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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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Mrs. Obama Says "Healthier Habits" a "New Norm" -- But Are They?

Along with many others, I applaud the news that childhood obesity appears to have dropped an impressive forty-three percent in the last decade among those aged two to five years. It's definitely a step in the right direction. But at the same time, I have to ponder how and why we took so many steps in the wrong direction in the first place.

Recent encouraging reports from the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC have drawn praise from First Lady Michelle Obama: "I am thrilled at the progress we've made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans. With the participation of kids, parents, and communities in 'Let's Move!' these last four years, healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm."

Whether or not “Let's Move!” is to be credited is open to debate, but the program certainly focuses attention on the issue. And with no disrespect intended toward the First Lady, I would like to suggest that her “new norm” is really a return to an “old norm.”

While it is noted by researchers that the exact cause for the decline in obesity rates is “unknown,” many of them cite an increase in healthier meal plans at child care centers, an increase in physical activity among the subjects of the study, and a decrease in the consumption of soda among young children. All well and good. But my point remains: this is not “new” behavior but merely a reawakening of “old” behavior. I can say this with a degree of authority because I am old. Or at least old enough to remember when the concepts of healthy eating, physical activity, and limited ingestion of soda among our children were not considered “new.”

When and why did we allow junk food and junk beverages into our schools? When and why did we stop encouraging – nay, demanding – that kids run and jump and play at what we used to call “recess?” Who came up with the notion that children needed “choices” in these matters? I can't precisely answer all of these questions, but I have a pretty good general idea. I believe the answers lie on the doorstep of my generation, the Baby Boomers.

Remember us? With our music and our morals and our fashions and our political beliefs, we tore down the barriers of “the establishment” back in the '60s. Unfortunately, tearing down was the only thing at which we were any good. We sucked at building anything back up. Whereas our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents down through the ages had all built successively on their accomplishments and failures, we did not. Our crowning glory was the destruction of what our forebears had constructed. We were the first generation to live “in the moment.” To quote the The Grass Roots, “Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today, and don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey.” With our “love-ins” and our “sit-ins” and our “be-ins,” we were content to let the future take care of itself. And so it has, leaving many of us feebly scratching our graying heads and asking, “What the hell happened?”

Ask anybody born in the last forty or fifty years about the presence of vending machines in their schools. They'll tell you they've always been there. Nobody who has attended a public school since the '70s can remember not being able to drop money in a machine out in the hall to receive a can or bottle of Coke. Or a bag of chips. Or a candy bar. To these people, it's always been that way. It's “the norm.” Or how about those school lunches? Ask any member of “Generation X” or “Y” or whatever letter we're up to now about the choices they have always been offered at the lunch table. “The norm” has always been a junk food free-for-all. Oh yeah, there were fruits and veggies available for the nerds who wanted them, but with hamburgers and hot dogs and fries and pizza and chicken nuggets all there for the taking, who wanted that other stuff? I am well acquainted with a Gen X-er who assured me that her daily lunch in high school consisted of a styrofoam cup of French fries and a slice of pizza. She was a little weird in that she drank milk with her lunch, but soda was offered in the cafeteria. We Boomers made sure that our kids had food choices that appealed to them. We didn't care if such choices were what they needed as long as they were what they wanted. And if they didn't want to take part in physical education classes or organized sports activities or if they didn't even want to go outside at recess, well then our little darlings didn't have to. That's what we fought for in the '60s, after all, and nobody was going to tell our kids that they had to do anything they didn't want to do or prevent them from having anything they wanted to have. “Power to the people!”

This may come as a shock to some of you under age fifty or so, but there were no soda machines in schools when I was a kid. None. Period. Milk was the only beverage served at lunch and the only choices you had were chocolate or white. Or you could have water. That was “the norm.” The only potato chips or corn chips to which you had access were the ones you brought from home in your lunchbox. There were no candy bars offered other than the ones we occasionally sold for school fundraisers, and if we bought any of those we weren't allowed to eat them on school property. Again, if your mom put candy in your lunch bag, that was fine. But you had to eat it at lunch because if you got caught with it in a classroom, you were in big trouble. And the lunch menu in the school cafeteria was pretty restricted, fairly boring, and somewhat unappetizing at times, which is why I either went home for lunch or brought lunch from home. But, by and large, it was a healthy menu of meats and vegetables and fruits and dairy products. Sweets were an occasional treat, as were “junk” foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza. There was a “day” for those items, usually Friday. They were not otherwise offered as options or as a part of the regular daily menu.

