Monday, September 8, 2014

Cease fire in cafeteria food fight

   Back in the '70s as a reporter for the college newspaper, I went to a faculty nutrition expert for a story about hunger in America.

   Sounded relevant, right?

   Well, "hunger" had barely escaped my lips before the professor turned the pretext of my visit around.

   Not to dismiss hunger, he said, but the nation had a bigger problem in the works: obesity.

   How prophetic he was, way back then before "low- fat" and "high-carb" were even in our vocabulary, way before losing pounds was grounds for a reality TV show.

   That prescient professor's words come to mind when I think of Michelle Obama's crusade for leaner, livelier children. She has latched onto the central health issue of our times, and good for her, and for us.

   She has campaigned with Carrie Nation vigor for healthier school lunches and the purging of junk food from schools.

  The first lady's intentions are true and her objective righteous, but something about her campaign brings me back to the initial topic that took me to that college professor: hunger in America.

  Principally, I'm concerned about mounds of celery sticks and the truckloads of baked squash going into the dumpster when kids decide they'd rather starve than eat the "healthy foods" that new federal initiatives are dishing their way.

  The first lady is defending with vigor the tight restrictions on school lunches in the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. However, reports from school cafeterias indicate a lot of students are opting for hunger rather than what's healthy.

  Critics say the standards have resulted in less participation in school lunches. As a supporter of school lunches dating back to the first steaming tray I carted to my table in first grade, this troubles me.

   Similarly troubling are reports of staggering amounts of food thrown away when children turn up their noses at it. For, what would be a nutritionist's dream can be a second-grader's nightmare.

   Sure, it's not good for children to have excessively fatty and sodium-saturated foods for lunch. It's worse, however, for them to have no food at all.

  Naturally, this has become a partisan tempest. Republicans in Congress want to jettison anything that smells of Obama, of course.

   The first lady vows not to give an inch. But she should.

   I think of school lunches a little like I think of public schools themselves: magnificent in concept, but susceptible to crippling dictates from afar.

  Against a backdrop of childhood obesity, initiatives that take away anything sweet or salutary — special-occasion cupcakes, for instance — smacks of the mentality that says it is schools alone that must solve all the social ills of our world. Get real.

    Just as teachers should not be expected to be social workers, neither should schools be expected to be fat farms.

    However, if unhealthy food is our focus, let's acknowledge the role of profit-first policies by which school cafeterias have become proxies for fast-food corporations. Those venders make big bucks dishing out fare for which the term "nutritious" is considered an affront.

    If federal guidelines can dislodge these players from the scene, then much good will have come from them, with more nutritious lunches and less profiteering at children's expense.

    Nonetheless, the first lady needs to retool her pet initiative to focus first on getting children to eat. That was the case with the school lunches I remember. They were hot; they were wholesome; they had vegetables; they had good entrees; they had dessert. Result: We returned to class without the sound of cats serenading in our bellies.

   Oh, and after lunch we had recess, something else the school micromanagers would take away to carve more time out for tests and test prep. Daily physical activity is something the first lady advocates with the same vigor; so again, good for her and us.

   What children eat day and night is a very valid concern, but it's foolish and wrong to assign to school lunch the weight of the world.

   Long-time newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:  

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