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Friday
Apr012005

School Food

An excellent program recently aired on TV in the UK, hosted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (i.e. the Naked Chef). I've never been much of a Jamie fan, mostly because I found his cooking shows pretentious and unrealistic (okay, maybe I was just jealous about his hordes of adoring friends always coming by for dinner...). This program, however, cast him in a new light for me because what the show centered around was not his cooking per se, but rather his struggle to bring healthy food into the public schools of one London borough. The basic premise of the show was that school by school, Jamie would be introducing the 'dinner ladies' (as the women in white are called here) to his recipes and then slogging through it in the kitchens with them until (a) they got the hang of preparing real food, and (b) the kids were actually convinced to eat it. No one said it would be easy.

nuggets.jpgThe stuff these kids were used to loading on their lunch trays is probably to familiar to most of us if we grew up in the US or the UK. Everything packaged, reheatable, loaded with starch, sugar, salt... Any vegetables? Not on your life. These kids had a daily choice of fish fingers, chicken nuggets, chips (fries), pizza, hamburgers and these processed meat-product spirals called 'turkey twizzlers'. Aside from the turkey twizzlers, it looks remarkably like what I used to eat for my own school lunches, twenty years ago. What Jamie was proposing to replace this with was things like thai vegetable curry, morrocan-spiced chicken legs, spinach foccacia and leafy green salad, and he wasn't going to give them any choice about eating it.

The central question was never whether these school lunches can be considered healthy for kids. In the first episode, one of the doctors Jamie interviewed stated point-blank that with current diet trends we can expect this generation of British children to be the first to die before their parents. He chronicled a skyrocket in incidences of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, ulcers and mental and psychological disorders that can be directly attributed to kids eating habits. School lunches were reviled by everyone Jamie spoke to as directly contributing to these problems.

The question the show posed, rather,  was if it's at all possible to convince kids to eat healthier food. Interviews with kids showed that many had never even seen things like broccoli or spinach. Others couldn't even identify a potato in its natural form. Things didn't seem promising for the new menu when kids at Jamie's first school were seen dumping plate after plate of untouched food into the trash. The most sensitive were seen retching into their plates. It was heartbreaking to watch. My hat is off to him though - he showed amazing persistence and tenacity, battling day after day to convince these kids (and the dinner ladies as well!) to believe in his food.

He developed a strategy which involved inviting the pickiest of eaters to help in food preparation and then asked them to eat what they themselves had created. He launched 'food awareness' activities at schools which presented kids with an exposé of what really goes into their favorite foods. He developed recipes that presented foods in imaginative, colorful, ways, and placed them on the lunch counter day after day after day... And what do you know - it finally worked! The kids were converted. Those we had seen retching two weeks earlier were now beaming and scarfing down whatever Jamie put in front of them. Teachers were amazed at how attentive and focused their pupils became. One parent even said her son's aggressive outbursts had miraculously ceased. Jamie also triumphed by showing it was possible to do this within the measly budgetary guidelines set by the government, which dictated not spending more than 37p (about 60 cents) per meal.

The issues this program brought to light have created something of a shockwave through this country. It seems that people have finally had the wool lifted and seen what disastrous consequences this cavalier attitude to nutrition is having. Since the program aired, dozens of local councils across the UK have signed on to 'better school meals', and the government has finally responded with a promise of nearly £280 million to improve school meal quality and pay for more staff to make it. I'm wary, however, that all the fingers are being pointed at the government for its cost-before-nutrition policies and none are being turned around at ourselves.

There are some uncomfortable questions begged by this program, seeing how relatively easily even staunch junk-food junkies could be converted over to the pleasures of real food. I've heard it so many times from parents that they just give kids what they want to eat, that they gave up the struggle because 'the kids are just so picky'! Is this really true, or do we make up these excuses to exonerate ourselves from the responsibility we have to teach our kids good eating habits? Do we even have good eating habits to teach them? What kind of message are we sending about the importance of eating well when all the time we're willing to invest is what it takes to open and close the microwave door? Kids all over Europe are developing obesity and diabetes at an alarming rate; in US schools the overweight by now outnumber the slim.

I don't know how easy will be to convince other governments to spend more on school lunches. I don't know if when they do it will really be any healthier. I don't know if it's possible to get rid of the vending machines, the fast-food outlets and the off-campus passes to go and grab some junk somewhere else. All of this is just treating the symptoms anyhow. What I do know is that our fundamental relationship with food is formed at home, and that what we teach and show our children will go a lot further towards modifying their eating habits than a government budget change will. I know it may seem like moving mountains, but I do think it is possible to change kids' preferences about what they put in their mouths. Good food nourishes us body, mind and soul, and cooking and eating it should become such an integral part of our lives that our children simply don't know any other way of life.

Photo of Jamie Oliver copyright © Channel 4.

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Reader Comments (4)

Amazingly, as a kindergarten teacher, I see my students actually prefer healthy food at lunch, but it is so seldom available. Whenever we have fresh oranges, other fruits, and even veggies, kids really go for them - it's just that they are overwhelmed by the amount of, well, "junk food" (in the form of school breakfasts and lunches) usually offered to them. School lunches started with such good intentions...something has gone so wrong. Thank you for taking time to review this important subject. Lynn
April 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLynn, Portland, Oregon
Wow, that's really interesting, but it's so sad that this kind of food is not readily available to them on a daily basis. As a teacher, what's your take on the school food debate - should more government money be funneled into healthier food (inevitably at the expense of something else), or do you think we need to rather put our energy into convincing people to make healthy eating a priority in the home?
April 21, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
What a fantastic (and fantastically disturbing) post. I live in the US, but I'm going to attempt to find that show on the internet. I believe VERY STRONGLY that food habits are formed at home, and that little kids needn't be picky. I waited tables in a fine dining restaurant for years, and one night waited on a family with a 6 year old boy. It was his birthday, and he had chosen to come there for dinner. He had a dozen raw oysters to start his meal, and went on to have a beautiful, adult dinner that was also well-balanced!

I also read a study that allowed 3 to 7 year olds to choose their own meals off a buffet-type setup and monitored what they chose - the study showed that after a short time of junk madness, the kids chose a balanced, healthy diet, left completely to their own devices. So parents are even more culpable, I think, in this trend towards "let them eat french fries" than we think. (Also, restaurants have the most disgusting children's menus....)
December 4, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterHeath
Hi Heath, thanks for your comment. The show has just recently come out on dvd in the UK, so it might be released in the US soon, in case you can't find it on the net. It's worth tracking down though, as it was an amazing - and shocking - thing to watch. I do hope it has more than just shock value for people, as most shocks eventually wear off. The study you talk about is very interesting, and matches what Lynn says above. When are we going to stop treating children like culinary cripples?

p.s. Amazing story about that 6-year old in the restaurant! He sounds like a natural born gourmet :)
December 8, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa

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