Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Children as Activists, Meat Pie Mums, and Other Scary But Possibly Necessary Things

As the weather becomes balmy and the markets start to fill up with younger crowds as schools finish up for the year, I thought it would be appropriate to share this story with you about a group of Wisconsin 4th graders who organized a formal protest of the food available in their cafeteria, intending to skip recess and prepare what, in their eyes, was a "better" meal. This effort was, of course, squashed immediately by bureaucracy, alleged food safety issues and a mean ol' assistant superintendent, but the message was there, and with some sustained effort, will be pursued. The story itself is from Slow Food USA, and despite some of my gripes with them, I think it brings to light some of the issues with a huge source of our kids' food--the school lunchroom. Now, I'm about the furthest thing away from a parent as one can get, but I still feel pretty strongly that not only are eating habits and diet-related health issues somewhat developed in school lunch rooms, but also that exposure to myriad tastes, flavors and textures at an early age is crucial to developing young palates. And even if this doesn't exactly translate into your toddler enjoying the most pungent of French cheeses or cracking open a can of Surströmming fortnightly, it does seem to create an awareness of what's out there. I remember being pretty horrified by most of the school lunches available when I was a kid. Luckily, my mom usually made me a lunch, and though it never really expanded on the PB&J/apple type of thing, I can be glad that I wasn't "eating" those bubbly burgers made of Grade F meat or the damp fish sticks on a regular basis. I suppose more importantly, having a bagged lunch from home made me realize that, in theory, I had a choice in what I was eating, and there wasn't just the one hot lunch option.
Again, not having children, I can't speak to what kids are eating these days with complete accuracy. I can say, however, that what I see available in the store and advertised can be downright appalling, in nutrition, packaging waste and even flavor profiles. An Oscar Meyer "Lunchables Turkey and American Cracker Stackers", providing a mere 3.8oz of food, puts 18g of fat (8g of which are saturated) and 840mg of sodium into your kid, not to mention a boatload of preservatives and ingredients such as "Pasteurized Prepared American Cheese Product", all in a box containing a plastic sealed-plastic tray that a parent need only buy and then hand over to a kid, in a similar fashion as the guy we used to ask to buy beer outside the gas station when we were underage. A 2oz Snickers bar, on the other hand, while offering much of the same ingredient non-purity, comes with a single simple wrapper and offers the same plump child 14g of fat, 5 of these saturated, and a mere 140 mg of sodium (note: this isn’t a plea to feed kids Snickers, because the real crime here is the 30g of sugar).
But fear not, this is not going to be a statistic-filled rant against processed food; I think I’ll leave the statistics out and just rant. Because when it comes down to it, the food our kids are eating as a whole is really what matters here, and it doesn’t take a nutritionist to tell you that Doritos aren't a proper breakfast or that something like a pasta salad with grilled vegetables is not only delicious and desirable (especially when whimsical shapes of pasta are used, depending on age, of course), but way healthier than that Lunchable described above.
But what to do with the issue of habit, choice, and peer pressure? Food marketed towards children is impossible to ignore; even if you or I as adults can avoid it, it'll reach the processed foods #1 lobbyist: our children. This sort of peer pressure-type force is one of my big fears of parenthood. I mean, as an adult, I can, for the most part, take the barbs for having no TV; I can listen to the boring and repetitive jokes about not having a cell phone; I can hear all the "snob" comments in the world for avoiding McDonalds and not having an opinion on whether or not Coke or Pepsi is better. But how does a child handle this? Does my decision to not make Lucky Charms and the deceptively named Fruit by the Foot available to my child expose him or her to repeated pummelings by the Nelson Muntz's of the world? Will they be labeled "the hippie kids" and will this stigma be a problem for them? I have no idea, and until I'm a parent, there's no way to know how I'd react to this. I'd like to open this up to readers with children--please comment on this and give your views, because it seems to me to be a pretty relevant issue.
At any rate, much has been made about a certain celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, who has done much work in the way of changing the food in lunchrooms in the U.K. Despite my British friend's enchanting description of Mr. Oliver as "a bit of a ponce", I've always admired his approach to food--treating it as lightly as possible and letting it be what it is, and not using something that you'd need to hide characteristics of through heavy sauces or harsh cooking, not to mention his making it so accessible to people who normally might be intimidated by cooking. You know, kind of like the plus-sized dead chef in the great Ratatouille (which is, incidentally, the most realistic food/restaurant/kitchen movie I've ever seen, despite, or maybe because of, the rats); everyone can cook, many just don't know it or think it. At any rate, his work has met certain success, as well as a fair share of criticism. Some found his methods to be too jarring, harsh, and not gradual enough, while some mothers, dubbed the "meat pie mums" actually went to their children's schools when Oliver's programs removed the availability of chips (or crisps, depending on your origins), pop (or soda, depending on your origins) and the like from schools, selling their dear children meat pies, burgers and what not through the fences outside of the school in a freedom of choice act that surely would make the most ardent human rights activist shed a comrade's tear.
Anyway, I'd argue that a big part of getting kids into things other than hamburgers and pizza is feeding them things other than hamburgers and pizza. I'm not convinced that offering healthy food to kids who don't instantly like it is what's making them picky; rather this finickiness is a symptom of the children not having the vocabulary of the palate to deal with these flavors. I was lucky enough to meet a couple with a 16-month old baby; this kid was smelling and tasting everything, and why? Because his parents were putting vegetables and fruits in front of him and encouraging him to. I was cutting a shallot; he picked up a little piece, made a little sniffing face, and said "onion"! This little guy is a step ahead of most of the adults I know. There are, to be sure, respectable arguments that genetics play a large role in what a child likes or dislikes; though I'm not completely sold on that being the full and complete reason for picky eaters, and I believe that exposure to more at an early age (in pretty much every category) makes for a human being with the reference points to enjoy a richer life as an adult. And as for the argument that good food costs more--something that I believe stores like Whole Foods propagate--I refer to a great quote that a former soon-to-be employer said. And that is that the value of a five dollar bill changes greatly depending on where you spend it. For instance, that fiver can probably come close to getting one person one interestingly named Extra Value Meal at McDonalds. The same money can get a bag of lentils, some rice, and a good amount of veg--enough to feed a family of 4. I guarantee it. I promise you. And need something to do/a reason to turn the tv off and spend some time together? Cook that meal together. That meal suddenly becomes loaded with meaning and the value mentioned above (An aside--I once bought some fava beans at the restaurant, about ten pounds, and proceeded to instruct all servers to pick the beans anytime they were in the kitchen--this worked two wonders: suddenly, many of the servers I'd been trying to drive out of the kitchen for months were nowhere to be seen; the ones who remained picked the beans, and instead of complaining, everyone passed along stories of how it reminded them of doing the same thing with their grandmothers, or some great story similar to that). An amazingly encouraging sign is the acceptance, by some farmers' markets, of food stamps. Also, I've read of some food banks adding more fresh vegetables and fruits to their offerings.
I realize this post is full of opinion, so I welcome as much contribution to it as possible in the comments section. It's an important topic, and as such shouldn't be dominated by a guy with no children save for the bacteria in his yogurt, yeast in his bread, and cats dominating his couch, with no sense of how one talks to a child and greets young children with a handshake and a "Hello, how are you?" So write in and let me know what you think.
Meanwhile, let's all go out, find a piece of food we don't know much about, and share it with someone we care about. Let's expand our culinary vocabulary and share it with each other. Oh, and let's have a pie-off.