The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Wake Up, Parents! Or Let Kids Run the Cafeteria

June 22nd, 2011 · 20 Comments · Posted in Blog, kids, school food

No question: kids like chocolate better

Suddenly a debate over chocolate milk in school is heating up in the pages of The Washington Post. Or should I say our hometown paper has finally noticed there’s a food revolution going on in D.C. school cafeterias now that a first-grader has polled his fellow students and found–shock!–they are not drinking as much milk as some people think they ought to since chocolate and strawberry milk were taken off the menu a year ago.

Post columnist Mike DeBonis sounds downright sympathetic to the plight of these elementary schoolers in affluent Chevy Chase, 58 percent of whom (according to a 7-year-old’s poll of about 100 school mates) are not drinking milk. But here’s the good news: Apparently, 42 percent of the kids are drinking milk, and that’s a lot more than are eating the green beans.

Notice, this dispute centers on something kids love–sugary milk. Nobody is conducting any surveys to see how many kids are shunning the vegetables or whole grains the USDA says kids need more of to avoid becoming obese. Having spent the last year and a half monitoring what kids eat in my daughter’s elementary school here in the District, I’m here to deliver some bad news: obscene quantities of vegetables and whole grains are being thrown in the trash every day. In fact, I recently visited an elementary school cafeteria on Capitol Hill on a day green beans were on the menu. I did not see a single child in the lunch room eating them. But they were all eating the hamburger. (Quite a few were drinking plain milk.)

There is no real secret to all of this. If we allowed kids to write the school menu, it would follow approximately these lines: Chicken nuggets, Tater Tots, pizza, hamburgers, French fries, chicken nuggets, pizza, french fries, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, chocolate milk. Those are all things kids love.

 Now, what are the adults serving instead? Bone-in chicken, whole grain buns, green beans, whole grain pasta, sauteed squash, roasted sweet potatoes, Caesar salad, bone-in chicken, plain milk. Which would you choose as the healthier menu? Would it surprise you to learn that the kids don’t eat it? Why do you think that is? But note, also, there are no adults in the cafeteria talking to the kids about the food. Nobody is marketing the new menu to the children who are supposed to eat it. In other words, the adults really aren’t following through to make this food revolution a success.

The real issue is not the sugar in chocolate milk. We already know kids love sugar. Look at the article I posted yesterday on the sodas and other sugary foods elementary school children bring to school from home. The problem is what chocolate milk stands for. More than any other item on the school menu, chocolate milk embodies our failure to pay attention to the way kids are eating, our surrender to a toxic food culture that embraces industrially processed convenience foods because they are easy shortcuts.

We teach children to expect sugar in their food, then we’re surprised we have an obesity epidemic?

Yes, chocolate milk pretty much sums up our failure as adults to engage children in the more difficult act of eating thoughtfully, our willingness too often to just let kids eat what they want. Getting children to eat more green beans and less candy is hard work. But nobody said it would be easy.

It’s high time we had this discussion. Hooray for first-graders researching the food question. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to bring back chocolate milk. It means parents (and maybe the Washington Post, too) need to pay more attention. If we want kids to drink more milk–and not everyone thinks that’s necessary–then let’s get kids to like plain milk.

Heck, while we’re at it, we could pony up some more money for electric milk dispensers in the schools–cool machines like the ones I’ve seen in use in Berkeley and Boulder and other progressive school districts–so kids can help themselves to as much cold, delicious, organic plain milk as they like.

There you go, Council Chairman Brown. Why not do a little research into how we might fund milk dispensers in D.C. schools so kids don’t have to drink the stuff in those cheap little cartons. I’m sure they would love pouring their own milk. And maybe if you offered kids really good plain milk, they would drink more of it. But that’s not going to happen as long as chocolate milk is an option.

Yes, getting kids to eat more healthfully means getting more involved–with our time and with our wallets. But as my wife likes to say, this is a process, not an event. This revolution is just beginning, and there’s lots more work ahead. Think about that before you try to undo the progress that’s already been made.

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  • Nancy Gardiner

    Thank You, Ed. . .I came across your website via Twitter and feel I have found a refreshing and welcome (read: sensible!)voice in the increasingly obnoxious(at least in my hometown) debate over school food and kids’ food in general. Now, what to do when our ACTUAL menu looks like your what-if kids’ menu above?! Thank you for speaking out, and doing so in such a straightforward fashion. Makes it hard to argue!

  • Mike Emm

    I am amazed that an adult made the comments about the nutritional value of chocolate milk vs other juices. This man has no understanding of the body and how it processes the different types of sugars and the other health values of natural juices.

    When we were children, just after refrigeration, we had a fresh cooked meal in the lunchroom daily. There was no breakfast or afternoon preparation which may need addressing but we got a wholesome meal. On Fridays there was a special treat allowed where you could buy an ice cream sandwich or single serving size vanilla or chocolate ice cream. All week we would pass by that closed cooler knowing we had to wait. Some bold ones would ask for it to be opened just today but the answer sadly was always no. It was used as a motivator as well as the principal would open the vault on the rare occasion when we had behaved well at an assembly or the school met a goal.

