Fed Up With Food: The Case of the BIG COOKIE

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A couple of years ago our local elementary school principal invited a nutritionist from a nearby university to come speak at our monthly PTA meeting. The speaker showed the video embedded above, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map that graphed obesity rates in the United States from 1985 to the present. It is a sobering 30 seconds. Throughout the US, obesity rates currently hover at between 20-30% of the population–with approximately 33% of adults and 17% of children ages 2-19 identified–and the numbers just continue to rise.

The CDC isn’t studying obesity because it is concerned with personal aesthetics. Wherever higher rates of obesity occur, higher rates of diabetes also exist. In 2007, medical costs for diabetes in the US were 116 BILLION DOLLARS. One way to rein in rocketing health-care costs, then, would be to keep kids’ body mass indexes down so that type 2 diabetes had less of an opportunity to develop. 

Knowing this, our school principal had a goal: he wanted to improve the nutritional value of our school’s lunch menu–particularly for children who rely on school lunches as their primary source of nutrition–and he wanted the support of the district parents in order to make it happen. He referenced studies linking nutrition to academic performance as he explained that target number one on his school-lunch hit-list was going to be THE BIG COOKIE (a dessert-plate-sized chocolate chip cookie that was our cafeteria’s number one best-selling item).

“I want to get rid of THE BIG COOKIE and I need your help,” he intoned. “I walk into this cafeteria and on any day I will see kids eating THE BIG COOKIE for lunch. I want to see fewer BIG COOKIES and more fresh fruit on our kids’ lunch trays.”

The meeting immediately exploded into conversation: “My kid loves THE BIG COOKIE!” was heard throughout the room. “He can’t take away THE BIG COOKIE. It’s not fair! First they take away birthday cupcakes, now this!”

As it turned out, the food service that the district had contracted with also loved THE BIG COOKIE–because it offset losses the food service had to take on elsewhere in the menu in order to adhere to federal guidelines. The BIG COOKIE disappeared from the menu for a couple of months but ultimately returned.

Personally, I was filled with moral outrage: Cookies for lunch! Imagine!

Prior to this meeting, nutrition was already a hot topic in our house. Both of my sons  had been diagnosed with  sensory processing disorder by this time–so writing with a pencil was arduous, sounds were too loud, tastes were too sharp, and focused reading resulted in headaches. For us, an unforeseen bonus of the diagnosis was that after hours spent arguing over homework, we could immediately transition into a full-court battle over food, as well…the phrase “picky eaters” does not begin to capture the gagging, the tears, and plea-bargaining that went on nightly as we tried to move the boys beyond the six foods that they were comfortable eating…

Things have steadily improved, but to this day, fruits and vegetables are still a challenge for the 12-year-old (the one with health issues–so: no pressure there). In an attempt to broaden his palate, we’ve tried:

  • Hiding vegetables (per the suggestions of Jessica Seinfeld)
  • Growing our own vegetables (Google “Biblical plagues” for images of our garden),
  • Joining a CSA (so that we could scrape organic, sustainably grown vegetables into the garbage),
  • Getting the kids involved in cooking (preparing food does not automatically lead to eating it yourself, as it turns out. It can, however, lend itself to experimenting with dish soap as a condiment), and
  • Preparing bento lunches.

My son loved the way those bento lunches looked, showed them off to his friends at the cafeteria table, and then regularly threw them out and bought himself A BIG COOKIE for lunch, instead.

Out of everything we’ve tried, though, we’ve gotten the best results from watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution together as a family. For some reason, when I talk about food, I am “nagging.” The same idea coming out of Jamie Oliver’s puckish pie-hole? Is imminently reasonable. After the first season of the show, the child who’d been eating BIG COOKIES for lunch started lecturing his table-mates on the evils of flavored milk–which, frankly, I am willing to call progress.

Fed Up With Lunch by “Mrs. Q.” Image credit: Chronicle Books.

