Thursday, October 20, 2011

Guilty Secrets and Baby Steps

I have a guilty secret, and after I tell you what I'm doing, you might think I'm compromising my integrity.

I know I'm compromising my integrity.  But where should I draw the line?  Let me explain:

My oldest child is in grade 7, and I have been volunteering at elementary schools since he was in Kindergarten.  Much of my involvement has been in food related ways.  So I know a thing or two about how to put together a meal for a crowd of kids, and make good money at it too.  Canadian public elementary schools don't usually serve lunches the way they do in the U.S., but it is normal for parent councils to sell what they call "hot lunches" on a monthly basis to raise funds for school extras.  Over the years we have progressed from serving pop and chicken nuggets, to a variety of healthier choices.

Here is a piece the now-famous Mrs. Q (the teacher-author behind Fed Up With Lunch) published last year in a guest blogpost I wrote about what we were doing in my kids' last school:

I really loved that program, but we have since moved to a brand-new school that is much closer to our home.  This is the third school I have been involved in, and for the most part, it's great.

However, the school is only a year old and we don't have enough systems in place to offer the whole school lunches like the one you see in the guest post.  However, we do run a monthly pasta lunch for the kindergarten classes.  This is how it works:  parents pay $10 to sign up their child at the beginning of the year, and we serve a hot pasta lunch once a month for each of the ten months of the school year.  Any parent who has ever been involved in counting money for school functions will immediately appreciate the brilliant simplicity of what we are doing.  It's affordable for almost everyone (this is very important in difficult economic times), and yet, because we rely on frugal procurement, we make a decent profit too.  I buy pasta when it's on sale, we get donated canned tomatoes, and I bring in carrots, garlic and herbs from my own garden.  Usually several parents get together to make a large batch of pasta sauce in the school kitchen.  We freeze it in smaller portions and use these to throw together a very simple but tasty lunch in very little time.

Me, organizing pasta lunches for children... can you see my moral dilemma?

Both of my children are beyond Kindergarten.  This is somewhat unfortunate for them, because the program is fantastic.  For one thing, there is a big emphasis on food.  The children grow herbs and vegetables, they bake in class, and they are encouraged to explore different flavours, textures and methods. (Ed Bruske, eat your heart out!)  I used to bake no knead bread myself, and when I stopped eating grains, I brought some of my pots and pans to the school for the kids to use.

The children now bake their own no knead bread in class once a month.  These four, five and six year olds bake their own bread with confidence!  It looks pretty good and I'm told it tastes great too.  (They offered it to me, but as you know, I stopped eating bread.)

But let's get back to the hot lunch. Today I served our October lunch, which for the most part, went down very well in the kindergarten room.   I topped a bowl of noodles slathered in a delicious tomato sauce generously with grated cheese before heating the dish in the oven, just like regular parents might do at home all over the developed world.  I did add one extra ingredient, and that was chopped parsley, which I picked in my garden last night.

Now I have been a parent long enough to have a good idea about how children's minds work.  I have been volunteering at school long enough to know firsthand that children are often hesitant to eat something unfamiliar, though in a group sitting, it's usually possible to encourage them, especially if they are younger, to try a little bit, and it's not uncommon for them to realize that they like it.

There's another part to this story.  In addition to the paid lunches, we also always make another bowl of pasta for a group of older kids.  This group consists of a motley assortment of kids who either forgot to bring their lunch, or they have difficult family circumstances.  Some of the kids have behavioural issues and need supervision at lunch time.  I don't get into any of the details, but poverty is a common theme.  I feel it is dealt with professionally, and I don't get any sense that they feel marginalized by their peers for being in this group.

The feedback this afternoon from this group of kids was something I totally expected.  But I'm somewhat subversive by nature, and I already have this moral dilemma in trying to reconcile being grain-free myself, while happily feeding it to children.  So the parsley was going to be served if I had anything to do with it.

When they saw me bringing the dish, one of the girls asked if it was spinach.  They did eat it, but were less than enthusiastic about the green bits.  Give them pizza, and they will clean the plate in one go, but if it's anything unfamiliar, they aren't interested.  For example, there wasn't a single taker to even try the spaghetti squash I offered last month.

As usual, we overcatered this afternoon, and on my way back to the kitchen, I stopped into a random grade 8 classroom (yes, unfortunately the kids eat in the classrooms at their desks) to offer some "free pasta".  In no time, they had polished off the dish, and not a single kid complained about the parsley.

To me, this was a great example of how socio-economic differences play into people's health and well-being and their nutrition.   All the students in our kindergarten classes are very fortunate to be exposed to a variety of foods in class.  There is a much greater likelihood of them growing up to be open to a variety of healthier options than children who haven't had exposure to such a great program, particularly if they aren't exposed to different foods at home either.

It is clear to me as well that carbohydrate-rich meals will be with us forever.  They are affordable, easy to prepare, and deeply embedded in our culture.   Even though I don't eat them myself (and I've noticed quite a few of the teachers don't either), grains are fully endorsed by the nutrition authorities and our Ministry of Education.  While I feel I am compromising my integrity by being so closely involved in this program, I am also acutely aware that the alternatives of serving more processed foods (which is what most other schools do), or nothing at all, are both worse.

And maybe cutting out grains, for the most part, is the cherry on the nutritional cake.  Part of me wonders if processed and sugary foods aren't the bigger hurdles to overcome in our school system.

If we can score well on those two fronts, maybe there is a case to be made for serving carbs to kids, especially if they are combined with plenty of other freshly prepared ingredients that do add to their nutritional well-being.

I have to keep reminding myself these are still early days in the school lunch revolution.  Perhaps we should consider this to be a first step, and if we keep working at improving what we offer the children, we will eventually be able to tackle the third hurdle as well.

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