Cafeteria Conundrum

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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.

dunkers

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).

She continues:

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.

The Lucky Ones

156HWhen I glance through our family photo collection, I relive a wealth of cheerful moments. In the pictures, my two young boys frolic on playgrounds, blow out birthday candles, and pose with giant, walking versions of their favorite cartoon characters. They throw their hands wide in celebration, or put them around each other to show fleeting brotherly love. They hike a trail in Maui, climb a mountain in British Columbia, splash in a lake in northern Wisconsin.

In between those moments, their lives are occasionally marked by endurable hardships and imperfections we don’t tend to capture digitally. But for the most part, the pictures accurately portray the lives of comfort, safety, and security my children are fortunate to enjoy.

They did not earn this life—it was bestowed upon them.

As I scanned the news headlines and images a few days ago, I came across a very different sort of family picture. In the photograph, a young girl and an even younger boy frantically cling to each other as they are swept up in a sea of heavily armed men in helmets and fatigues. The children’s mouths hang open while their eyes clench tight in mid-wail, the looks of sheer, blind terror shrouding their little faces. Nearby stands a man who is likely a father or relative, but his presence seems to bring them no comfort—he is as powerless as the children in the face of the soldiers.

The picture captures the one family’s attempt to cross the border from Greece into the country of Macedonia, whose soldiers had clearly received orders not to welcome the foreigners with open arms. Though the nationality of these particular children is unknown, the majority of refugees attempting the crossing are Syrians fleeing the relentless violence in their home country, part of a civil war that began in 2011 and shows no signs of ceasing anytime soon.

These two innocent children and hundreds of others like them appeared at the Balkan back door because they wanted to survive. To know a life in which buildings stay upright, schools stay open, and loved ones stay alive.

Like many people, I have become somewhat inured to the headlines and pictures documenting the myriad civil wars, terrorist acts, and crimes against humanity taking place all over the world. At times, I have been guilty of skipping over such articles in favor of lighter fare, celebrity-focused stories that my brain and my heart can handle.

But the smallness and the palpable terror of these children grabbed hold of me and won’t let me go. The children in this picture cannot possibly understand what is happening to them. Why their tiny little bodies are being battered and jostled, why the grownups won’t protect them, why the men with the big guns won’t let them pass.

They cannot understand why they are so unlucky.

All of which reminds me of what my own children cannot yet understand. That but for some inexplicable stroke of luck, they could have been the ones fighting their way across a dangerous border guarded by scary men with coal-black weapons. Or the ones treated as unwelcome outsiders simply because of where they were born. Or the ones living under the threat of expulsion back to a homeland torn apart by genocide, famine, and war.

For now, they are just the lucky ones.

Recent articles about Syrian refugee crisis:

Et tu, Jared?

subwayOh, Jared. Jared, Jared, Jared.

Something about your smile and your pleated khaki slacks had me leaning instinctively away from the very beginning. I found your awkwardness simultaneously off-putting and endearing, your tolerance for low-quality deli meat appalling.

Watch Jared’s first Subway commercial

But you kept the weight off! And you ran a marathon! And you started a charity to fight childhood obesity! Plus, you never seemed to go away, appearing on Subway commercials for fifteen years, which made me think you must be okay, that millions of American hoagie-eaters couldn’t be wrong.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and I never suspected you of being anywhere near as despicable as you turned out to be. I had you figured for an overzealous Settlers of Catan fanatic, maybe, or the guy who still wears a mouth guard at 23. Minor infractions, little annoyances, that’s what I had you pegged for.

So even I was shocked to hear recent reports that you have admitted to—and will shortly plead guilty to—engaging in horrifying, illegal acts with kids. And we’re not talking the kind of illegal that ends in you picking up trash on the highway to fulfill your community service hours. The stuff you’ve admitted to is the kind of illegal that destroys lives and lands you in prison.

While the details are still fuzzy, the allegations involve you trolling the Internet for underage partners and crossing state lines to have sex with young girls. Reports also indicate that you conspired with Russell Taylor, the executive director of your charity, to secretly videotape children while they showered and changed in his home. It has also been reported that you knew your friend Taylor was repeatedly abusing a 14-year-old girl, and you never came forward. I even came across a humiliating accusation involving you and a horse, but I suppose I shouldn’t put too much stock in reporting from the folks at The Inquisitr.

In short, the FBI is alleging that you are a monster.

Despite the severity of the charges against you, perhaps I should not have been surprised to hear them. In the age of smarmaticians like Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby and Josh Duggar, very little amazes me anymore. A glance at the television here, a scan of the newspaper there, and I’m ready to hide my children under a mattress until they come of age.

I find myself wondering how I can keep my kids safe in the age of the Internet. I ask myself how can I be sure that my 7-year-old is cranky because he’s tired, and not because he’s been targeted by a sick adult. I struggle with the dilemma of how to educate my kids about sexual predators without making them terrified of the world.

Parenting is already tough, Jared, and assholes like you and your friend make it a hell of a lot harder. I already have to worry about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, the skyrocketing cost of college, and the possibility that my kids have inherited my mutant genes for rosacea and insanely bushy eyebrows. So what I don’t need in my life is a narcissistic pedophile posing as a congenial fast food spokesman and champion of children’s health.

Okay, deep breath.

I’m not going to hide my kids under a mattress, Jared. I’m not going to forbid them walking to the neighbor’s house alone, nor am I going to stop them from developing relationships with trusted adults. But thanks to you and others like you, I will always have to watch a little longer, look a little harder, and question a little more. Thanks to you, we parents have a little more trouble sleeping, a little harder time trusting, and a lot more difficulty letting our kids just be kids.

You and your friend did that, Jared, and you deserve whatever punishment you receive.

Here’s hoping the Party Sub will be big enough for all your new friends in prison.

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