We like what we know and we eat what we like. The idea of “comfort food” is based on what is familiar to us, particularly from our childhoods. My friends find it strange that my idea of comfort food involves anything that comes from the freezer and is re-heated, but that’s what I grew up eating with two working parents. Fish sticks and tater tots were a very common meal along with Marie Calendar’s Pot Pies. I would think that a lot of kids these days will associate comfort food with the fast food meals that many children of working families are quite familiar with.

What if we changed the idea of comfort food for the next generation? What if what was familiar and comforting shifted from fried and heavily salted to fresh and nutrient dense? Instead of Kraft Mac and Cheese we craved quinoa with fresh tomatoes and feta. I think that this concept is on the minds of many school districts and nutrition advocates. The controversy over school lunches has been going on for years now. Too tight food budgets from the school districts aren’t leaving much room for culinary innovation, healthier food materials, or labor involved in preparing fresh meals.

Many school districts have begun making changes in their school foodservice offerings. Salad bars are much more common in school cafeterias, and many pilot programs around the country even include school gardens. Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity is bringing even more attention (and funding) to the subject. The common goal seems to be to not only teach good nutrition in the classroom, but also to teach taste in the dining room.

This shift in what children get offered needs to come not only from schools, but also from Mom and Dad. Busy parents (like my own as a child) tend to look for convenience when feeding their families, often leading to frozen or just add X meals as well as many meals out. Restaurants have begun to respond to the need for more nutritious kid food by offering healthier choices in their kids’ meals. I’ve been seeing a lot of new side options for kids’ meals like steamed broccoli, apple slices, and yogurt, and I’ve even seen some restaurants offer chicken strips grilled instead of fried.

I think that we can all agree that the obesity epidemic is no quick fix, but I think that this group effort in getting kids healthier food offerings is a step in the right direction and I’m quite optimistic.

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Tags: children, choices, diet, foodcalc, health, healthy, kids, lunch, menus, nutrition, More…options, school

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Comment by David Rose on March 22, 2010 at 4:40pm
It's worth mentioning, that while there is a long way to go on this topic, there are many fine on-site foodservice companies, and self-operated districts, doing a terrific job providing a great balance of health, wellness, diet, and nutrition.

We should all do more to promote those successes. Success breeds success.

Non-Operator
Comment by Paul Green on March 18, 2010 at 5:57pm
I should have elaborated about the interview on PBS with Janet Poppendieck.

I add this excerpt now because her take on the evolution of school lunch programs is compelling:

Ryssdal: Whatever happened to school food in this country? I mean when I was a kid and when you were a kid there was an actual lady in the lunchroom, making lunches, serving it hot. It just doesn't happen that way anymore.

Poppendieck: It started with the notorious Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981. When the Reagan administration cut the subsidy for school meals by about a third. That was the subsidy that kept the price low for the paying children, the so-called full price meals. It drove a lot of the paying youngsters out of the program. And that began to shift the image of the program toward being more a program for poor people.

Ryssdal: Did that bring stigma with it too?

Poppendieck: I would say it upped the stigma. It intensified the stigma. Kids sometimes refer to it as welfare food or county food. And as they grow older they don't want to be seen eating it. Back to the financing issue because I think it's really the key to understanding the answer to your question -- what's happened to school food. In the early 80s then school food service directors found themselves confronted with a shrinking customer base. And they did what any business will do. They tried to find ways to produce the lunches more cheaply, and at the same time they tried to find ways to market the foods to get those paying customers back into the cafeteria.

Ryssdal: So how did they go about doing that? I mean, did they sit down and have a marketing meeting some place?

Poppendieck: Basically what they began to do, is they began to sell items a la carte that they knew students wanted to buy. So chips and nuggets and nachos and what have you became available in many, many schools, which kind of undermined the nutritional integrity of the program but did generate revenues that subsidized the official meal.

Ryssdal: It is, as we've mentioned, an enormous market, and companies that provide food to these 14,000 school districts across the country have an enormous incentive to get their products out there. Has the program been, corrupted is kind of a strong word, but has it been bent a little bit by the influence of business?

Poppendieck: Well, I think it's been bent by the efforts of school districts to comply with the nutrition standards. You know, it's kind of the letter of the law more than the spirit of the law. The spirit of the nutrition standards was, you know, we want to use this public investment to serve our children healthy meals. But the letter sometimes ends up with school districts purchasing products that have what's called a CN label, a child nutrition label, which certifies that they meet particular components of the menu planning standards. If they buy Smucker's uncrustable sandwiches, they know that the ounces have been measured, and it's going to meet school meal nutrition regulations. And if the state regulator comes in and finds out that it's short half an ounce of peanut butter, why then it's Smucker's that will be liable. And I think that interaction has resulted in products that probably neither you nor I would buy for our own family.



Listen to another Poppendieck interview as a podcast from the University of California Press
Comment by Michael Biesemeyer on March 18, 2010 at 2:52pm
This subject is close to my heart. I have three children (my two sons are still breast feeding). We have a backyard garden. My 3 year old daughter won't eat much of what I grow, mainly because she hasn't developed a taste for greens and tomatoes, but she still is surrounded by the plants and sees me tending them. We are striving to make the garden a part of our kid's consciousness around food.

Every school, without exception, should have some form of gardening program. It is essential that children be introduced to food in this way. There should be no surprise that children who are fed packaged/prepared meals will have a very skewed relationship with food and a diet that reflects that imbalance.

I'm not big on government programs/mandates, but this is one instance in which I would advocate for more oversight and "control," if for any reason, simply to funnel money and resources towards its implementation. Every generation of people that are raised and educated without a solid understanding of the life cycle of food represents a weakening of our national fabric. Important topic, Alyson! Please write more about this!!
Comment by Michael Biesemeyer on March 18, 2010 at 2:41pm
Here's a good find:


Non-Operator
Comment by Paul Green on March 18, 2010 at 6:44am
"Sociologist Janet Poppendieck spent some time trying to make sense of how school meals are prepared and served. She talked with Kai Ryssdal about her new book on school nutrition programs."


How fast food became the school lunch


Her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America is a very good read.

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