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Cafeteria time

(article, Aliza Wong)

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I am a lucky mother. I have a work schedule that allows me to be at home when my son, Luca, returns from school; to volunteer in his classroom at least twice a week; and to join him, if I like, for the glorious 30 minutes of lunch time between 11:09 and 11:39 a.m. 

Now, I don’t eat school lunch every day. I think it’s important for my son to learn to socialize with his kindergarten friends without his mother’s presence, and besides, the school-cafeteria smell takes me back to the bad old days of dodgeball and bathroom passes and No. 2 pencils (the horror!). But I'm able to dine with my son once every two weeks. And I always return having enjoyed the time with Luca, having gained new respect for his teachers, and having become a little more disheartened over the cafeteria situation. 

I don’t want this to be a diatribe against cafeteria workers. They are mostly wonderful women and men who have been given the job of nourishing our children without the liberty to decide what “nourishment” means. And I am not a food snob. OK, I am, but I do enjoy the occasional McDonald’s French fry (back, you haters, I know, I know, but stay back!), and I've been known to put a Kool-Aid single in my son’s lunchbox. 

But I am also the mom who makes sushi rolls and croque-monsieur sandwiches for her kid’s lunch. I am the mom who makes her own chicken-tempura nuggets out of organic chicken breasts, rice flour, and panko crumbs. 

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So I do wonder, every time I visit with Luca: When did we forget that what we put in our kids’ stomachs can be just as important as what we put in their heads?  After study upon study has returned results that a healthy breakfast helps kids concentrate, focus, and retain more information, after study upon study has revealed that a balanced diet helps with brain development and memory, when did we decide that this is where we should be cutting our time and our budget?

Given all the recent media about our nation's rising rates of childhood obesity, my local school district has restricted snacks within the classroom. Now, as someone who remembers snack as the best part of the day in kindergarten and first grade (celery with peanut butter, apple wedges with brown sugar, graham crackers — all wonders of American culture fed to a Chinese-American girl in the David Douglas school district), I was dismayed. It can be difficult for a small child to make it through an entire school day, from 7:55 a.m. to 2:55 p.m., with nothing other than lunch. 

Luca, who cannot bear the thought of food for a full hour after he wakes up, often goes to school with nothing more than a sip of milk or a bite of pain au chocolat (snob!). Young kids like Luca need their animal crackers, their raisins, their (I know, I know) fruit snacks. But I do understand the concerns over childhood obesity, I do understand that the snacks often end up being chocolate or chips or soda or candy, and I do understand that eliminating snacks is perhaps the first stand a school can take against this ravaging disease.  

What I don’t understand is this: Why can't we change the school snack policy to only include healthful snacks? (Trust me, if a kid is hungry enough, she will_ eat it.) And if there's such a concern over obesity, why were the past five selections from Luca's school cafeteria Cheeseburger Pizza, Hamburger/ Cheeseburger, Chicken Nuggets with Texas Toast, Burrito, and Chili Cheese Dog? (This is in addition to an à la carte menu offering chips, ice cream, and Popsicles.)

And don’t even get me started on the milk. Luca's school cafeteria doesn't offer milk in cartons. It comes in three flavors — plain, strawberry, or chocolate — and is served in sealed plastic baggies that look an awful lot like, well, breast implants. This “milk boobie” (Luca and I call it this under our breaths) must be pierced by a sharpened straw in order for a child to suck out the nutritive liquid inside. Afterward the milk boobie lies there, flaccid, saggy, waiting to be discarded. Ouch. I am an academic and prone to interpretation, but doesn’t this gruesome assault symbolize something?

Limiting snacks in school will not end obesity. Serving only healthy snacks to our kids will not end obesity. Shouldn’t the fight against obesity begin with an examination of what we feed our kids all day long? Shouldn’t we teach our kids the difference between eating food and consuming calories? Isn’t this an integral part of their education?

When did it become easier for us to serve kids what we think they like instead of what we know they need? When did we reason that we were better served spending our time on the Web, on the phone, instant-messaging, making money, losing money, spending money, watching television, interfacing, networking all for our future when our real futures are eating corn dogs and pre-packaged PB&Js with no crusts?  (When did we become so busy that we don’t have the time to pull out two slices of bread, spread peanut butter on one side and jelly on the other, and slap them together?)  

When did we decide we prefer spending more time opening up packages for lunch than actually making and eating our lunch? We all have 15 minutes. We decide what to do with those 15 minutes. Some choose to spend it in a drive-through. Some choose to bathe their organic chickens in butter (shout-out to Sarah Gilbert). 

Me, I choose to make 11:09 a.m. to 11:39 a.m. about more than consumption for my son. I choose — even when the choices are limited to cheeseburgers and pizzas — to make it a meal.

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