Marion Nestle recently posted a story on her blog about Walmart promising to support healthy food by doing things like marking the packaging with labels, and making healthier foods less expensive than junk foods. It's worth the read. And I think it's good that big business is involved in the discussion and possible solutions.
At the end of the piece she wrote: "I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice."
Which reminded me of something happening in Edie's school. New York State's Eat Well/Play Hard program comes to her class every few weeks to talk about eating better, learning about vegetables, and playing rather than watching TV. The program is about teaching parents, as well as, kids.
The program is designed for schools where 50% or more of the kids are eligible for free or reduced fee lunches. To give you an idea, our school in East Harlem doesn't even have reduced price lunches. Everyone is eligible, which goes to show you the level of social and economic diversity inside the building.
But the program has pissed me off right from the start.
It was the little things at first. They sent home recipes for people to try. To inspire them to cook at home. Simple home-cooking stuff, that doesn't have any salt in it. No salt. Their Lentil Spaghetti Sauce was nothing but lentils cooked in a jar of store-bought sauce. No herbs. Just blandness. The Quick and Tasty Onion Soup was seasoned with onion powder. There's a good chance if anyone cooked these recipes, and had to eat this for a meal, they might never try home-cooking again.
And the forms we had to fill out. One question said this: How confident are you that you can offer fat free or low fat milk to your child? They are very big on convincing parents that milk is the big offender in obesity. David scribbled into the margins this answer, "Fat free products are unhealthy and unnatural. We refuse to provide them to children whose brain growth requires saturated fats."
I was mortified, but okay. I wasn't going to argue with his logic. Overall, we felt the program was probably lacking funding, they were doing their best...what could it hurt? I mean, I'm doing real cooking with the kids. They know what it means to make food from scratch. It'll balance out. That's what I thought. Until last week...
That's when I saw a man setting up a snack table in the cafeteria for the kids at dismissal. A man from Eat Well/Play Hard. He was putting out little bowls. Another mom pulled me over to see what was going on. He told us that he was putting out snacks that would show kids that they can eat healthy. Great. Love that.
Know what he put into the bowls? Cheerios and Ritz crackers.
I have nothing against these two products and my kids have eaten both, obviously. But this is tax-supported state program trying to make a point about educating kids and adults about what's healthy, and what they are saying - the message they are sending - is that processed food is a healthy snack.
Kids and parents already get that message everyday, everywhere they turn, particularly poor families. That's why Walmart's decision to bring down the price of healthier food is a step in the right direction - a step - and confirmation that this is the real problem.
But here's what we can't have: the government pushing processed food as a healthy snack or meal for our kids. It isn't. It is cheaper. It is filling. But it is not healthy. And don't talk to me about budgets and constraints, because the state should be able to do what a single mother on welfare can do. They should be able to make something healthy and tasty even if it's all from commodity foods. That is what's facing real families with food scarcity issues. So, when the state cops out, when they tell you ritz crackers are a healthy snack, when they make it okay to run to the store and buy white, processed carbs and hand them to your kid and feel like you are doing a good thing, well, that is a misuse of tax dollars and of imagination.
It has to become cool, sexy, fun to cook from scratch. It has to become economically viable. It has to feel accessible, not something yuppies do in their McMansions. We have to push recipes that people can do and win at them, without a cupboard full of spices and condiments that cost $50 before you even start the meal.
We have to not make food a lesson, one that is painful and difficult, by making kids do plays about vegetables and memorize facts on zucchini. We have to not wait for the government to get it right. We have to be cooking for and with our kids. We have to be in the classroom, (and in our kitchens at home), with our pots and pans and our bouquet of herbs and all the cutting and the dangerous knives and the death-defying peanut oil bubbling in the wok. We have to use salt and butter and cream and lard and all kinds of cheese. We need to take measures into our own hands. We cannot wait for Chefs Move to Schools. We must be our own advocates.
It's not sexy setting up a cooking station for a bunch of four year olds, and watching them hurl flour at each other, nor is easy to tote all the ingredients to the school, pay for all the supplies, engage in multi-step cooking projects with kids who don't have the emotional maturity to sit still for longer than 10 seconds and believe me, no one is giving out awards or cooking show contracts or even respect for doing it.
But the benefits are huge. And they are about food, but mostly the bigger stuff, that creating food begets relationships, friendships - you can really bond with a kid when your latkes get burned to a crisp or your pork dumpling, your masterpiece, caves in on itself, and you have to bolster each other and try again. You learn patience waiting for that ever-loving water to boil. You learn that food doesn't have to be perfect or camera-ready to be meaningful. You learn that cooking is unexpected, anything can happen, so it appeals to kids seeking comfort and kids seeking danger. There are lots of lessons here, but the big message we should be sending is that cooking is cool and do-able and we have to do that by being there. Not just once, but over and over again.
In Lucy's class the kids are working through a Jim Lahey book. They make a bread or dough every day. Not just once or twice as a special project, but as a matter of practice. For Lucy, baking bread is a quotidian act, something as easy and as common place as toothbrushing. It is a part of her now. She likes it, but it's not special. It's her way. That is real change.
If we can do that, create that kind of change, we will not need Eat Well/Play Hard and it's Ritz crackers.
Additional Note added 1/22/11: Today Edie came home and told me she cooked in her class (with the Eat Well/Play Hard people) and tried and ate peppers. Her friend said it was peppermint, but Edie assured me they were peppers. So, I think the program inside the class is working to get kids to try veg. This is good news. This doesn't completely negate the cheerios situation in the cafeteria, but it makes me feel better.