We're Different– Together.

High Price of a Free Lunch

It’s awesome that public schools and enrichment organizations want to do their part promote healthy eating habits for kids and families. That’s why many schools offer free or reduced-price lunch to qualifying students.  And I’m guessing that’s why the local community pool was handing out free lunches to kids 18 and under all summer.

Even grown men love free stuff, so when my best friend and I heard “free lunches under the pavilion” we fished our kids out of the lukewarm water/chlorine/urine mixture, and power-walked to the pavilion with three dripping kids in tow. We pushed them in line for the free goods, then sat down to examine the booty:

  • hot grilled cheese on white bread (the cheese was awesome, but it was definitely a few stages removed from real cheese)
  • Baked Hot Cheetos
  • plastic baggy of cucumber slices
  • plum
  • chocolate or regular milk

Clearly they’re going for a “healthy” lunch, but this is a recipe for becoming a skinny-fat vegetarian.

Throw in Some Token Veggies, and We Can All Go Home With a Clear Conscience

I’ll start by saying that at least they’re getting kids to eat a real meal. It’s a start.

Unfortunately, the brown box was basically a carton of tokens and compromises. Throw in a few obligatory veggies and fruits, and then give the kids sort-of-what-they-want with the grilled cheese and baked Cheetos. And what the heck is it with kids and hot Cheetos?

Most of the kids didn’t eat the cucumbers and plums. The hot Cheetos and grilled cheese are nutritionally bankrupt, and perhaps even harmful. Real Cheetos and a hamburger wouldn’t have been much worse. At least a hamburger has some protein. I know a lot of people are under the assumption that baked is better, but changing the way you cook something does not change the basic composition of the food. Baked crap might not be as bad as deep fried crap, but  the end of the day, you’re still feasting on feces.

White bread on the sandwich, enriched wheat or corn on the Cheetos, and fake cheese. Veggies that no one eats. How about some protein? How about some healthy fats? Even if a kid ate the entire lunch, he/she’d be starving in no time. All those processed carbohydrates get converted to sugar, they’re not used as fuel so they’re stored away, and the poor kid is hungry again, snacking on low-fat Oreos, because those have to be better for you, and hello obesity. Give the kids some real fuel!

And here’s the worst part: Even though most kids didn’t eat the food, they’re getting a message that this is a “healthy” lunch. The only, I’ll repeat it: THE ONLY redeeming part of this lunch were the fruits and veggies. But kids are probably left thinking that this sort of garbage is the foundation of a healthy diet.

Poop Is Poop

I’m being a big complainer, so here’s what might improve the situation. First off, people need to know that white bread and baked chips are absolute trash. If you want to enjoy yourself, get the real thing. Have a donut from Krispy Kreme. A chocolate chip cookie from the bakery. Yes, donuts and cookies are garbage also, and that’s why we don’t incorporate them into our day-to-day meal plan. Most sandwiches and baked goods fall into the same category: junk food.

Kids need to know that food is awesome–when we make the right choices, it tastes great and is actually good for us. Here’s how I’d revamp the lunch:

  • turkey rolls with carrot or some sort of veggie shavings in the middle OR burger OR turkey/ham/beef/peanut butter sandwich on a whole wheat bun
  • packet of sunflower seeds, peanuts, cashews, or trail mix.
  • fruit
  • vegetable
  • desert–make it a good one.

And make sure kids know IT’S A DESSERT. It’s not good for you. It’s an exception. But if the rest of the meal is nutritionally dense, a chocolate chip cookie or an ice cream sandwich isn’t going to kill you. But stacking a non-fat ice cream sandwich with baked chips and a hot pocket is a recipe for ignorance and obesity.

I’m thankful for the opportunity provided by free lunch programs, but the ones I’ve seen are squandering a valuable opportunity to reinvent the way kids (and adults) understand food and nutrition. We’re not doing them any favors by offering less-lethal versions of toxic food. Give ’em the truth. Dessert is desert. Crap is crap. Nutritious food is nutritious food. No half-baked substitutes.

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