Alright, I must confess, I only ate school lunch twice this week. Partly due to circumstances beyond my control, and partly because I just did not want to.
Many people think that because I pay so much attention to food and advocate for healthy, locally-sourced diets, that I am some kind of nutritional purist. They assume that I am a fun-hating vegan who runs 10 miles a day, obsessively counts calories and judges the food choices of everyone around me. Anyone who knows me, knows that this could not be farther from the truth.
I have a weakness for salt and vinegar chips, Cheezits, sour patch kids, ice cream of any kind, french fries, boneless buffalo wings, pizza and good beer ... and I rarely hesitate to treat myself to these sweet, fatty and salty treats. But the thing is, on your average day, I manage to get my 3-5 servings of fruits and veggies, I eat oatmeal and whole grains, I drink lots of water, and I stop eating before I get too full. This means that just about whenever I get the urge to go to eat an ice cream cone, or visit my favorite chain restaurant, Chilis - please don't judge me - I go, and I eat whatever I want when I'm there. (I should note that there are a number of negative implications of eating at chain restaurants - unrelated to diet - that include poor treatment of workers, reduced patronage for independent, local businesses and farms, and lack of cultural and dietary diversity).
So what does this have to do with school lunches? Well, I didn't want to eat a soggy chicken patty sandwich and undercooked french fries on Wednesday because then I'd have wasted my junk food allotment for the day. And I didn't want the students to see me eating fried food, lest they get the wrong idea (they don't know that I had oatmeal for breakfast and will have a grilled chicken salad when I get home). Instead, if I had eaten a hummus and cheese sandwich on a whole wheat pita, with lots of veggies, some yogurt and a piece or two of fruit - like I do when I'm not forcing myself to eat cafeteria food - then I could have stopped for pizza on the way home, without worrying about my nutritional intake for the day. And I wouldn't have been sending a message to students, who view me as a role model, that it's okay to eat chicken patties and french fries for lunch. Besides, dinnertime is when I crave greasy, comfort food the most, not during breakfast or lunch when I still have energy and work to do, and don't want to be weighed down by a heavy meal.
I don't think that children (or adults for that matter) should stop eating Doritos, Snickers bars and pizza. I simply believe that the basis of their diet should be well-balanced and fresh, so that when they inevitably eat that bag of Doritos on their way home from school, or there's a pizza party in their classroom, we are not adding insult to injury.
It is the job of educators, mentors and parents to model and encourage healthy habits, and educate students about the benefits of positive decision making. Most people accept this role, particularly where drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex are concerned. The philosophy also pertains to modeling effective study habits, good manners and appropriate dress. However, I am certain that the majority of teachers and service providers go home and have a drink after work, swear when they get upset, some smoke cigarettes, others procrastinate and leave chores, studying and paying the bills to the last minute. Whatever we do in our private lives, we refrain as much as possible from making unhealthy choices when children are present, because we are dedicated to helping them develop a solid foundation in healthy decision making.
Why doesn't the same philosophy apply to food? We all eat junk food, some more than others. But does that mean that it is okay to eat Doritos in front of children, or worse, provide children with fried lunches or sugary soda? I, obviously, would argue that it is not okay. Personally, I don't want to be responsible for increased junk food consumption because a child who looks up to me saw me eating a Snickers bar and a Coke for lunch (this is more common in schools than you might think). From what I can tell, cafeterias provide both healthy and unhealthy options for lunch. By offering fried chicken and french fries as an option, aren't we sending a clear message that it is acceptable to routinely eat unhealthy, unbalanced meals for what is often students' main meal of the day? Especially when teachers opt for the unhealthy meal, in plain sight of their students, which is inevitable when the green beans are soggy and the pinto beans are non-existent.
Teachers in my school are required to dress business-casual and jeans are frowned upon. Similarly, our students must wear khaki pants and solid color shirts without text (no tank tops). Now, obviously teachers don't dress this way in their homes, nor do students. We don't expect them to. But we are modeling and encouraging a dress code that demonstrates respect and professionalism, and instills values that will ensure future success in the workplace and in how students view and present themselves. And we certainly don't hand out tiny tank tops with the school logo, or short shorts with the school name across the behind. So why do we serve french fries and drink Coke in front of our students? Unhealthy food habits not only reduce attentiveness, energy and self-esteem, but they are directly linked to an inexhaustible list of illnesses and disease.
Unhealthy food should be a treat, an exception to the rule. It is the responsibility of teachers and caregivers to help students develop healthy habits that will endure for a lifetime. At school, we don't offer our students coffee or beer or cigarettes, and we don't wear shirts that reveal cleavage or hidden tattoos, so why do we serve and consume fried foods and Hot Cheetos and chocolate milk during the school day?