Editorial: Kids Don’t Need Gourmet Groceries to be Healthy

By Becky O’Malley
Friday September 15, 2006

Most of the publications I read regularly (the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Nation) have had back-to-school stories carrying on at length about a perceived crisis in childhood nutrition. This year’s version is anxiety about obesity in children—a few years ago the same kinds of articles were being written about anorexia and bulimia, but this year it’s obesity. I’ll leave it to Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan to determine if the epidemiology justifies the perception of crisis, but I can’t help being bemused by the discussions of remedies in these articles, all written for the consumption of the chattering classes, though coming from various points in the left-right spectrum. 

Berkeley figures largely in these stories. The world outside the Berkeley Bubble is mightily impressed that a foundation started by local hashslinger Alice Waters is paying the tab to hire a gourmet chef for our school lunch program, who commutes every day all the way from Half Moon Bay just to minister to the benighted babes of Berkeley. It’s of course seriously unfair to comment on the success of the program without sitting in on a few school lunchrooms myself, but I’m going to do it anyway.  

As a grandmother, I’m far away from the time when school lunches were something I had to face every day. When my kids were little, the school lunch program was in its infancy, if it existed at all. It wasn’t an option for most kids, which is why the biggest success the Black Panthers ever had was their program of serving breakfasts for hungry students.  

Most kids brought their own lunches in brown paper bags. Shocking as it may seem in these food fetishist days, my kids had (and wanted) the same thing almost every day. To be completely truthful, I must confess that their father made most of the school lunches for years. As a scientist and engineer, he didn’t mess around with unnecessary frills. This is what he did: He took a loaf of sliced commercial whole wheat bread and laid it out in rows. He spread peanut butter on half the slices, jelly on the other half, stuck the two halves together, put each sandwich in a baggie and stuck the lot in the freezer. Then each day he put one frozen sandwich in each paper bag, including one to take to his lab for himself, and added fruit in season, usually an orange or an apple from the A&P. The kids bought subsidized milk in cartons at school (no soft drinks, however). That’s it. We got our green vegetables at dinner.  

And the kids turned out fine, healthy even. One’s a bit of a non-fanatical foodie, one’s a save-the-planet vegetarian, and one’s an omnivorous musician who has a cheese sandwich for lunch every single day in order to have more time for practicing.  

All the carrying on about gourmet cooking in order to tempt the precious tiny appetites seems more than a bit silly to me. I sometimes cook for my grandkids now, and I can report that children’s tastes haven’t changed much. They still want simple familiar foods cooked plainly, and not mixed together at all. Every parent has seen at least one child who can’t stand even letting different foods touch on the plate. It’s an enormous waste of time to think that spicing up the offering will make children like nutritious food better. Maybe today’s students who come from spicier cultures might like more seasoning that the mostly European-and-African-American kids who were in school with our kids, but salsa and hot sauce on the table can do a lot. 

I’m amazed that the celebrity chefs featured in the articles (one was in New Jersey, I think) weren’t briefed before they were hired on the politics of the commodity program. It’s a huge problem for school lunches: The government buys up farm surplus food and re-sells it cheap to bulk up school lunches, largely for the benefit of agribusiness. But it’s by no means a new problem. “Should the government continue to support farm prices?” was my high school debate topic in the fifties. No amount of clever cuisine can disguise that rubberized cheese which was created to support dairy farmers. 

The place the Berkeley schools ought to look for pointers on cooking nutritious food for groups on a budget are the programs in town that have been doing it successfully for years. We had dinner on Sunday with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s quarter meal program, which feeds the homeless on a regular basis, and the cooks, Jamie Boreen and Todd Fortune, served a simple but delicious dinner featuring a big helping of fresh green beans, a small piece of nicely cooked tender chicken, rough-mashed potatoes and both green and fruit salads. Granted, it was a company meal, and daily fare may not be as fancy, but any child I’ve ever known could relate to that kind of cooking. The meals served at the New Light Senior Lunches are another example, with menus, standards and recipes meticulously conceived by former Councilmember Maudelle Shirek and now executed under the supervision of long-time community activist Jacqueline DeBose.  

Produce which is both delicious and organic (though expensive) is widely available in Berkeley, and should be used for school lunches when possible. But there’s a truism I remember from the software development world that should be considered: “The Best is the enemy of the Good.” Insisting on offering ideal food to kids means missing opportunities simply to improve what they eat. Supermarket house-brand frozen green beans, if the price is right and the kids will eat them, might be better than arugula pizza with balsamic vinegar, which is more expensive, has fewer vitamins and is often left on the plate.  

Once I overheard a couple of junior high girls at the Farmer’s Market talking longingly about a pile of rosy pears which were $3 a pound, or about 75 cents each. “They’re organic, and I know they’re really good,” one girl said, “but I only have 35 cents left today.” I didn’t push my way into their conversation to tell her that she could buy very nice pears at the supermarket for $1.50 a pound, but I wish I had. Eating a well-washed non-organic pear is better than not eating a pear at all, a point for the Berkeley Unified School District and the Chez Panisse Foundation to ponder.  

—Becky O’Malley