Better school lunches, please.

While some have praised New York Mayor Bloomberg’s citywide ban on the sale oversized soda and sugary drinks in bodegas and movie theaters, my friend who teaches high school has eyed it with marked skepticism. He notes, ‘I see what they eat. It’s more than just a ban on drink. Sometimes lunch is during 6th period and it’s a bag of chips and soda, or happy meal.’ He continued to list a host of dining options, saying that they buy it because it’s cheap. His observation is that it was less to do with access to sugary drinks and soda, it’s about knowing that some healthy choices for food that tastes good and is filling is affordable.

Public Schools, as many of us know, are often the victim of serious budget cuts, arts and music programs have all but disappeared in some districts, but he flags something I hadn’t considered missing from the curriculum: Health. He posits why would we ban soda and still expect students to make better choices regarding what they eat? He echoed my concern in the ban, how are we encouraging families to make healthier choices in the supermarket? We know that obesity and diabetes rates have mushroomed in recent years, and we also know that it disapportiately affects communities of color in urban areas. Moderate and working class families make fast food their staple meals, too busy they say to cook. I think of this when I’m on 125th street which spans several avenues west and east and at one point, there were 4 McDonald’s restaurants on the strip. 4.

This week in Denver, school chefs around the country are learning how to incorporate fresh herbs, whole grains, ‘cooking from scratch’, in addition to the new FDA requirements for school lunches:

The rules establish calorie and sodium limits for meals, require schools to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables and mandate that all milk be 1 percent or nonfat. Requirements for the use of whole grains are also being phased in. With more schools cooking meals from scratch — which invariably means more fresh local fruits and vegetables in the kitchens rather than processed foods — districts have largely been able to keep pace with the new regulations, nutrition experts said.

The FDA policy shift to mandating healthier ingredients for school lunches is also welcome, I also wonder about costs. The beautiful part is that the shift in school lunch requirements pushes districts to buy locally grown food, and by sheer volume of ‘cooking from scratch’ could mean job growth in this area, perhaps some cities could experience a boom in local farming if they haven’t embraced it as Detroit and Milwaukee (even New York) has.

Seeds that take root in good soil will flourish. We learned this in elementary school how to nurse a seedling to a living plant. From celebrity chefs specials, one woman’s blog, countless activists, a pediatrician’s lament to Michelle Obama regarding dietary choices of patients that ultimately led the Victory Garden on the White House grounds and her national push to fight childhood obesity unfolding in public schools, we are seeing a shift, back to the future, regarding food choices and access. Gardens are great teachers and perhaps what’s really necessary beyond changes in school lunches requirements and a national obesity campaign is also a serious commitment to health education.

Something that teaches the average New York City High School kid to know that for $5 their are healthier options than just soda and chips. Perhaps that education extend to communities discourage property owners from oversaturating their commercial districts with fast food franchises, or at the very least, encourage supermarket (and their suppliers) to buy locally to make food affordable for working families. Choices, right. It’s the American way.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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  • Sarah

    I disagree with the notion that a lack of education is what is the source of the nutritional deficits of poor families. I don’t think anyone just flat-out is unaware that a Big Mac and large fries is unhealthy. The problem is that healthy, nutritious meals are not available for many families, either due to location (food deserts), time constraints (working two jobs means no time to cook), or simply economics (cannot afford fresh produce). The poor don’t necessarily need education on good nutrition, but access to it.

    • Angel H.

      Yes! Yes! Absolutely, yes!

      If all I have is $2 and it’s still a week until payday, which am I going to buy?: one salad that will barely fill me up, or a package of hot dogs and a bag of hot dog buns that will last for a few days?

      Also, how can Bloomberg ban super-sized drinks, but still appear at the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest?

  • andrea

    There are so many problems regarding healthy eating, I don’t even know where to start. It’s a far more complex problem that involves insufficient health education, but also economics, geography, politics. . .

    If you’re a poor high-school student with 3$ to spend on your food for the day, your options are extremely limited. In Canada, you can maybe buy an apple (there are almost no fruits other than apples that can be bought as a single piece, they’re almost always bagged, bunched, etc), and a whole-grain croissant, or bagel, or etc.

    Or you can take that 3$ to mcdonalds and get a happy meal, or to a 7-11 and get coke and chocolate, or or or or. These things definitely taste better, provide more calories than the meagre fruit-and-bread option, and might just give you more energy to get through the day if you can pace it right (a mouthful of cola every 30 minutes?).

    In Canada, a single individual living on social assistance has an estimated 70$ per month to feed themselves. A friend of mine did an experiment with that, where she tried to live according to Canada’s food guide on that much money for one month. Even with her 30% discount at the bulk food store, it was impossible. By the end of the month she was eating plain rice, boiled eggs, and lentils with no fruits or vegetables. It’s severe enough that pregnant women have to apply for a nutrition supplement, signed by a doctor, stating their need for more nutritious food.

    Simply saying that ‘health education can fix the problem’ is overly simplifying a multi-dimensional issue. Education, welfare reform, a political move to reform the geography of poverty (i.e food deserts), urban renewal schemes (introducing community gardens), and a host of other options.

    Banning the cheapest forms of base carbs and sugars will have an effect on students health, but it might also just force them to the 7-11 across the street and seriously limit their access to food within the school. If the healthy options at the school cafeteria aren’t cheap enough, then the schools are only starving out the students most in need.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I think this proposed ban amounts to grandstanding on Bloomberg’s part. I’m also guessing some people may be likely to buy two of a smaller amount if they’re still thirsty. I’d love to see more done as far as making healthy choices available but he’s more interested in slashing youth and health services and then telling everyone to put out that cigarette and drink less soda. Yippee. Urban farms have begun to spring up in the outer boroughs, which is a positive step, but many of them have limited space and couldn’t meet the demands of an entire city, unless the idea were to really take hold city-wide.