When I got to high school, things were a little different. There were still no openly available soda vending machines, but if you were enough of a brown-noser you could sneak into the teacher's lounge and snag a Coke out of the machine in there. And you had to drink it in there, too. Taking it out into the hall got you a quick trip to the principal's office. As far as candy and chips and snacks were concerned, we had a canteen that opened for a couple of hours in the afternoon. The canteen was only for upper classmen and going there was a privilege, not a right. If your behavior was good and you kept up your classwork and your homework, you could get a pass to the canteen, where you could buy candy and chips and such. And only after lunch period. Lunch was lunch. Pretty much the same cafeteria offerings as in the lower grades, except the portions were bigger and the special days a little more frequent. Upper classmen could leave campus at lunch, so the local fast food emporia did brisk business. Otherwise, your dining “choices” were the cafeteria's “mystery meat” or the brown bag in your locker.

The 1960s were the depths of America's culinary dark ages. Pseudo-science and aggressive marketing had led us to believe that speed and convenience were everything and that fresh whole food was representative of the kitchen drudgery from which the “modern” cook had been freed. As a result, school food was strictly institutional. It was all frozen, canned, or powdered. The only thing fresh was fruit in the form of oranges, apples, and bananas. The cafeteria was like an army mess hall and the lunch ladies were like mess sergeants. It wasn't their responsibility to cater to your personal tastes. They were there to provide food that met your nutritional requirements. Within the confines of what was available to them, it was healthy and if you didn't want the green beans, you didn't have to eat them. But you couldn't pick from an a la carte menu; your choices were take it or leave it.

Of course, this was part of the “establishment” against which those of us born between 1945 and 1965 rebelled. Our children weren't going to be told what they could and couldn't eat like we were. Children were, after all, nothing but adults waiting to happen and as such, they had rights and choices when it came to their health and well being. If they wanted pizza and French fries for lunch five days a week, then, by god, that's what they were going to have because they were the offspring of the generation that liberated America from outdated rules and standards. If they liked soda better than milk, then let them have soda. They needed the energy and alertness provided by the sugar and caffeine in order to cope with the stresses of everyday life just like we adults did. I'm surprised we didn't install espresso machines for them in kindergarten.

And speaking of everyday stresses, we Boomers were upwardly mobile and career driven. We “cooked” suppers from boxes and cans and we certainly didn't have time to prepare healthy lunches for our kids. Or breakfasts, either, for that matter. No, it was a lot less stressful on us to just give them a few bucks and let them buy whatever they wanted at school. And Coca-Cola, Frito Lay, Hershey and all the rest of the junk food purveyors were more than happy to help provide what the kids wanted, often through sweetheart deals made with cash-strapped school systems. Enter the vending machines.

We hated being forced to run around the gym or the practice field. Unless you were a jock, PE or “gym class” was all so sweaty and unnecessary. If our kids wanted to be jocks, fine. Otherwise, they could get hurt or get their expensive shoes and clothes messed up running around like that, and that just wasn't going to happen. If they didn't want to go outside and play, then they didn't have to and the school wasn't going to make them. Those days were over for our Boomer kids. Just ask our lawyers. And besides, there were bullies out there and there were weirdos out there and there were germs and pollen and things out there that could make our little babies sick, so they were much safer and much better off sitting on their little butts inside somewhere drinking soda and eating junk food.

After centuries of established healthy behavior in which kids ate properly and exercised regularly as a part of their normal daily life, it took just one generation to produce overindulged, out of shape, unhealthy, fat kids. And so I say again to Mrs. Obama, we are not beginning a “new norm” as much as we are returning to an old one. The First Lady herself barely qualifies as a Boomer. She was born in 1964 and Generation X is generally regarded to have started in 1966. She is a cusp baby, closer to being a Gen X-er than she is a Boomer. Her husband is only a few years older. I was already in grade school when the President was born. Neither of them remember the “old days” I'm talking about. Both are generational products of a normality that was anything but normal. By the time the Obamas hit high school, Coke machines in the corridors were “normal.” So I can see where the First Lady gets her “new norm” idea, but it's really more a case of “all things old are new again.”

So kids are eating healthy food prepared by responsible people who know the difference between clean, whole foods and packaged, processed dreck. Good for them. Sometimes kicking and screaming, they are being pried away from their televisions and video games and rediscovering physical activity. Great. And, despite the weeping and wailing from the marketers of Big Soda, they are being weaned off an unhealthy product that their idiot parents and grandparents regarded as absolutely essential to life. Excellent. Maybe there is hope for future generations. Perhaps the damage my generation did can be undone. Maybe the days of hundred-twenty pound diabetic ten-year-old kids are slipping behind us. Maybe.

Welcome back to the “old norm” of healthy eating and physical activity and to the “good old days” of having a soda as a treat once or twice a week. And speaking on behalf of the Baby Boom generation that lacked the mental capacity to realize we were killing our kids and our grandkids, we're sorry.

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