School Lunches: Unity in the Quest for Quality
My son has had stomach issues pretty much all of his life. By the time he was two, he'd had extensive medical testing done, all to no avail. Finally, we discovered that he had Milk Soy Protein Intolerance (MSPI). Before that point, I'd never heard of MSPI and, although I prided myself on being a savvy mom, to be honest, I didn't really know much about label reading.
For the past year, I've been trying to educate myself and my family in order to protect my son (and now my daughter) from the unpleasant side effects of eating food with undesirable ingredients. As I delved into the world of label reading looking for dairy and soy, I realized just how much I DIDN'T know. I had no clue what most of the ingredients were, and I wasn't quite sure how figure it out.
After much research, and lots of frustration, we've discovered a few brands that we love and rely upon, and I've taken a "less is more" approach to foods. The fewer ingredients, the better. Now that it looks like my daughter has a Milk Protein Allergy at worst, and MSPI at best, it's more important than ever for me to know what's in our food.
As we began this journey, I had an eye opening moment about exactly how difficult it was going to be to stay on top of what my son was eating at school. Granted, he's only in preschool, so I have a lot more power over his food choices, but I worry about what will happen a couple of years down the road. I picked him up from daycare one day to see him carrying a baggy of Cheetos (his afternoon snack). Now, I know that might not seem like the worst thing in the world, and I swear I'm not one of those moms who never lets her children have fun "kid" foods, but when I write "No dairy or soy" on his instructions, why on Earth would you give him Cheetos? Turns out, the school had an "Open Kitchen" policy: the kids could eat when they were hungry and could request what they wanted. Uh...hello? What two year old is going to pass up that kind of opportunity for cheesy goodness? He no longer goes to that school...
It has become overwhelmingly apparent to me that we, as parents, need to take action to ensure that our foods are transparent, and that kids can make healthy choices. We need to know what is in our food and, while it is certainly a parental responsibility to teach our children to make healthy food choices, they need to have those healthy options available to them. I want to feel confident that, should my child forget his low-fat, dairy/soy free Star Wars quesadilla, coconut milk yogurt and organic grapes for lunch one day, he could acquire something healthful (albeit less awesome) from the cafeteria that wouldn't give him a third eye, make him glow purple, or contribute to weight and wellness issues (obviously, this is far more likely than the third eye or purple glow).
When I was in school, the choices were, basically, unpalatable mystery food or yummy prepackaged snack goodness. Can you guess what I chose? Little Debbie and Coke for the win! Or something like that. I remember how exciting it was when the "snack bar" became an option instead of the regular cafeteria line. There, you could acquire your very own fried chicken strips, personal pizza, or cheese smothered burrito. All made with wholesome, natural ingredients, I'm sure. There were no options like fresh fruit. My understanding (largely influenced by my teenage sister and the recent Huffington Post segment featuring pictures of school lunches submitted by high school students across the US) is that things have not gotten much better. Because of this, I am excited about the progress being made with the new USDA Nutritional Standards for School Meals and Snacks.
To the schools I say: I am doing my best to raise healthy, happy children and, although I don't expect you to fulfill my responsibilities as a parent, when I can't be there to ensure that my child is safe (healthy food = better overall wellness and happiness = a degree of safety), I do expect you to ensure that he is not exposed to harm, even if only through poor quality food. You would not (I hope) stand by and let my child run with scissors or other sharp objects, so please don't provide him with the scissors and sharp objects of the nutrition world either. Work with me to raise the next generation of healthy, cognizant citizens.
This post is part of the National School Lunch Week with Healthy Food! A MomsRising Blog Carnival. Take a moment to read and comment on these thoughtful blogs, then tell us your story. Our stories are powerful and are what led administrators to set these rules in place.