    Mr. Brown what we feed our kids as a standard today is horrible. There was a reason when I was a child and before that certain foods were a treat, the mother usually didn’t have time to make cookies and pies everyday for us to stuff into our mouths endlessly and they wouldn’t overbuy such things so we could pop open a cellophane wrapper daily for our fix. Chocolate milk didn’t come in a container you had to mix it from a bottle or can that made it a treat and not a standard jug to grab on the shelf. Here is an experiment put your child’s portion of dinner on the table along with his favorite soda candy bar and box of cracker jacks for fiber then tell them it is their choice without repercussion to have what they wish. Will you be shocked? How many days are you willing to sit and watch them eat that way? There are just days you just have to be the parent.

  • Harvey Pincis

    As your Food Revolution programmes showed, while schools should share responsibility. The main responsibility should be with parents and what they provide in the home. Even in the UK we have somewhat forgotten family eating/family meals. My parents totally banned colas in the home. Lemonade was a rare event and Lucozade was an even rarer event, there to restore the dead to life. Water, still or carbonated and fruit juices were staples apart from even as a kid a thimble of wine with Sunday lunch. Tinned and processed foods a rarity.
    Maybe that’s why my mother has her own teeth at nearly ninety!
    Hopefully you can do for food what CAMRA did for real ale in the ’70s!

  • Colleen

    I HATED lima beans when I was a kid. Grosest thing ever. This dislike existed til my 40’s, when I started having friends from India and saw them greedily line up for the lima beans in the office cafeteria. They would then go back to the table and douse them with fresh squeezed lemon juice (from the tea area) and pepper. I tried these.

    OMG!!!! I LOVE LIMA BEANS!!! When they’re prepared correctly (it’s amazing what lemon juice does to a lima bean – hold the butter, don’t need it).

    The point here is I can understand why traditionally prepared veggies get tossed. Once you take away the butter and the cheese and the salt and the sugar, no one it this country really knows how to season. We need to find out what healthy spices make green beans yummy. It’s not enough to say kids are eating more vegetables in Asia and that’s why they’re thin. We need to know why they eat more veggies, why are they more yummy in Asia. What are the recipies and spice options that can be quite simple, but we’re missing.

  • Ed Bruske

    Well said, Colleen. Kids will eat vegetables, but it’s very hard to make them palatable in a cafeteria setting. More work is definitely needed. Or just turn kids loose on a salad bar.

  • Ed Bruske

    Nancy, just to repeat, that was not a “what if” menu. That’s the actual menu now being served in D.C. schools. The great tragedy is how much the food is improved, and still the kids aren’t eating it. It’s definitely a work in progress.

  • Jenna Reed

    Amen! Getting kids to eat healthy isn’t impossible it just takes hard work. You can’t just put healthy food on the plate and expect kids to eat it, especially if there is an option of unhealthy foods later if they just wait you out. I have a two year-old. He will eat roasted aparagus and salmon for dinner but only if I sit with him, encourage him to “try a bite”, talk to him through dinner and keep him engaged. It is a lot of work and some days I would rather just eat my dinner in peace. It would be much easier to throw a PB&J sandwich & a juice box on his plate which he will eat without any thought while I enjoy my own dinner. But it is my responsibillity to teach him how to eat healthy instead of allowing him to eat what is easy.

  • Lisa Suriano

    Here in NYC (and other states that have adopted Veggiecation) we are marketing these new menu items to students quite successfully! We have employed traditional marketing strategies that have proven themselves effective over and over again – colorful characters, jiggles, give-aways, etc. We have equipped food service workers, teachers and parents to promote healthy food in an easy and fun way.

    Your wife is a smart and eloquent woman. It IS a process. A big part of that process is recruiting members of the school community to join the effort. The more people you have engaged and on board the more success you will have in a school.

    You are 100% correct – if we dont market these new foods all these menu changes will fall totally flat and fail. We all know that we cant afford for that to happen.

  • A.

    I think this entire situation shows a lack of thought and information as far as school lunches go. I don’t see any middle ground between want children want to eat and what the parents (or perhaps the school) is making available. It’s such a drastic leap from chicken nuggets to bone-in chicken. Why not offer a healthier chicken “nugget” instead? (For instance, I make mine using chicken breasts lightly breaded with a crumb and parmesan cheese mixture). Burgers aren’t necessarily unhealthy in and of themselves, either, and pizzas can be made with whole grain crusts and reduced fat toppings.

    I also think that the milk situation is silly. Milk isn’t necessary for a balanced diet, and the oft-cited calcium in it is often canceled out by the protein content.

