Thursday, January 14, 2010

School Lunches: A Nutritious Feast

Ideas for a new post have been swirling in my head for many weeks now. But what with the holidays and a jam-packed trip to the northeast, and now I am swamped with schoolwork, there hasn't been a good time to write.

I now realize, there won't be a good time to write for the foreseeable future. I am just beginning an intensive 6 month certification program to become a full-fledged high school science teacher by August, which is exciting because I am committing to working in public schools for many years to come! What is less exciting is the prospect of having little time to grow my own vegetables, peruse farmers markets, cook delicious meals, and blog about my frustrations over our food system.

So here is my latest post, written after a long day of work, a staff meeting over drinks and a few hours of school work to boot. Oh boy.

Last summer, when Kris and I had just moved to a new state and were having trouble finding jobs, I had a few moments of "so this is what it's like to not have enough money to eat well." We shopped at Walmart because it was the only way to afford "fresh" fruits and vegetables. I didn't purchase anything from a farmer's market until my mom visited in October and took pity on me. And we ate off of the value menu at Wendys more times than I would care to admit. It was our version of "eating out".

Although we didn't have enough money to buy the bounty of fresh ingredients that I had become accustomed to, I sort of relished this experience. I thought that it gave me a deeper understanding of the conflicts that countless families across the country face every day, over meals and money and nutrition.

And then I went to the Community Club. Because my middle school closed a week before Christmas, the organization that I work for sent me to work at a different site. This particular Community Club is funded by the same organization as my own, school-based program, and it runs after school programs on school days, and something more like an all day summer camp when school is not in session. So off I went, excited at the prospect of doing arts and crafts with kids all day and not having to worry about managerial/administrative crap.

I will never complain about food in schools again.

Okay, not true. But that's how I felt after experiencing snack and meal times at a student center that is not affiliated with a school. No after school snack program, or school lunch program, or school breakfast program for that matter.

Children attend the program from 8:30 am to 5:30pm, and it's clear that when they arrive, most of them have not eaten breakfast. The kids are told to bring their own lunches, but most of them do not. Despite the Community Club's consistent reminders to parents that they do not provide lunch during school vacation, parents assume that we won't let their kids go hungry. And, we don't.

Well, not really. There aren't enough resources to buy food for nutritious lunches, so when a student doesn't have a lunch, he or she must wait until a staff can find the time to locate a cold hot dog, a stale hot dog bun and a 99 cent bag of potato chips or, here it comes, Hot Cheetos.

The children - some are as young as 5 and 6 years old - bear their hunger quietly, and a bit grumpily. And when snack time rolls around they are rewarded with another 99 cent bag of chips. This is not, I must add, the fault of the staff at the Community Club. There is little money for food (it's not in the budget after all, since they do not officially provide lunch).

The Community Club must make wise food choices. Food is cheapest in bulk, and bulk foods are not typically of the fresh variety. In fact, the staff is mindful to buy foods that last for a long period of time, since they are not in the habit of serving full meals each day. So hot dogs and chips it is.

The food situation in schools is often appalling, but it is a nutritious feast when compared with programs that are underfunded and independent from school systems. While working at the Community Club, I ended up sharing my own lunch 5 different ways with the littlest ones. A bag of baby carrots for one first grade girl, an apple for a little boy; a cheese and tomato sandwich on pitabread, split two ways; and a blueberry yogurt for another hungry, snotty-nosed child. I felt as if I were a relief worker in a war-torn country, handing out meager rations to starving children.

This sounds a bit dramatic, I know, but the circumstances were dire. I certainly did not relish the experience, like my weeks of forced Walmart and Wendys excursions. While I got to play the part, these students live this reality and it is far worse than the mushy-green-bean-and-chicken-nugget-reality of school cafeterias.

School lunches, I now understand, are the greatest (if not only) source of essential nutrients for many children. A shocking realization, but an even greater reason to improve the nutritional content of foods served in schools. I'll save my fresh, local, slow-food and organic rants for another time.