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Nuggets, pink milk, and party pizzas taking the fall

I've been watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (along with a lot of you, I know) and I can't tell if my blood is boiling hotter than my tears are stinging, or vice versa. During the third episode last Friday, I was in need of a good noseblow by the end. I think it was the stunning failure of Oliver to inspire anything like interest in real food in the kids in episode two that hurt the most, and it was the chicken nugget bit that had people talking. I wrote about it: "When he showed children how chicken nuggets are made -- grinding up the least desirable parts of a bird, gloppily straining out the bones, and adding flavorings and fillers -- he expected them to refuse to eat them. Instead, after having cried 'ewww!' and 'gross!' they each asked for a patty, answering his bewilderment with: 'We're hungry!' ...

"Though part of Oliver's stunt was pure fiction -- 'Thankfully, chicken nuggets in this country are not made this way,' he clarified before heading off to cleave a carcass into pieces -- it's part of a wider movement that's calling out processed fake food by name and calling for it to be eliminated from children's diets." What surprised me was how many of the people I know (and plenty I don't) started talking about how chicken nuggets were now off their family's menu.

There's a lot not to like in Oliver's show. There are the cafeteria workers, who grumble and complain when Oliver dares to bring real chicken and potatoes in need of a peeler into the kitchen, where the comfort food comes in a box and needs only to be heated up. There are the rules that say Oliver's many-vegetable pasta "isn't a cup and a fourth" of vegetables (he has to serve fries with his healthy fare to make it up) and that every meal needs to have "two breads" even if those breads are both halves of an extremely processed, nutrition-bereft pizza crust and that schools need to have "two kinds of milk" which often means milk that's been colored pink and sugar-added. There is all that sugar, so much sugar that Oliver himself has been making special note of it. In that post on Moms Rising, he writes, "Ask a pediatrician (or a teacher for that matter) to identify the biggest enemy of child’s health and they will answer,” sugar”. You put beautiful little kids in school, 180 days of the year, from four to 18 and nearly every choice offered to them is some version of junk food."

And there's the grocery store, where the aisles are packed with sugary treats disguised as healthy food. There's the "Froot Loops" and the happy-dippy commercials stacked five solid in our kids' favorite TV shows, the ones that say cheerfully, "part of this good breakfast!" (I tell Everett, overhearing one, "you know, that's not really a good breakfast..." "I KNOW, mom," he replies.) There is the yogurt (even the organic stuff), whose makers feel it necessary to pack it with so much sugar that one eight-ounce serving is as much sugar as the AHA recommends kids have in a day. There are the "fruit snacks," the lemonade which has no lemon juice, the trail mix with so many ingredients I have to look twice to see if there are really raisins and peanuts.

There are our kids, who eat a bunch of candy on Easter or when a well-meaning aunt or uncle stops by, or we ourselves let them go crazy at Starbucks' pastry counter, and then proceed to act horribly, fighting over Froot Loops and Skittles and Petite Vanilla Bean Scones until we cover our ears with our hands and scream, "no more candy, EVER!" (Is that just me?)

In all this craziness, I'm happy to see that more scrutiny is being placed on the harmful quality of junk food, poor quality meats, white bread and the abhorrent state of the "reimburseable meals" provided in our schools. It seems hopeful. It also seems crushing: how many cafeteria ladies will have to be convinced that kids might eat broccoli if we keep offering it to them? How many hard decisions will have to be made -- no chocolate milk, french fries once a week, a re-categorization of "food" in the food stamps even -- how will we pay for it?

Changing school food, changing social attitudes towards junk food, changing the concept of corporate responsibility -- are we really letting them get away with advertising food that we know is terrible for them on children's media, so they can save money on ingredients and make more revenue by getting kids hooked? -- all this stuff seems impossible. It's easier just to change little things, what you serve for breakfast at home, the contents of your snack drawer.

You can sign Jamie's petition. You can send a note to your congressperson asking for support for Michelle Obama's ideas about limiting marketing of unhealthy foods to children. You can chat with your children's teachers and let them know that you, too, are ready to champion removing junk food and replacing it with healthful, whole foods -- I talked to Everett's teacher yesterday and was heartened with her response; she believed in it too and told me that teachers always brown-bagged it, because $3.75 was cheap, sure, but too much for that cheap food.

One thing I've asked Oliver to tell us is how, without a celebrity chef and a camera crew and Ryan Seacrest behind us, can we effect change in our school systems? I don't have his answer yet. But little stuff is easy. Cook oatmeal (sweetened with fruit and maple syrup), pancakes, fried eggs. Empty the snack drawer (dried fruit -- which you can buy at the farmer's market! -- and nuts make a great replacement for "fruit snacks" and chips and crackers). Replace your canister of sugar with a jar of honey. Don't stop for doughnuts, or scones, or cupcakes, or hot cocoa, or juice; stop for apples and strawberries. Make change one meal at a time.

