After a day off for family night, after-school programming was back in action yesterday. And even though all I could think about all day long was the basil that I was going to harvest from my container garden to make pesto that evening, I tried very hard to focus on the food that was being eaten at school. Need I mention that there was no fresh pesto to be found?
I popped my head into the cafeteria at lunch time and saw rows of white styrofoam trays, laden with chicken patty sandwiches or chicken tenders, and french fries. And many of the students were also eating bags of Doritos. I couldn't find a single student with a brown bag lunch, and the absence of milk, fruits and vegetables on the trays was conspicuous.
Fast forward to 4:30. Maria - a Mexican-American special education student, name changed - and I played a few rounds of Guess Who, and then she announced that she was leaving. "But don't you want to stay for dinner?" I asked. The Food Bank had already dropped off several steaming trays, to be served at 5pm. "Nah, my mom picked me up to go to church after school, and then she dropped me back here so I could play for a while." I swallowed and smiled, trying to be open minded and racking my brain to think of churches or youth groups that meet for a mere 20 minutes on Wednesday afternoons.
"So they give you food at church?" I finally asked. She grinned and nodded. I couldn't figure out what to make of this, except that it's probably a good thing that a church is providing food to families during the week. Maria absentmindedly wandered away, but a few minutes later she came sprinting back to me with a big smile on her face. "You thought I meant church! I mean Church's!" This probably isn't very revealing for most of you, but since I have a southern boyfriend and have now lived in Texas for a whopping two months, I knew exactly what she meant. Insert stick figure with short blond hair and a light bulb overhead. Church's Chicken is a popular fast food chain around here. Maria's mom had picked her up from school to get fast food! This makes so much more sense. Although I couldn't help but note that a brief afterschool rendezvous at church would no doubt be more nutritious for body and soul than fried chicken from a drive thru.
I convinced Maria to stick around until the program ended. I didn't want her wandering around the neighborhood alone and she clearly did not know how to get home on her own. The kids grew increasingly hungry and impatient and Guess Who and ping-pong couldn't hold their attention any longer. So with the assistance of a few hungry, but helpful 7th graders, we doled out plates of cheesey spaghetti, green beans, canned fruit and bread to a roomful of ravenous middle schoolers. (There was no snack that day, the snack program doesn't start until next week). It turns out that the all-or-nothing rules apply to dinner as well, so each student had to take a full plate, or go without And all of a sudden this rules makes sense to me. Insert light bulb number two. Because even though kids tried every trick in the book - I'm allergic to greenbeans, I don't eat bread, the fruit is too mushy - they all sat down with a full, nutritionally well-balanced plate. And when they stood up, the plates were empty, without exception. A few even came back for extra servings of fruit and green beans (and spaghetti of course). We served seconds and thirds to some very appreciative preteens until all that was left was a few spoonfuls of greenbeans. Hurrah for no food waste. And two hurrahs for satiated kids with bellies full of fruits and vegetables.
So what would I change? Well, whole wheat bread and pasta, and fresh fruits and veggies would be ideal. But given the constraints of serving food to over a thousand schoolchildren and transporting it to a dozen sites (all at no cost to the kids), I'd say that this is a great start, and a huge improvement over what I witnessed earlier in the cafeteria. If the Capital Area Food Bank can provide nutritious meals, then there's no excuse for the school cafeteria. And maybe the all-or-nothing rule should be a part of the School Lunch Program too, and not just apply to snacks. Fruits, veggies and milk were all offered at lunch (the nutritional content of school lunches are strictly regulated), but for whatever reason the kids didn't take them. My experience with afterschool dinners indicates that if the kids were forced to take all or nothing, then maybe they would eat the nutritious parts of their lunch, perhaps because they are bored, or still hungry or are curious about how those bright orange carrot sticks taste.
I noticed that Maria finished off her dinner plate, and came back for seconds of bread. Maybe she was hungry after all, or maybe her body craved some greens - and yellows and reds - after her fried and nutritionally-lacking afterschool Church's snack. I wonder if she will still steal away to the drive thru when we provide free snacks, or if that is a regular part of her routine. A way to spend time with her mom and escape from school for a while.
As I ate my whole wheat pasta with fresh pesto and tomatoes last night, I wondered about Maria and the different reasons that we eat what we eat. Certainly what we are served - whether it is by school cafeteria workers, afterschool staff, or our families - greatly influences the types of food that we consume. I know that whenever I have put a bowl of fresh fruit in front of kids whose diet mainly consists of soda, chips and fried foods, they devour the fruit the same way they would eat from a bowl of candy. But expectations and modeling are also clearly important. By setting standards around what kinds of foods kids must take - regardless of whether they clear their plates or not - we are modeling a well-balanced meal and demonstrating that eating fruits and vegetables and drinking milk is important.
Teachers do not simply place homework on the front table and tell their students that they can take all or part of it, if they want to. Students must take all of their homework, and there are consequences if they do not complete it. Obviously, we should not dole out consequences for students who do not eat their fruits and vegetables, but we can encourage healthy eating habits by requiring that greens make an appearance on their plates. If nothing else, kids will take a good long look at the colorful fruits and veggies, and carton of milk, and acknowledge their consistent presence next to the white hamburger buns, breaded chicken patties and golden french fries.
Re: my last post. I eat my words, all of them.