My son turns two this month and mealtime negotiations have begun. To his consternation, his parents have determined that “nackies”—otherwise known as fruit snacks—are not an amuse-bouche, nor are they an appetizer, nor should they in any way be construed as a meal unto themselves. Likewise, he’s been informed that his favorite glass (the four-ounce beer samplers we repurposed fit his hands best) is capable of holding liquids besides orange juice. This is all unwelcome news to Casey, who has abandoned all subtlety when it comes to expressing culinary disfavor. Kicking the plate off the table is a popular option. So is hurling his milk glass across the room. This is a sign that negotiations are breaking down.
Presumably Casey is not so demonstrative at daycare, where he eats lunch every day and which is run by the Decatur city schools. Each night when we pick him up, we get a sheet that outlines that day’s meal, and how much of it he ate. I myself never went to daycare and didn’t enjoy my first school lunch until fourth grade. I say “enjoy” because I don’t recall specifically dumping out any meals simply because they tasted bad. Not even the pizza that they slapped onto the trays each Friday. The rubbery, glistening, pus-colored pizza. No, we lined up down the hall for that stuff. Somebody once said that pizza is like sex—even when it’s bad, it’s good. If that person went to school with me, he’s celibate.
At any rate, since reading Deborah Geering’s article in this month’s issue on the effort to feed students more locally grown produce, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my son eats when he’s in the care of the institution that we pay to enrich his mind and body. The big picture is depressing. In early December, the New York Times ran an essay by investigative reporter Lucy Komisar, who reported that of the $1 billion in commodities that the Department of Agriculture distributes for free to school districts—chicken, potatoes, etc.—about half that amount is turned over by the districts to food processors, who transform it into chicken nuggets (yum!) and french fries, and then sell those back to the districts at ridiculous prices.
Last fall the companies that make much of the slop that is passed off as food in school cafeterias banded together to protest a Department of Agriculture proposal that would do such draconian things as require more fruits and vegetables and limit starchy vegetables to once a week. Even for an institution as cravenly cynical as Congress, our elected representatives’ cave-in was breathtaking in its fecklessness. So, as Komisar writes, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce on pizza will continue to count as a vegetable serving.
The news is not all bad, however. Thanks to motivated parents and school officials, there are nascent movements in Georgia to give kids healthier food, and what better food than the stuff grown locally, in a state whose number one industry is agriculture? Feeding our kids good food—and food grown within our borders—seems like common sense, no? They’ll be healthier, fitter, they’ll do better in school. I think we could all stand to use that, especially in a state that spends $2 billion a year on obesity-related health issues. So let’s hope that good work continues. My son is depending on it. Which means so am I.