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.