Though I graduated high school over fifteen years ago, I have never forgotten the powerful allure of Italian Dunker Day in the cafeteria. Even now, my mouth waters at the notion of the gooey, melty goodness of mozzarella cheese atop garlicky, overly-buttered white bread, dipped in a Styrofoam bowl of steaming marinara fresh from the jar. Every other Tuesday we’d beg our English teacher to end class just one minute early, to free us so we could be first in line for our favorite school entrée.
I’m sure the saintly lunch ladies also served something from the fruit and vegetable category alongside the starchy main act; I was probably offered a scoop of watery green beans, a waxy, pesticide-coated apple, or some mandarin oranges floating in corn syrup. I may have even taken one of the fruit or vegetable options on occasion. I just don’t remember doing so. All I remember are the dunkers.
Although I was pretty clueless then, still a decade away from full development of my frontal lobe (which is a big deal, I assure you), I wasn’t kidding myself—I knew foods like bread and cheese weren’t doing me any favors. They weren’t building muscles, increasing digestive health, or sharpening my brain for afternoon classes. They just tasted good.
Since the late 1990s, a lot has changed in terms of our understanding of nutrition (not to mention our understanding of fashion—God, but I miss my HyperColor shirt). Obesity has been declared a major epidemic and its mitigation is First Lady Michelle Obama’s number one cause, fast food restaurants tout themselves as serving items that are all natural and humanely-raised, and Cookie Monster now refers to his favorite snack as a “sometimes food.“
So when the lunch menu for my son’s school appeared in his Friday folder that first week of Kindergarten, I should have been surprised to see Italian Dunkers still on the menu. But I wasn’t surprised, because the menu looked eerily similar to those from all the elementary schools I’d ever worked in. In addition to the dunkers, the menus I’ve encountered typically included a number of similarly carb-loaded choices, most of which strongly flouted my mother’s sage advice: “Don’t fill up on bread.”
But as I moan and groan about my son’s lunch options, I have to ask myself whether I’m being fair. Surely our country’s school lunch program has improved in some capacity.
Enter Ariana Eunjung Cha’s story in the August 26th edition of the Washington Post. The article starts out in a most depressing fashion:
In the war to get America’s children to eat healthier, things are not going well.
Oh. That’s unfortunate. Tell us more, Ariana. (I’ve decided Ariana and I are on a first-name basis—I’ll let you know when we’re having Girls Night).
Student E114…left the lunch line one day carrying a tray full of what looked like a balanced meal: chicken nuggets, some sort of mushy starch, green beans and milk.
Really, Ariana? You consider that a balanced meal? Chicken nuggets that have been breaded, deep fried and cut out to resemble stars, a pile of instant mashed potatoes and a mountain of tasteless, overcooked green beans? Hell, if I were Student E114, you wouldn’t catch me touching those beans either. Bring on the chicken nuggets, I’d say, and hey, pass the BBQ sauce.
Ari goes on to detail the findings of a study published in the latest (hot off the presses!) edition of Public Health Reports. She explains that the study’s authors wanted to determine the effectiveness of one particular USDA mandate related to school lunch. Specifically, they wanted to know whether requiring kids to take a fruit or vegetable with their lunch would lead to increased consumption of those foods. This mandate was part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which, incidentally, is up for reauthorization by September 30th of this year.
It all sounds pretty logical, the USDA must have thought. Put healthy food in front of kids and they’ll eat it. Against school nutritionists’ protests that the mandate would have no impact other than fuller garbage cans, the USDA reasoned that we should give it a try.
Unfortunately, the study’s results were pretty bleak. On its own, the mandate failed to increase kids’ consumption of fruits and vegetables and, in some cases, kids ate even fewer of the foods in question. But while it might seem time for Ari to give up on the USDA and America’s youth all together, she should really give them another chance!
Because the study delivers some good news, too. For one, it shows that little kids (third grade and below in this case) actually listen to mandates from school staff. Hell yes, they do! My seven-year-old would believe the earth was created in one hundred days by fairies crying tears of hot lava if that’s what his teacher told him. Turns out the same holds true for healthy eating—consumption of fruits and vegetables actually increased under the mandate for kids in first through third grades. So perhaps targeting the youngest of America’s students would be the most practical means of effecting nutritional change.
Other positive information from the study includes ideas for improving the efficacy of the required fruit and vegetable mandate. For one, the authors suggest that lunchroom staff work to make healthy items more appealing. This makes so much sense! After all, we’ve taken the time to chop up our chickens, puree them, bread them, and form them into little star-shaped patties—can’t we at least slice our apples, maybe peel an orange or two? And while I have mixed feelings about the suggestion of serving ranch dressing with the baby carrots, I figure you’ve got to give a little to get a little.
Another suggestion by the study’s authors is one for us parents. They remind us that we would be wise to talk with our kids about healthy eating, and that we should regularly check in with them about what they consume at lunchtime. Additionally, they suggest the mandate could be more efficacious if parents set good examples at home by modeling healthy eating and serving balanced meals.I admit that I don’t love this part of the study as much because it means I’m supposed to eat more zucchini and fewer donuts, but I know the idea makes sense.
But please, Ari, just don’t expect me to set a good example on Dunker Day.