  • Tim

    Hi my name is Tim and I am from the UK. As a pre-context to the whole milk debate, I grew up through school in the 80’s. We were given plain milk everyday during break time (recess) it was a class involvement whereby we had to drink all our milk before we were allowed to leave the classroom to go out and play.
    Famously Margret Thatcher cancelled this program to which there was huge uproar from parents and kids alike. Especially as this was done as a “cost cutting exercise”
    Never has flavoured milk been an issue in the UK. It’s never been sold as a method to drink more milk for kids .. it has never needed to be. Through pre school education and following it through at home habits can be changed.
    In Jamie Olivers recent food revolution show he made a key point in that given a choice between green beans and candy, it doesn’t take a million dollar committee to conclude which one they are going to pick. Education, experience and repetition will turn your children round to the values of healthy eating.

  • Jennifer

    I believe, quite sadly, that the state of our eating habits are a direct reflection of what is happening within society as a whole. We have forgotten what the word “treat” means. We seem to believe that our children must have better than we did, and more than we did, and that it must be given at all cost, and if that means that we kill them with kindness, so be it. I see it in our food choices, and in the electronics stores, and on the playing field. And it saddens me to no end. Chocolate milk could be an acceptable choice as a treat- realistically, once a week it really would do no harm. Pizza and chicken nuggets COULD be a healthy choice, if we used REAL farm fresh ingredients instead of picking up the fat and chemical laden prepackaged types you find in the freezer section, or the type you find in the majority of restaurants. OH! Wait! It doesn’t sound like a treat if you have to make it yourself, does it? We live in a society that values quick and easy and painless, and we often don’t realize that all of these things have a price. I am not willing to pay with the lives of my children. Nor am I willing to allow someone else to govern what my children put into their mouths. My children have never been inside a fast food restaurant, and we don’t have the “luxury” of cafeteria food until they reach high school. They do have the opportunity to have milk daily through the school, hand packed lunches with healthy choices from my kitchen daily, and once a week the parents association prepares homemade pizza. I really don’t miss the idea of cafeteria food. I prefer to do it myself! There are ways to help children eat more vegetables- mine love “mommy’s magic”, where we put veggies in a blender with some fruit and yogurt and make them in to ice pops or smoothies. After we did this the vegetable consumption in our house went through the roof. Good luck in your quest for healthier eating!

  • Jamie Oliver

    Top man. you need to highlight the fact were all human aswell and how contradictive a milk source can be

  • Ed Bruske

    Now that’s a word you don’t see every day, Jamie: “contradictive.” I think we’ve got some 7-year-olds here in D.C. who might appreciat the concept.

  • Sheila Crye

    Ed, how would school cafeterias claim free and reduced price reimbursement for salad bar selections and for milk from an electric milk dispenser? School cafeterias are a business, not a soup kitchen.

  • Ed Bruske

    Sheila, they do collect the reimbursements. In an ideal world, the USDA would want the kids to circle back to a point of sale station to have their selections confirmed. But Ann Cooper maintains that the rules only require that the food stations be in “line of sight” of the checker. This is how it’s done every day in Berkeley and in Boulder. But don’t take my word for it. Ask Cooper herself, or others like Kate Adamick or John Turenne, who work with salad bars and milk dispensers all the time. This is not new.

  • Kelly

    It’s so true that the work must be done in the classroom and in the cafeteria to teach the kids how to appreciate the flavors and textures of fresh foods. Taste comparisons, farmer visits, cooking together, school gardens – all of these things hold so much potential to open children up to the wonderful world of fresh fruits and veggies. I was blown away when I worked with summer camp kids in our elementary school garden. We harvested, cleaned, prepped and cooked kale, chard, garlic, and herbs for a pasta dish that every child but one asked for seconds and thirds of, even though not one of them had ever seen or heard of kale or chard. Many said they would ask their parents to plant a garden and grow those greens so they could eat that pasta whenever they wanted.

    It’s not impossible, but it takes a cooperative administration, and a strong foundation of passionate and patient volunteers who are willing to go back again and again to work with the kids.

    I can’t think of much else more rewarding, though. I wish I had a lot more time to give than I already do.

  • Sheila Z

    “School cafeterias are a business, not a soup kitchen.”

    Isn’t that the problem? Corporations needing to make maximum profit for their shareholders at the expense of school children’s health.

  • Stephanie Leach

    You brought up a major issue: no one is talking to the kids during lunch and encouraging them to eat their veggies. New habits have to be culitvated. Some cheerful encouragement to eat their vegetables (including reasons why) would go a long way to getting more veg in their tummies and less in that giant trash can.

  • Shauna P

    If you can believe this, our district purchased salad bars for all the schools just last year and discontinued using them because they say it is too hard to document their three items for a reimbursible lunch. They are now sitting outside with an inch of dirt on them. Shameful if you ask me. I have brought it up in to the Food Services director and the Wellness Committee to no avail.

  • Rich S.

    SPORTS is one answer. Our country is enamored by sports performance. If we can convince the ATHLETIC DIRECTORS that the food being served (and eaten) is detrimental to their school athletes’ performance, things will change RAPIDLY!!