The BIG COOKIE melodrama made me realize how difficult it is to effect lasting, meaningful change in our school lunch programs. In my elementary school, the issue split parents into two opposing factions: those advocating for an edible schoolyard-styled (garden to table) nutrition curriculum were on one side of the debate, and those who felt menu changes would either be too expensive (or a form of Big-Brother-y government-control) sat on the other. Meanwhile, at the same time that everyone else was picking sides, a rogue “bring back the birthday cupcakes” task force was quickly coalescing in the back of the room. PS: I live in a school district where 31% of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch plans, and as we’ve all heard by now, Congress has just made pizza a vegetable.

How do you even begin to create consensus in a situation like that?

If it had existed then, I would have suggested that the PTA sponsor a community book read of  Sarah Wu’s new book Fed Up with Lunch. Wu is a speech therapist in a high-poverty, inner-city Chicago elementary school, and after eating and photographing the lunches at her elementary school for a year and immersing herself in the minutia of school lunch programs, she came up with this wish-list for change at her school:

  1. There should be a salad bar in every school.
  2. Ingredient transparency needs to be a priority.
  3. Processed meats should be removed from school menus.
  4. “Meatless Mondays” should be incorporated into school menus.
  5. Chocolate milk should be removed from schools.
  6. Children should be given 30 minutes of recess every day.
  7. A wellness committee (with the student voice represented) should be started in every school.

This seems like a good set of goals to begin with. Wu’s book is a quick, uncomplicated read but chock-full of statistics and resources. I recommend it unreservedly.

As for our district, we haven’t done too much to change the menus since that first meeting a couple of years ago. One change that I do find helpful (albeit a bit Big Brother-y) is that, this year, kids are being asked to scan their IDs when they buy food from the cafeteria. Parents can then go online and monitor what their children are buying and ideally a dialog about healthy food choices ensues.

We still have a long way to go to get to healthy, balanced, sustainable, menus at the school…but at least now I know when anyone’s eaten a big cookie for lunch.

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17 thoughts on “Fed Up With Food: The Case of the BIG COOKIE

  1. Gotta agree with you about the big cookie. It took several years (arguing, waiting for contracts to expire, etc) for our local school system to get rid of candy/junk food vending machines, and switch the drink vending machines to all water. I switched my kids to home-made lunches (which they supported/demanded) because waiting in line took too long for a lunch that was too small. When the school instituted a lunch account, I added that in so that I had a fall back when there wasn’t time to make lunch (or I ran out of bread, etc). That sometimes lets me check on what they are eating (except when the description is “lunch bowl” or something else vague).
    Good luck.

  2. My office is based in a middle school I regularly use the cafeteria for lunch. We have a pretty good program. There is a salad bar every day, there is always fruit in the meal, sweet potato options are becoming more common than the potato kind, all breads and doughs are wheat and nothing is fried, everything is baked. There is a very limited selection of chips available for an extra cost. There is also a Subway style sandwich bar every day. We have it pretty good here but I’m beginning to see that it’s not the norm. I have to say I disagree with getting rid of chocolate milk, my former boss was Commissioner of Education in Maine for a brief spell and it was her ruling that got chocolate milk into schools here in the 80s. Her judgement then stands today for me. If they won’t drink milk but will drink chocolate milk, I’ll take it.

    1. Sarah, I agree that milk is important. I just think that treats are so much more ubiquitous than they were in the 80’s…I think that if kids don’t have a choice, they will drink regular milk–particularly once they hit adoloscence. My 12 yo must drink a quart of milk at each meal these days…

  3. Outstanding essay Andrea! I understood your humor to a “T”! I also walk a very delicate balance between healthy eating for my sons — and making sure they are “inspired” to eat what’s presented to them.

    We also watched Food Revolution as a family and I like to think it made a difference in my sons’ habits. They take a lunch to school almost every day — sometimes on crazier days they have to buy the school lunch.

