Monday, September 17, 2012

Food, Glorious Food!

Just picture a great big steak --

Fried, roasted or stewed.

Oh, food,

Wonderful food,

Marvelous food,

Glorious food.

'Please, sir, I want some more'.

Ya want grass roots?  Ya want righteous indignation? Ya want claw marks down your face and the chance to be prey?  Just step up to a mom and tell her you know what's best for her kid.  I double dog dare ya.

But that's in essence what the First Lady of the United States of America and the Department of Agriculture have taken on with the guidelines now in place for the school lunch program.  Sure, they have good intentions: the same type of patronizing paternalistic impulse that used to be called "Victorian".  If Charles Dickens were to take on the school lunch fracas, he would surely set the Administration officials at the head of the dining hall in  the famous scene in his novel Oliver Twist.  The young boys in the work house are fed naught but "three thin meals of gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays."  They are so ravenous from near starvation that one boy finally hints he may eat his bunkmate.  After this declaration, the boys draw lots and Oliver is elected.  I remember the scene from the 1968 movie clearly: young Oliver walks timidly, solemnly to the portly, no, corpulent master, holds up his empty bowl in his two hands and asks,

'Please, sir, I want some more.'

This is a common enough request for parents and grandparents of school age children.  My kids would hardly drop their backpacks by the door before rummaging for sandwich fixings in the fridge, or pouring a big glass of milk, or scanning the countertop for telltale signs of cookies.  Breakfast was early for country kids with chores to do and a bus to catch; even though I knew by reputation and my own experience that the cooks at tiny Westboro prepared delectable lunches, I wasn't surprised by a desire for stopgap measures between lunch and supper.

But this situation is different. My grandson, who sometimes has to be pried from bed, has taken to setting his own alarm so he can make a peanut butter sandwich to take to school.  Anecdotal evidence abounds on the pages of Facebook and conversations between moms whenever they chance to meet.  Disclaimers from beleaguered cooks and school administrators lay the blame at the doorstep of the Department of Agriculture; 'if we don't comply, we lose funding!' is the reply to all those parents of all those would be Olivers.

Let's remember a few basic tenets.  First of all, school lunches were devised by government way back in Harry Truman's administration as a response to the large number of young men rejected for WWII service due to diet related health problems.  Over the years, school lunches , breakfasts, and milk service have been expanded to ensure public school children had adequate food and satisfactory nutrition.  The underlying assumption is that most parents take care that their kids have enough to eat and try their best to feed them healthful meals.  But some kids don't get enough; school breakfasts and lunches should fill the gap for these kids and fulfill their energy needs so they can learn .

But now the school lunch program wears a badge and carries a billy club.  ''Thou shalt only consume these calories from these sources and no more!", is the commandment carved above the cafeteria doors.  Forget about the bigger than life sized sports figures and celebrities sporting fake frothy milk mustaches pasted on the wall(Got Milk?): while we baby boomers bolted three cartons a day, today's kids get one cup max.  

Yes, kids need to eat healthy; but today's fixation with obesity will not be solved by curtailing the cafeteria plate.  Whether 5 or 15, active children will not overeat on school lunch fare.  After all, the folks behind the counter are not serving up potato chips and ho-hos.  Kids don't require that much variety; I ate a summer sausage and Swiss cheese sandwich every day of my elementary school career despite the varied offerings of the Orland Park school cafeterias. Kids are not even that picky about quality; after all, cafeteria food is mass produced, not hand crafted, not like Mama makes.  It is more akin to the Three Bears: too hot, too cold, too hard or too soft.  Pretending that school kids will go on  a hunger strike without artisan herb loaves, hand pressed cheeses, and hand patted tortillas is folly.  The kids I know often refuse their crust,and prefer their cheese smooth, shiny and wrapped individually in plastic.

No, what kids do notice is quantity. Let us remember that the boys at the parish house did not reject their gruel, as thin, tasteless, colorless, and unappetizing as it was.  No, they braved punishment and flouted the system just to have enough: 

'Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!'

"There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.
'For MORE!' said Mr. Limbkins. 'Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?'"

Allotment?  Is that really what school lunches are all about?  Are cafeterias in school houses all across our country now to resemble the poor houses of Victorian England to their young patrons, even while the lawgivers and administrators who make the rules envision a cornucopia of fresh greens, whole grains and tiny 2 oz. portions of meat or meat substitute? Opinion makers lobby for free range poultry and unchained pork....but growing kids get only so much and no more, even though the foods ladled out have to run a gauntlet of regulation.

"The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; "

'Someone has been tasting my porridge and has eaten it every bit!'

No comments:

Post a Comment