So, I confess to engaging in a little self-Googling this morning (I know, I know . . . too much information) and came across this post attacking my recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle.
In my op-ed, I had applauded Houston ISD’s menu improvements — the introduction of items like steamed spinach and acorn squash – but argued that without student education about the new foods, they’re likely to go uneaten. I also expressed concern about possible plans to introduce additional healthy entrees that would only be available on the “a la carte” line for paying students, since almost 80% of the kids in our district qualify for free/reduced lunch.
All of that seemed pretty uncontroversial, so I was surprised to discover (before I’d even had my morning coffee) that apparently I stand for all sorts of other crazy ideas, including the proposition that “it is more important for students to learn the benefits of spinach versus the benefits of algebra.” Huh?
The author of the post, J. Brian Phillips (a local property rights advocate), also mocks my concern about making healthy cafeteria options available only to paying students (“Why should those paying for their own lunch have a choice that is denied to those who aren’t?” he asks sarcastically). Then he ends with this:
“As with all public institutions, our educational system has become a battle ground over competing special interests. While some demand that students actually be taught to read and write, others are more concerned with what is served in the cafeteria. While some want their children to be prepared to become functional, productive individuals, others want to make sure that they get enough fiber.
In the end, public schools must try to find a compromise between these competing interests. The inevitable result is that students are served unhealthy food in both the classroom and the lunch room. Pizza and chicken nuggets might not be healthy for their bodies, but according to parents like Siegel, the ideas that fuel their minds are of less significance.”
I considered letting this post go unanswered, but the truth is, Mr. Phillips is not alone. After my editorial appeared, quite a few comments were left on the Chronicle website along these same lines. So, here’s my reply:
First, I’m not even sure I should dignify the ridiculous, straw-man argument that I’m advocating food education at the expense of academic learning. As my op-ed made clear, I proposed that such education (to be carried out by parent volunteers) take place in the cafeteria during meal times. I don’t know what’s happening in your school, but on a typical day in my kids’ lunch room, there’s not a lot of algebra instruction going on.
But you know what? Now that you mention it, I actually have no problem with programs that work nutrition education into the school curriculum, such as Recipe for Success’s innovative seed-to-plate approach that uses math, science and language arts while showing impoverished kids how their food grows and teaching them about sound nutrition. Healthy bodies are a critical underpinning of the academic learning we both care so much about. (For just one study showing the link between improved nutrition, better learning and lowered student absenteeism, I’ll refer you here.)
Now let’s turn to your blithe dismissal of my concern that children on free/reduced lunch – the vast majority of our district — might be denied healthier lunch options available only to paying students. Your attitude seems to be, “if you’re eating at taxpayers’ expense, you’ll take what we dish out and no complaining.” That’s a pretty harsh world view. Are lower income students somehow inherently less entitled to nutritious food choices by virtue of their economic status?
But since my bleeding-heart liberal appeals are likely to be lost on you, I’ll instead appeal your pragmatism: More than 35 percent of Texas schoolchildren are overweight or obese. That number has doubled over the last 20 years, and it continues to rise. Studies show that overweight children miss three or four times as much school as children who are not overweight. Furthermore, a child who is obese by age 12 has more than a 75 percent chance of becoming an obese adult, at risk for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, asthma and certain cancers. It has been estimated that the healthcare costs associated with such diseases will total $344 billion in 2018, or more than one in five dollars spent on health care. Whether you like it or not, Mr. Phillips, you and I are both going to be paying those costs on the back end unless present trends can be reversed.
Finally, let’s address your odd contention that unhealthy items like pizza and nuggets show up in the lunchroom because of “competing special interests” – those who favor academics versus those who care about nutrition (as though the two must be mutually exclusive). I confess I didn’t follow that logic at all. But the real story is that pizza and chicken nuggets are served due to a myriad of factors, starting with an underfunded school lunch program (only about $1 spent on food per child per meal), our current agricultural policies, the political and market influence of huge manufacturers of processed foods, the presence of “competitive” junk food in school lunch rooms, and many others.
Changing all of that won’t be easy. But if you’re really as concerned as you profess to be about preparing this generation to compete in tomorrow’s world, you’d care as much about what we feed their bodies as we do their minds. And there’s no need to think so small, Mr. Phillips. I assure you, acorn squash and algebra can peacefully co-exist.