I was that mom. You know the one. The mom who snubbed the plastic tray and refused to succumb to the whole grain corn dog. I committed to send a perfect balanced lunch in a trendy blue bento.
It's okay to laugh.
It's also okay to roll your eyes.
I did a good job sending a lunch to school with my son in an old model Laptop Lunchbox. I even sent clever jokes about dinosaurs and sharks. Although I could whip up a decent lunch, I didn't know squat about the culture of food at my kid's school.
The power of social norms really hits when your child begins full-day school. My little darling started spending more time with his peers than his mom. He would complain after school that girls made fun of his carrots. He would mumble about not getting to wait in line and wanting desperately to pick out a carton of milk.
I started to understand that food for a kindergartner can bring acceptance and a shared experience—and it was an experience that he didn't get to have.
My curiosity about the power of the school lunch program peaked when I attended an EatWell@School Fundraising Luncheon and heard about how school districts were transforming their menus. They were making healthy food cool, attractive, and convenient. Students and staff could eat leafy greens and from-scratch hearty soups. I dug into anything I could read about the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. There were requirements for schools to serve fruits and veggies, more whole grains, and lean protein. If the nation was trying to make healthy normal, I should join in the cause.
I negotiated with my son. We talked through the menus each month and picked out a few days that were serving healthier fare. He was elated. I realized that due to the new standards in schools, he will never be served a shiny bag of fruit snacks on his equally shiny tray. He will be peeling an orange along with his peers.
And that my friends—that's what I wanted to see happen.
I wanted him to have shared experiences with his peers eating good stuff. I can brainwash him to love broccoli at home, but it's a relief to have it happen at school, too.
My school food education didn't stop after reading about the new lunch standards. I decided to meet the kitchen staff. After all, they are actually in the trenches making it happen. They are a group of exhausted, but tireless women who are committed to feeding children. I heard them all refer to the students as, "their kids." I listened to one kitchen manager powerfully tell a teacher to always send hungry kids to her when they missed breakfast.
I was humbled. I learned that these women have incredible power to change the face of childhood obesity and the culture of food for an entire generation. Just last year, school kitchens in Colorado participating in the National School Lunch Program served 62,166,715 lunches. That is a lot of influence.
For National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day I happily grabbed a tray and was served chicken teriyaki served over brown rice, steamed broccoli, carrot sticks, mandarin oranges, and skim milk. I marveled as I watched kids munching on carrots and eating brown rice like it was their job. The weekly menu still includes some items that make me cringe, like whole grain corndogs. However, I understand that transitions take a lot of time and resources. I can see (and taste) that our district has positive momentum and I am one happy momma.
The loud message is this: your child will be influenced by what's happening in the lunchroom regardless of your participation in the School Lunch Program. The new standards should be applauded and the professionals wearing hair nets should be kissed. Cheers to you if you're sending a balanced lunch from home. Keep at it if you enjoy it. You're also helping create an environment at school reflect health. But all of us should be supporting healthy lunchroom initiatives because the power of normalizing "healthy" will help your child for the rest of their lives. A time when they grow up and no longer take blue bento boxes, sniff, to school.
As a Certified Heath Education Specialist, mom of three Alli inspires others to make small healthy changes every day. She lives in Fort Morgan, Colo., and blogs at Don't Panic Mom.
Source for Stats: http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/pd/05slmeals.pdf
Photo credit: Alli Howe.