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Out of school for eight weeks, my daughters and their friends start saying things like, “I’m bored,” and asking hopefully, “When does school start again?” I didn’t feel that way as a kid. I wanted warm summer days to magically continue through November, skipping fall altogether and going straight to Christmas. Today, my quest for the endless summer continues and when stores start “Back To School” sales, I get anxious. It’s not my kids going back to school that bothers me; it’s having to pack school lunches again.

There are enough areas in life where my slip of parental inadequacy hangs down past my hem. Mostly, I can ignore it or blame someone else or make myself feel better with the catch-all excuse, “We did that (ate that, watched that, wore that) as kids and we turned out fine…” But when it comes to packing school lunches everyday, I am stumped. Do I pack last night’s dinner? Will that sandwich get eaten or spoil before noon? What to serve that they will eat that they haven’t had twenty times already in the last month? It’s just another in a long list of decisions I’m already too tired to make.

At our old pre-school, a wonderfully touchy-feely place run by former hippies with a semi-new age philosophy, there were strict rules about what could go in lunches: No sugars, sweets or cookies; no peanuts, popcorn or those menacing little choking hazards—raisins. Everything had to be diced into lengthwise, bite-sized pieces. Vegetables had to be steamed before serving. We were strongly encouraged to buy whole-grain breads for sandwiches. Trader Joe’s became my Mecca. There was no filling the lunch bags with leftovers from the night before when we didn’t get home from work until 8:00; our fridge made Mother Hubbard’s cupboard look stuffed, and McDonald’s staved off eminent starvation. The guidelines told me what I could serve and my children didn’t complain about missing Oreos in their lunch because no one else had them either. But in elementary school, a whole new world of lunches has opened up, along with a whole new set of issues. Who would have thought lunches could be such a hot topic that parents would write letters to the board of Ed and threaten to storm the principal’s office?

At my daughter’s elementary, anything goes in lunches. Many times it’s not about what a kid wants to eat; it’s about what their friends like so they can trade with them. Lunch boxes come home empty, only for me to discover later that most of the lunch was exchanged for a chocolate bar and the rest dumped in the trash. Hot lunch is often ordered just for the dessert, the remainder tossed.

A group of angry parents dubbed “The Sugar Police” complained that too much sugar was served in the cafeteria, brought from home in lunches, and served as treats in classrooms. They also objected to candy and cookies sold at school events and as fund raisers. And although I mock them, I don’t necessarily disagree. It is not uncommon for my kid to come home from school having eaten nothing but birthday cupcakes, gummy worms and lollipops. She then spins out in sugar-induced frenzy and crashes just in time to throw a fit before dinner.

School lunches can also define you. They say there is no free lunch and it’s true. Every meal has a price. Even the kindergarteners are aware of who is on the school-lunch program and who isn’t. They don’t specifically understand that the kids on the lunch program are from families living below the poverty line, but they see them getting free breakfasts and lunches and recognize them as “different.” And unfortunately, even at this early age, when it comes to lunches and lunchtime, you stick with your own.

After some lobbying by students and parents, there is a growing effort to eliminate vending machines which distribute soda and sweets on school grounds and encourage the cafeteria and classrooms to make more health conscious menu choices. I applaud and support the students’ efforts to feed not only their bodies, but also their minds by trying to effect change in their schools and ultimately their world. Sometimes I get so caught up in the specifics of a task, that I forget the purpose. School and school lunches aren’t as much about feeding our children as they are about nourishing them. And there are many ways to do that which have nothing to do with a PB&J sandwich on whole wheat.

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