I just finished a fantastic book by Jeannie Marshall entitled Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products. If you have kids and are concerned about what they are eating, or you don't and are just concerned about the North American way of eating, you should get this book. The author moves to Italy from Canada for work and raises her son there. It is part story of living in a different culture but also part evaluation of the North American and, increasingly, global food system that is contributing to ever higher rates of overweight and obesity.
As a family, we try very hard to eat a healthy, simple diet consisting of mostly whole foods, only using processed crap sparingly. And we are trying to raise our children to see food as something to enjoy, not as a commodity to consume. Having them help us with our vegetable garden is part of that, but so is the way we cook, having them help in the kitchen, and ensuring they try something new every day. We still let them have fun foods from time to time, but they do not form the centrepiece of their diets.
School lunches have always posed a huge challenge for us, particularly me. I am always at a loss as to what to put in Sacha's lunch each day he goes to kindergarten. When Sarah packs it, I'm pretty sure he has the healthiest lunch at the school, and he loves it. His favorite lunch food is cut up red peppers. Go figure. I am slowly learning from Sarah. But it is a good thing there are no short cuts available in our pantry, because I'd be pulling them out more often than I'd like.
But we are focused on this and make it a priority. What about other parents? Maybe they have healthy breakfasts at home and relatively healthy suppers, but lunch is where things can really go to hell. I've seen kids with lunches full of nothing but processed food products. Intelligent parents who cook healthy at home and who mean perfectly well and assume that what they are sending their child to school with is "healthy" end up doing just the opposite. So when I read the following excerpt from Outside the Box, I knew I had to share it. Because every parent of school-aged kids needs to read this to know, #1, how broken our system is and, #2, that it doesn't have to be that way. That we could raise our children in a more healthy food society. All it takes is demand.
1. Lunch time at a Canadian school
"The children are given twenty minutes in a crowded, noisy room to wolf down whatever their parents have packed for them. Elizabeth said that Aiden finds it stressful, so whenever it's possible for her to do so, she brings him home for lunch or at least tries to check in on him. I watched the other children as Elizabeth went to find her son. I saw a girl with a Thermos full of soup and a bag of Cheezies; a boy with a bottle of water, a ham and cheese sandwich on a white bun and a small container of Pringles chips; and another boy eating a slice of cold pizza. There were lots of juice boxes, chocolate milk and yogurt drinks. I saw two girls around seven or eight years old drinking Diet Coke, and a boy with a can of Sprite. Another boy had a processed cheese sandwich on whole wheat and a silver bag that he sucked at with a straw. I saw a few apples and one banana and quite a bit of fruit leather. I was surprised to see a girl eating spaghetti with tomato sauce from a Thermos and another eating a takeout Caesar salad in a clear, plastic container with a bottle of vitamin water. The children sat at long tables, some together and others trying to eat alone. There were two adult monitors...but the room was incredibly noisy and most of the children wouldn't sit down....
There was no coherence to the food, since the children all brought their own. Some of it was healthy-ish but there were a lot of food products and loads of actual junk food. But what bothered Elizabeth the most was that the children were so unruly..."
2. Lunch time at an Italian school
"In Italy all the schools, public and private, prepare a two-course lunch with vegetables for all the children. Some schools might offer dessert once a week, but most don't offer it at all. I went to Nico's school...to watch the children at lunch one day. Several classes at a time came to the mensa. The children sat around a table and each of them set their own place with a placemat, napkin, spoon, fork, and cup that they brought from home. The cook, a young man whom the children adore, rushed out with a big bowl of pasta with ragu...for each table. The teachers served the children and then themselves, and sat down to eat with their class. The teachers engaged in casual discussions with the children about whatever the children wanted to talk about. They also helped them to hold their forks properly, insisted that they wipe their hands and faces with their napkins and required them to stay in their seats throughout the meal. When they were finished eating their pasta, the cook brought a large pan of scrambled eggs with Parmesan and a bowl of green salad to each table. Each child took a plate with a little of each. He also offered them ortiche (nettles) that he had picked that morning from their terrace garden and cooked and dressed with olive oil, salt, and lemon, and also some fresh, giant cranberry beans to taste...Some of the children asked for more. There were pitchers of water on the table, along with bowls of freshly grated Parmesan. When they were finished, they were offered bread that had been delivered that morning from a nearby bakery....
The school does not accommodate picky eaters or vegetarians, though it will make allowance for genuine food allergies. There's no dessert, except during cherry season....There are no fruit juices and certainly no soft drinks, and the children don't expect them. When everyone is finished, which is usually after about half an hour to forty minutes, the children clear their places and go outside to play.
The standard form of lunch at this school is a first course of soup, risotto, or pasta and a second course of fish, meat, eggs or cheese and a vegetable. I've seen the children eat pumpkin risotto; sauteed zucchini flowers; meatballs made with ground chicken, Parmesan and lemon zest; and fish with tomatoes and capers....It's not only the food that is important, but the social skills the children pick up by sitting around the table with their peers and their teachers. They learn to take turns speaking, they learn to share, and they learn to pass the water pitcher. They learn to stay seated until everyone has finished their meal."
Read both and think about which you would prefer for your children. And then think about what it would take to make this a reality. Given the glacial pace at which regulatory change occurs in Canada, I have little hope this will come to fruition for my children. But I can hold out hope for my grandkids. Do you too?