You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010


Monday, October 25, 2010

Celebrity Chef or Lunchbox Health

In the days when I was attending grade school, I carried a lunch to school every day.  The preferred container at that time was a metal lunch box, fashioned in basic shapes and colors, sometimes with graphics portraying animals, cars, or other objects attractive to kids.  Lunch boxes were gender specific in color and design, but marketers had not yet made the connection between TV or movies and a whole range of unrelated products.  I don't remember lunch boxes with designs from the Disney children's movies of that time.

On the inside of the lunch box was a lunch made by my mother.  Evey day the menu was different.  Many days I didn't know what the lunch contained until lunch period.  Just like students universally compare test scores, we always compared lunches.  The conversation went something like this: "What did you get for lunch?" "I got PB&J."  "I got cottage cheese and tomato."  (gestures indicating gagging.) "Do you want to swap?  I'll give you my sandwich and some chips for your PB&J."  And so it went.  Sometimes a classmate would forget her lunch.  The class and the teacher would usually find enough remnants so that all would be fed.

There was undoubtedly some inequity.  Some students had smaller, less nutritious lunches.  Some students had extras that others didn't.  In those days, nutritious mostly meant vitamins, minerals, and protein.  No one worried much about sugar, fat, or salt, and people believed a healthy lunch should include whole milk.

Two things stand out about this school lunch memory from decades ago. Aside from the merits or deficits of lunch on any given day, this represented a connection between home and school, student and parent. The medium was the message, and it certainly carried some health promotion value. The second point is that even though my mother or father were fixing one lunch for me, sometimes I didn't like what I found at lunchtime, and foods were thrown away. Fast forward to the time when most kids eat lunches prepared by a cafeteria team, and it becomes clear how challenging it is to serve up healthy meals that children will eat. 

Even as early as the end of my grade school days, school lunch boxes were going away, replaced by backpack pouches.  However, the shift from home-made lunches to school lunches is parallel to society's shift from home cooked meals to restaurant meals.  School lunches represent kids "eating out," just like adults do more and more often.  There are lots of reasons for this social change, but health promotion is not one of them.

The other day I read about an effort in the New York City schools to bring successful chefs from local restaurants into the management team responsible for school lunches. The idea is to make small steps in transforming the cafeteria menus from tater tots and chicken nuggets to something more like culinary arts.  It is an intriguing idea to see if those most expert in making food look beautiful and taste even better can work within the economic limits of school budgets and meet the logistical challenges of trying to please about 1.2 million children in the system.  The key question is whether the chefs can add value to menus, so that kids will eat more healthy foods.  Up until recently, schools have relied on sugar, salt, and fat to entice students to patronize the school cafeteria offerings.  Time will tell if the chefs can blaze a trail to prepare fruits, vegetables, and low fat protein foods that don't come in cans, and in a way that fits within the school lunch budgets.

School meals have become a tool for several community goals.  They have become an important component of farm commodity stabilization, linking farm production with the stable market of school meals, facilitated by government supervision and tax subsidies.  Of course, school meals are now an important way to be sure that all children have sufficient nutrients to enable them to succeed in school.  School lunches are also viewed as a component of the school health program:  the cafeteria as a nutrition and health classroom.  There is a fond hope, without much evidence, that it is more efficient to instill healthy eating values in school lunch rooms, rather than trying to change the eating and food preparation practices of parents and families.

It is probably not possible to return to the days of the lunch box, with the values it represented.  That train has left the station.  However, trying to mold children at school to seek out healthy meals probably won't really take hold without support from parents who have gotten the health promotion memo.  Just like schools can be helped by the chef consultants, parents and families may need assistance in assembling healthy lunches, with whatever container is in vogue.  Realistically, eating out has become a basic component of our society.  Doing it less in school or in the community will not occur easily.


cancer type said...

This is a really creative idea, Thanks for your valuable contribution!

Health Promotion Exchange said...

Thanks for the feedback.