When I got home from work yesterday, we had a message from a reporter at the Medill news service based out of Northwestern University in Chicago. The reporter, who covers the food and agriculture beat, had spent her day touring public schools in Chicago to see what menu changes were afoot for students. Apparently this is the year when the Chicago Public School system puts out their food services contract for bid, and coincidentally it is the same time that Michelle Obama is pushing her initiative to fight childhood obesity.
Based on our experiments in eating for less, the reporter wanted to know if it would be possible for Chicago Public Schools to offer healthy options for students for just one dollar a meal. I told her that I thought it was possible, but unlikely. I asked questions about her experience, and she recounted being told about the positive strides these schools were making by offering baked Lay's potato chips instead of the original flavor, and using whole wheat flour in the pizza instead of using refined white flour.
"Did you see students using cutlery?" I asked.
"Now that I think about it, I didn't."
"Were students drinking chocolate milk, or plain milk?" I continued.
As a former business consultant, she commented that most of the improvements she saw seemed to come laden with business commentary like, "When we switched to this healthier product we saw a sales drop of 60 percent at snack time."
Say what? We need to take a step back. Is this about making money? Is that how we're going to frame what's best for youngsters?
If what we're feeding our children in schools is contributing to childhood obesity and the early onset of type-2 diabetes (and it is), the costs related to this public health epidemic will grossly exceed those associated with fighting terrorism, transportation costs, and other public services that we pay for as citizens. Not only are we literally killing our children with the foods we provide them, we're going to pay a lot to do it.
While I commend those who work in the school kitchens and Michelle Obama for doing her best to make a difference, if the difference is between two different types of potato chips, we're not doing right by our kids. "Less bad" still isn't good. Someone, somewhere has to be willing to stand up and say that we're not going to feed kids chips at school, and that a "choice" between pizza and a salad bar is no choice a nine-year-old will make with any type of expertise.
Students need to be taught about food in schools. How to grow it, how to cook it, what it does to the body, and how to make sure we can eat a healthy and balanced diet. Schools need to be the models of this movement, not the unfortunate bureaucracies caught between the pressures of Big Food and a lack of funds for students. As we recount in our book, we ate well for less as individuals, so we know that it's possible.
When the reporter asked me what I think should happen, this is what I told her: Double the amount of fruits and vegetables, far less meat and dairy, whole grains only, no "food" products with more than five ingredients, give them foods that they need a fork to eat (the unhealthy foods are usually handheld), and someone in power to "just say no" to chips, cookies, and chocolate milk. It may not be popular, but this is the change we need.
To watch a great video about this topic, we recommend watching this TED talk with Jamie Oliver.