    I’ve eaten lunch at the school with my sons on occasion. I see kids throwing away so. much. of. their. food. One of the things that I try to resolve is how to pack a nutritious lunch that my sons won’t simply throw away while at school. There’s no one hovering over my kids in a school cafeteria making sure my kids eat. How do we know? I don’t quite trust my youngest son that he’s eating what I give him…and simply throwing away any food aggravates me to no end!

  4. What a great post, thank you! This year for the most part I pack my children’s lunches. I find especially for my 6 y.o. boy, the portions are too big for his lil tummy,so this way he gets a “Justin sized” meal that he’ll actually like. 🙂 In addition, some of the offerings are so laden down with sodium and fat, they even look un-appetizing. My daughter loves fresh produce and hummus with a tortilla, not something exactly pushed in my depressed,rural community. I do however, “cave” on the flavored milk, they know they don’t get that at home.

  5. What is it with Americans and common sense?

    In this country no primary school has a cafetaria, certainly not one featuring a PLATE SIZED COOKIE!

    My kids lunch at home, others take their sandwiches with them to school.

  6. Childhood obesity is one of the most frightening epidemics in this country. We are raising a generation of “fat kids” who have no knowledge of nutrition or physical fitness all while the cost of healthcare gets even further out of control. Rule #1: parents need to set the example. Rule #2: Keep presenting the facts in as many ways possible until the message sinks in.

  7. I work in our charter school cafeteria…. ok multipurpose room, we have two warming plates and the lunch is brought over from a district elementary school that we pay to make lunches for our students. I am SOOOOOO thankful my daughter is allergic to milk and eggs and therefore HAS to bring her own lunch. We have several kids where this lunch is their primary meal and I feel horrible for them.

    As a “perk” for my job I get to eat a school lunch (usually I bring it home and reheat it because I show up, serve two lunches, clean up and then can eat, so 2 hours or more after it was made). I’ve never had so many stomach problems. We do have a fruit and veggie every day, the kids throw most of them in the trash. The main dishes are lack-luster and salt is forbidden. The school milks are skim and skim chocolate, both with 8 or more grams of corn syrup added to make them “palatable”, from the quotes you are correct in assuming it doesn’t work. I still don’t get how taking out the relatively healthy milk fat only to add unhealthy corn syrup is beneficial, but there it is.

    Since we don’t prepare the lunch, some of the things that are done baffle us and we laugh. ALL pizza must be served with breadsticks, because pizza does not have bread (really what’s the crust then?). Our schools need a lot of help in the cafeteria, but unless the Moms and Dads are willing to make it work, it won’t happen at all, because the kids will just dump it in the can and go outside. Last year we did recess before lunch, but I think I’m the only person that preferred that. I think it was better for the kids, but forcing them to stay in the lunch room for the whole time had its own problems in the behavior department.

  8. As a society, we’ve become ever-more reliant on schools to do more than just educate our kids. Out of necessity, they have become a form of de-facto caregiver. The strain on that lifeline is just now becoming evident, and school lunches is just one of the many issues that is bringing this to light.

    Individually, we pack our daughter’s lunch most every day. We strive to put in healthy things that we know she will eat but are also not averse to a small treat. That being said, I would rather see my daughter have a full tummy after lunch even if it meant what she ate may not have been the most healthful, than give her what could be perceived as rabbit food and have it end up in the trash half-eaten and have her classroom behavior and performance crashing out by the time the afternoon bell rings.

    I see both sides of the debate mentioned here, and moderation, empathy, and common sense seem to have flown out the window in favor of whaaargarbl and smug superiority in one’s choice of side to land on.

  9. I count avoiding cafeteria lunches as one of the many side benefits of homeschooling. It seems like such an excellent opportunity to help our kids get a leg up on healthy eating habits – and yet school district after school district is blowing it.

    And your reference to your garden made me smile. Will you try again??

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