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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Chicago School Bans Home Made Lunches

You've Got to Be Kidding, Right?
Whatever you think of Jamie Oliver's “Food Revolution,” the guy's on the right track in attempting to focus attention on America's abysmal diet, especially regarding nutrition in schools. But instead of shining his spotlight on Los Angeles, where he was recently shut of of the school system by local authorities, maybe he should have visited Chicago. One school there, Little Village Academy, seems to think it has the answer; no more homemade lunches.

Yeah, you read that right. According to a Chicago Tribune report, the idiots in charge of the West Side elementary school have decreed that students are not allowed to pack lunches from home. Unless they have a medical excuse, they must eat the food served in the cafeteria. The principal, Inez Carmona, says it's all about protecting students from their own unhealthful food choices. As quoted by the Tribune, Ms. Carmona opines, "Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school. It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom). It's milk versus a Coke.”

Okay. Do I start with, “Get out of my kid's personal life and let me make the parenting choices,” or do I go with, “What are you, nuts? Talking about quality and institutional food in the same breath?”

For as long as schools have been serving lunches, students have been complaining about them. “Mystery meat” ring any bells? In a photo accompanying the Tribune article, one poor kid is seen sitting in front of a lunch tray containing an unidentifiable food substance. He has his hands over his face. Now, whether he was reacting to the photographer or to the meal is subjective, but the closing paragraph weights the evidence a little when it states, “dozens of students took the lunch but threw most of it in the garbage uneaten. Though CPS has improved the nutritional quality of its meals this year, it also has seen a drop-off in meal participation among students, many of whom say the food tastes bad.”

When it comes to making food delicious and appealing, school kitchens historically rank right up there with hospitals and prisons. That's why kids bring lunches from home to begin with. And, as Jamie Oliver discovered in Los Angeles, many schools don't even have kitchens anymore, opting instead for the cost-saving measure of having everything prepared in a central location, then shipping it out to the individual school cafeterias where it is reheated and served. Yummy. Reheated “mystery meat.”

Ms. Carmona says she created the “no homemade lunch” program after observing kids on field trips bringing sodas and chips for lunch. And to that I say, “shame on any parent who sends their kid to school with such a lunch.” Those are the same kids who are probably getting microwaved “Spaghetti-Os” for supper. But, hey, have you seen the “healthy” alternatives most schools are offering?

When the AP picked up the Tribune story, they ran it with a photo of a student lunch taken in Gleed, Washington. Mmmmm-mmm! A processed hot dog on a processed white bun served with plastic processed cheese and a portion of processed tater tots. Oh, and there were some carrot sticks. There you go, Ms. Carmona. It's all about “the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom).”

In an effort to restrict “unhealthful food choices,” some schools – run by intelligent people in touch with reality – have chosen a different alternative and have taken a giant step backward.

When I went through the public school system in the 1960s, I had two choices at lunchtime; I could eat whatever it was the school was serving or I could bring something from home. That was it. Well, I actually had a third option; I lived a short walk from the elementary school and sometimes went home for lunch. My mom would have a nice repast laid out for me when I arrived. I'd have about fifteen minutes to eat and then I'd head back to school. Unfortunately, in today's society that scenario is just a dream left over from “Leave It to Beaver.”

The point is, unlike today, there were no vending machines in any of my schools, whether elementary, junior high or high school. There was a student-run canteen at the high school that sold candy bars and chips, but it was closed during lunch hours. And if you wanted a soda, the only way to obtain one was to be on really good terms with a teacher who might be persuaded to sneak you one from the building's singular soda source located in the teacher's lounge. Many schools desirous of limiting the availability of junk food have returned to this old-fashioned paradigm.

I don't think snack and soda machines have a place in any school. I will grudgingly exclude from the discussion high schools and teenagers, who, by and large, have adult-level privileges and access to cars and money and quik-stops and fast food joints, but I think there should be criminal penalties for installing vending machines in grade schools. Why not just give the kids guns and matches while you're at it? “Gee, my mom gave me two dollars for lunch. Should I have meatloaf and milk or a candy bar and a Coke?” The only way to limit a kid's “unhealthful food choices” is to limit a kid's “unhealthful” food options. If you set something on the table at home and your kid doesn't want to eat it, do you have a snack machine in the hallway where he can get something he likes better? Get the coin-operated processed garbage vendors out of your school if you want to make a real difference. Playing the “old fogy” card here, “If it was good enough for my generation...”

Under the guise of “protecting students from their own unhealthful food choices,” Ms. Carmona is also “protecting” them from the healthful food choices made by concerned parents who prefer to make tasty and nutritious lunches for their kids. I mean, when I was a kid, you could wrap things up in aluminum foil, wax paper, or plastic wrap. Then it was into either my Roy Rogers lunchbox or a brown paper bag. Have you seen what kids can tote their lunches in these days? Lunch doesn't have to be PB&J and a little bag of chips anymore. You could throw a meat, two sides, and a dessert into one of those compartmentalized, thermally insulated bags with custom made air-and-water-tight plastic containers. Kids these days can have gourmet leftovers for lunch.

You'll notice, though, that I said “concerned” parents. There's the real problem. It's not the mom or dad who gets up early to prepare and pack a healthy lunch or the parents who make one up the night before and stick it in the refrigerator. No, it's the ones who buy cheap, packaged, processed crap and throw it in a bag that are at fault. The “EZ Cheez” and “Lunchables” crowd. Have you taken a minute to check a “Lunchables” label? Hey, hey! There's only 340 calories in a “Ham & American Cheese!” And it contains vitamins and iron! And 13 grams of sugar and 16 grams of fat and 35 mg of cholesterol. And let's not forget 900 mg of sodium – more than a third of the daily maximum recommended level.

Worse still are the parents who give their kids a couple of bucks for the vending machines or who supply them with fast food “kid's meals.” (What with McDonald's taking over the corner gas station market, is it just a matter of time before they try to franchise the school cafeteria?)

Parents who rate convenience over quality or who pander to their kid's craving for unhealthy food are the problem, Ms. Carmona, not the ones who are packing lean meat sandwiches on whole-grain bread with fruit cups and juice drinks. And while throwing out a net that ensnares the good parents along with the bad may seem like an efficacious method of dealing with the problem, it's certainly not a very educated one.

Come to think of it, Ms. Carmona, et.al, in the overall scheme of things, it's none of your damn business what I choose to feed my kid. I know what my kid likes and what he doesn't like. I know what he'll eat and what he won't eat. I know what I want him to have and what I don't. You allow for “medical” exclusions. Fine. How about religious ones? Is your cafeteria Kosher? What about ethnic and cultural concerns? Unless you're prepared to offer a huge ala carte menu at your school so the kids can pick and choose according to their preferences, your version of The Noble Experiment is doomed to failure. What's it gonna be, lady? Unhealthy kids who bring junk food to school or hungry kids who trash your “excellent quality food” because they can't stomach it?

Instead of proposing ludicrous bans that abrogate and undermine the rights of parents, how about reading your job description and acting like an educator instead of an enforcer? Educate kids about healthy foods and good eating habits. Partner up with the “Food Revolution” or Slow Food or any of a dozen other organizations committed to effecting change through education rather than through offensively asinine regulations. Do your job and instead of teaching kids to prepare for standardized tests, teach them to make intelligent choices. That way, if I fail in my job as a parent, the kids will at least have the proper tools to enable them to do the right thing.

Bottom line: to all you Ms. Carmonas out there, go back to your classrooms and get the hell out of my kitchen.

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