’d expect “milk” or “cream” to be first. You’d expect it, but look closer and you may find that this product has more sweetener than milk.

Corn Syrup, Skim Milk, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup
Wait. There’s more corn syrup in there than skim milk? Yes, and if you look closely there are THREE different types of sweeteners. Why not just sugar? Here’s where labels get tricky. By using three different types of sweeteners, it prevents the first ingredient to be listed on the label from being “Some Kind of Sweetener” instead of milk (or cream). Corn Syrup and HFCS are also thickeners giving the frozen liquid more of an ice cream like texture when frozen. Except that this substance, thanks to some other additives, can be thawed and refrozen with little change in texture unlike real ice cream.

A texturizer for processed foods, often made from corn starch.

Whey, Buttermilk and Cream
Actual milk products!

Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Carob Bean Gum
Thickeners used to replace the fat in ice cream.

Natural and Artificial Flavor
Let’s give this one some context. “Natural flavor” does not mean that this is actual vanilla, for example. It only means flavoring derived from natural sources. For vanilla, this could actually mean castoreum, which is an extract derived from the dried castor sacs of the North American Beaver. I kid you not.

Now, exactly why it is easier to acquire some type of sac from the nether regions of a beaver than it is to grow a few orchids is completely beyond my comprehension. But, there it is. And, I would prefer not to imagine how this additive was ever discovered in the first place. But, we can all rest safe knowing that no actual vanilla beans were harmed in the making of this “ice cream.”

Cellulose Gel
Apparently, you can never have enough gums, gels and thickeners in your ice cream.

Vitamin A Palmitate
Synthetic vitamin added to replace vitamin content lost during the separation of the milk liquids.

The final ingredient, according the label, is “made with loving care.” Enough said.

Beth Bader is the author of The Cleaner Plate Club: Over 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love. You can find her recipes and food musings at her blog Ex-expatriates Kitchen.

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