[Ed. Note: Remember last week when I posted about the steamed bok choy served in Houston ISD lunch rooms –and the educational flier posted that day? I told you I felt a serious rant coming on . . . and here, finally, is said rant.]
At our last Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting in September, an Aramark executive flown in from corporate headquarters in Philadelphia gave a presentation about the company’s nutrition education efforts. As part of the company’s new “Healthy for Life” initiative, Aramark has created an array of brochures intended to teach parents about
healthy eating, as well as a special cardboard display box (called a “Wellness Education Center”) that will be used to dispense these brochures to parents from school offices. The executive also talked about the company’s many other nutrition education programs, including the continued use of their furry mascot, a creature named “Ace,” who visits schools to teach kids about nutrition and exercise, and the use of posters, like the previously mentioned one about bok choy, which feature a fruit or vegetable of the month “to introduce students of all ages to seasonal produce.”
As I watched this executive go through her Power Point presentation, slide after slide testifying to the company’s concern about student health, I really felt I was going to lose it. When the executive concluded her presentation and asked for feedback, I couldn’t restrain myself.
What I said, in essence, was that nutrition education is all well and good, but what we’re really teaching children about nutrition starts with the food we serve them. And here’s what Aramark was offering Houston elementary school children for lunch during the week prior to our meeting: breaded chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, chicken fried steak fingers with cream gravy, beef taco nachos, beef taco salad, pepperoni pizza and Frito Pie (the latter two entrees served with mashed potatoes). That, I said, is your nutrition education. So what if we took all the money for the fliers, all the money for the fancy cardboard boxes and all the money for the Ace costumes and used it instead to actually improve the food?
The room fell silent. I confess I felt terrible. The executive seemed like a very nice woman, and I had blindsided her. (I apologized afterward for taking the wind out of her sails, and she was very understanding about it.)
But the truth is, I don’t regret my words. Call me a pessimist, but I can’t imagine that a significant number of parents will ever take the glossy nutrition brochures home, let alone make meaningful life changes based on their contents. And student posters like the one about bok choy strike me as worth less than the paper they’re printed on. Children are not little dietitians. They don’t look at a poster like that and think, “Hmm, I really have neglected my Vitamin A and folic acid intake in recent days. I’d better eat some bok choy today.” (I won’t even mention the actual appearance of the bok choy served – you can see the photo here.)
They do, however, learn something about nutrition every time they sit down for lunch at school. What they’re learning is that food previously consigned to the category of “occasional treat” in our society is now perfectly acceptable daily fare. (And don’t tell me that the cheese on the pizza is reduced fat, or the crust has 51% whole grain, or whatever, because not one kid is aware of those modifications.) They’re learning that mashed potatoes and pepperoni pizza are a fine combination. That there’s no problem eating fried, breaded red meat topped with cream gravy, then washing it down with a chocolate milk containing as much sugar as a serving of ice cream.
If we were actually trying to set children on a path toward eventual obesity, we could hardly do better.
I don’t lay these problems entirely at Aramark’s feet. Aramark is a for-profit business charged with keeping our district’s lunch program financially afloat. In a system in which a la carte foods like pizza, slushies and chips may be sold in competition with the lunch program, and in which children may also opt out the program by bringing lunch from home, or (in upper grade levels) going off campus, offering brown rice, tofu and broccoli is not a sound business choice. These are fundamental flaws in the National School Lunch Program that need to be addressed at the Congressional level, if we can ever get that accomplished.
Moreover, I have nothing against nutritional fliers and posters, per se. I’m sure the executives behind Aramark’s health initiatives are well-meaning individuals who sincerely believe that their efforts will bring about positive change. I hope they do.
But when, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, a child can become obese simply from eating the very lunch offered by the company touting its nutrition initiatives — regardless of the economic and regulatory forces driving that result – that bok choy poster taped to the wall just seems like a sick joke.
OK, rant over. Thanks for listening.