FIguring out how to fit really great healthy food into my family's budget was the first step in believing we can do it for our nation. Do you know we spend 60% of our food dollar eating out? Try redirecting most of that to good whole foods and you'll be amazed; you might even end up saving money.

I'll be watching tonight as Oliver brings his Food Revolution one more episode closer to -- what? -- probably not wholesale change, but at least, a step in the right direction. I think we're really going to fix things, slowly, achingly, with lots of picky children and grumpy cafeteria workers and intractable government employees and insincere politicians standing in our way. But I think we'll get there. Let's start with the nuggets, and go from there.

first photo credit: Dusk Photography, flickr. second and third photo credit: Sarah Gilbert.


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We caught a bit of one of the episodes, but the info came as no big surprise. I wasn't allowed to eat cafeteria food when I was a kid, because it was just as gross in the 80's as it is now (ketchup is NOT a vegetable). I brown bagged it until I was old enough to go out for lunch. My daughter will do the same (minus the brown bag part). Hopefully, by the time she reaches the age when she'll be making her own choices, her palate will be refined enough to make more sensible choices and she'll have enough awareness of her own body that she'll be able to feel the difference when she eats well versus when she eats like crap.

Honestly, I don't understand why anybody pays for that stuff. I mean, sure it's cheap, but throwing some leftovers into a tupperware is free. I just don't get it.

Maybe it takes a big weird dramatic display (although somewhat inaccurate), like showing rejected chicken parts to wake people up.

I really like how he got the teacher's interest in showing her kids how to identify the different vegetables, when they hadn't even recognized a tomato!

Seems like since television came along, children have been the victim of aggressive food marketers, and it's time to help them take their power back.

I feel very lucky that growing up I had a health-food mama. Whole wheat bread, whole grains, lots of veggies, no sugary cereals, desserts on occasion. I have a taste for these foods, it's not an acquired taste, maybe an introduced taste and relationship created with real food.

I thought the show was overproduced and pretty irritating at times. It was also moving and I think his heart is in the right place. I'd have liked it much better if it weren't so formulaic. I also don't think it is the lunch ladies' fault AT ALL....this is a bigger issue having to do with much bigger players than them. I'd be grumpy too if someone came in to my work and switched things up drastically and put down what I'd been doing. I assume he'd have been more diplomatic and used some more collaborative problem solving approaches with them but that wouldn't make for "good tv".

My complaints aside I do know this show has influenced my sister-in-law to make some healthier choices for her family. It was an eyeopener for them.

Not having a school-aged kid yet, I'm not sure how good/bad things are locally. What's the school food situation like at PPS?

I'm a teacher with PPS. The good: all schools have a salad bar and there is a monthly local fruit or vegetable sourced each month - but only for one day of the month. They are trying!

The not so good: the food is still chicken nugget/pizza heavy. The vegetarian choice is often a pre-packaged Smuckers pb&j. There is still chocolate milk and many kids drink several of these each lunch.

I watched an episode of this show, and I wasn't surprised by the quality of food (have you seen the movie Super Size Me?) What surprised me was the number of cafeteria workers. At my school, we have just one - she prepares and serves to all of the kids herself. On those days where that local fruit or veggie is served, it is alot more work for her, but she also seems proud of what she cooks and I would think it is gratifying to actually cook something rather than just dump it into an oven pan straight from the freezer.

I think PPS is trying and I hope the movement continues toward healthy food

ps. I noticed Trillium Charter School sources from a different company called Organic Fresh Fingers - any comments?

Organic Fresh Fingers was removed as a lunch provider from The Emerson School because they didn't "meet" the USDA standards for a reimbursable meal.

If you go from school to school, the "salad bar" looks different. Or least that was our experience the last time we were in PPS, two years ago.

After school programs snack offerings are the same or worse. Some paid child care are even worse still. Especially at the more affordable (say LESS than your rent per month for care) providers, chicken nuggets are a staple. My daughter's taste for sodium rich foods were honed in paid child care.

I, like some of the previous posters, grew up (in the 70s) with a mom who served whole grain, low sugar options with lots of fresh produce, home grown when in season. But, honestly, I remember most of my friends ate as bad or worse than kids do now. Sugary cereal, white bread with sweetened PB and jelly sandwiches, pop, twinkies, oreos, Kool-aid, chocolate milk. None of these are new products. The difference? We were outside playing, making forts, running around almost all of our spare time. I truly think video games and cable television are more to blame than diet for the obesity crisis.

The thing that has really struck me so far in the serious was the family he is working with. They basically don't cook, ever. I completely get why we are here, the processed food is cheap, easy and tastes good. I understand why busy families (including mine) turn to these choices sometimes. What is amazing to me is the complete abandonment of effort or interest in cooking or at least putting a vegetable on the table from time to time. Maybe be I'm reading it wrong, but it seems that they have just given up.

