Stealth health in the lunch line

Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 1, 2011

It took a few decades, but I finally got to sit with the cool kids at lunch the other day.

I knew I scored because the fourth-graders at my table were stone-cold rebels, defiant in the face of authority — the lawmakers, lobbyists and regulators wrestling over what these kids should have on their lunch trays. The distance between Capitol Hill and the cafeteria at Flower Valley Elementary in Rockville is a lot more than 17 miles.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“I don’t want the salad. Yuck,” declared Joseph Vu, 9, clearly the leader of the pack. He’d already stared down that federally authorized dark-green salad in the lunch line, along with apples, peaches and oranges.

“I don’t want those. I like the pizza. PIZZA!!” he told me, inspiring a fist-pumping chant among his minions: “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!”

So much for that whole eat-your-vegetables campaign.

Feeding kids at school is a multibillion-dollar industry, and this winter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will attempt to pass the first new federal guidelines in 15 years. The goal: to reduce the additives, fat, salt and sugar that are fueling the childhood obesity crisis and add the whole grains, dark vegetables and fruit that will make our kids healthier. Despite what the fourth-grade bad boys say.

It won’t be easy. The school lunches we remember from our own childhoods — the mystery-meat tetrazzini, the burgers the color of elephant skin, the gelatin “salad” — are long gone.

That kind of cooking gave way to corporate and school profit-making a couple of decades ago, when outsourcing ruled and vending machines invaded, giving schools a share of the junk-food profits to help fund schools’ sports, arts and music programs.

Fries, corn dogs and mozzarella sticks! It was county-fair-meets-happy-hour-apps in our school cafeterias for many years. The lunch ladies went from cooks to mere cogs, as making food from scratch became obsolete and they became the reheaters of processed food.

The way kids ate affected even the architecture of schools. At some point, school kitchens went the way of eight-track tapes. And going back to making food from scratch is impossible for some because they don’t have the plumbing or electrical capabilities to actually create meals on site, explained Marla Caplon, Montgomery County Public Schools’ director of food and nutrition services.

And how did our kids do amid this food fun? A third of American children are overweight or obese.

School lunches are just one piece of what’s gone wrong, but even tackling that problem won’t be easy. Too many players with too many agendas. You’ve got folks like the potato lobby trying to persuade everyone to include potatoes — which invariably get turned into Tater Tots and fries — as vegetables. And the beverage industry angling for its piece of the school-lunch action. And you’ve got the school folks, who aren’t always on the same page as the healthful-food advocates.

“And when it comes to nutrition, it’s one of those things that everybody thinks they’re an expert. . . . Everybody thinks they have a stake in the game, because everybody eats,” said Jessica Donze Black, project director for the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Health Group.

Then you’ve got the kids themselves, who often couldn’t care less about nutrition.

My younger son, who just started at a D.C. public school last week, gets a hot lunch that sounds like the food at a yoga spa retreat. The school contracts with one of the hip, new vendors that create chef-approved meals and deliver them to schools for reheating. Among the choices: tofu teriyaki with bok choy stir-fry; sunbutter (made from sunflower seeds) and jelly sandwiches on fresh-baked whole-grain bread; and a honey-glazed chicken thigh with butternut squash.

This is what happens when foodies take over the PTA. Guilty of being one myself, I was overjoyed when I saw his menu.

But when I picked Little Man up from school, I got this: “Mommy, I never, ever, ever want hot lunch again,” his arms folded and nose in the air. He gave the spaghetti marinara with all-natural meatballs a big thumbs-down. “I hated the sauce. It was too sweet. And I miss my robot lunchbox.”

Withering criticism from the 4-year-old.

Kids are just as picky in Montgomery, Caplon reports. They tried beef and broccoli; that didn’t work so well. The garden burger? It bombed.

“They want pizza, they want burgers,” Caplon said with a sigh. “If it all lands in the garbage, that’s not doing anybody any good.” Less than half of the students in Montgomery’s public schools purchase hot lunches.

So, like many school districts, they are changing menus almost covertly, creating stealth health.

When Sandy Bonanno started her job in the Flower Valley cafeteria 25 years ago, the offerings included syrupy-sweet fruit cocktail, Hawaiian Punch, monster chocolate brownies, fries and hamburgers on cottony buns.

Today, she’s got tacos on whole-grain tortillas, corn, romaine salad with carrots (the kind my lunch buddies won’t touch), fresh fruit, low-fat milk and bottled water. The pizza has a whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese. Dessert is fruit or yogurt.

The chicken sandwiches I had with the cool boys were on whole-grain buns that look white (they tried the brown whole-wheat hot dog buns last year — total fail). The patties were breaded and baked, and the milk was low-fat and offered in bottles.

“I just love these bottles,” reported Alex Tat, who wanted readers to know that he is 93 / 4 years old. “They had cartons last year, and I hated them.”

And what about other favorites?

“Circle pizza. Definitely circle pizza,” pack leader Joseph said. Huh?

“Well, it’s better than triangle pizza,” added his pal, Brendan Sumner, 9.

So, we’ve got the beverage industry, the potato lobby, nutrition-education experts and educators arm-wrestling over billions of dollars and the health and welfare of our children, and it all comes down to geometry? Really?

When lunch was over and it was time for the fourth-graders to head out to play, I took a good look at the trash can. Lots of empty sandwich trays. No leftover taco fillings. Few chicken patties. But mountains upon mountains of leafy greens.

E-mail me your cafeteria story at dvorakp@washpost.com dvorakp@washpost.com dvorakp@washpost.com dvorakp@washpost.com dvorakp@washpost.com dvorakp@washpost.com .

dvorakp@washpost.com

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