A friend of mine teaches these classes on Bento lunch packing for kids, as well as classes on traditional Japanese home cooking. I took the lunch class a few weeks back and loved it. I've been having a blast packing cute, balanced lunches for my daughter ever since and she's eating far more of her lunches and is far more interested in what I'm putting into them than ever before. It has also made *me* far more aware of what I'm putting into them and how to keep proper portion sizes that are not overwhelming or unappetizing to a distracted Kindergardener.


Joie: I'd agree, and I'd add the Internet. I think this is partly a free range kid problem - nobody could ever let their kids roam unsupervised the way our mother did in the 70s and still be called a "good mother" in 2010.

Here's a link to a really eye-opening video about sugar. It is a pretty long one (90 min), but worth watching next time you have some down time... it made me want to go to raw vegetables ONLY for my family!!! hehe

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

I've helped out at my kids' school at lunch time four times this year and each time they've had pizza (thankfully, locally made from scratch), one and a half carrot sticks, half an apple, a cookie bigger than the size of my palm and the choice of white or chocolate milk. The lunches brought by many kids isn't that much better - I see lots of brightly colored yogurts in a plastic tube, lots of treats and salty chips.

I hope that Jamie's show will put a mass-market spotlight on this growing problem so the people who need it most have an opportunity to be educated. So many authors and producers tend to preach to the choir - this show could be the first in making a step towards change.

Trying to pick my jaw up off the floor...first, I'm "trying" to *like* the idea of PPS, but everything I read seems to paint a dimmer and dimmer picture of it. They are "trying to serve healthier food"? Why are they serving children unhealthy foods in the first place? When I send my children into the PPS, I'm expecting them to be learning life skills, values, morales, in addition to academics. That includes a healthy lifestyle (the importance of a balanced diet and exercise).

And the fact that most processed foods, esp. those targetsed for kid (YoBaby yogurt for example) are full of sugar and other ingredients that are not good for developing bodies is no shock. As parents, we are responsible for the food we purchase, bring home, and serve to our children. All it takes is a moment to read the lables. I would NEVER serve my children "Cheerios" when they could be eating "Cascadia Os" (which have no added sugar and nothing you can't pronounce or don't know where it came from). I'm already sending my kids to day care with alternate snacks/meals that "mimic" the processed food the school serves and they are totally fine with it. In fact, they prefer healthy foods b/c that is what they are used to.

At birthday parties, they polietly refuse the juice for their water. When we pass fast food restaurants they scream out "ICKY restaraunt!" and I will surely be making sure that they have NO interest in eating the school lunches - if they're not healthy. As their parent, my primary goal is to keep them healthy. Without their health, nothing else really matters, does it?

It's all about $$, which isn't a dig on PPS. The cost associated with cooking from scratch; perishable ingredients, time, man-power, etc, for all of the public schools would be unthinkable in a time when days are being cut and salaries frozen due to budget shortages. It may be cheaper, or at least comparable, to cook from scratch for a family, but for a school district? Not so much. Frankly, I prefer PPS put their budget towards teachers, classrooms, extracurriculars, councilors, librarians and the like, and if possible, have an edible garden on campus, than spend their money on the cafeteria. A healthy lunch I can and do send from home. A well-staffed school on the other hand....

I pretty much have the same philosophy as Arlingtonheightsmom, but don't need to send in snacks, thank goodness. Our daycare may not be perfect in the menu department but it is reasonable for someone who has high standards. They even get field trips to the farmer's market in season, and get to buy things they take back for snacks!

I'm cringing at what we have to look fwd to in PPS. I know it's all about money, but if you listen to the Think Out Loud on the subject, it is a minimal amount of money that most middle class parents would happily pay, and would subsidize the lower-income ones. I think it was about $0.25 or so. THere is also a lot of room for creativity to work fresh food into the curriculum. The HS in Corbett has a culinary arts program, and they also have the most successful top-tier college acceptance rate in Oregon. Trillium and other charter schools have a gardening/harvesting program (actually not sure if Trillium still does, but they used to). It would be a good component to Home Economics. As a taxpayer and parent and someone who lives with people educated in our PPS, I would prefer the schools cut their technology upgrades budget and spend the money on food and staff/teachers. Kids get more out of working with humans and the earth than they do out of tech gadgets. We all do.

My neices went to middle school in France for 6 months. The lunches were restaurant quality! But I think the cost was $5-$7 per meal or something.

Thanks so much for linking to Jamie's post on the MomsRising blog. We really appreciate it. Great post and discussion here!

Hey there, as the Organic Fresh Fingers, Inc rep - we currently have 6 schools actively receiving reimbursement for our menus. Thank you!

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