Pity the poor Chicken Nugget Basket, Whole Kernel Corn, Fruit Jello, and other stalwarts of the school lunch menu. Everyone from Michelle Obama to Time magazine to the nation’s retired military leaders is tossing Tater Tots at school lunches for being at the (great big) bottom of America’s childhood obesity woes. Celeb chef Jamie Oliver even has a new TV show, Food Revolution, in which he tries to try to get the schoolkids of Huntington, West Virginia, to see the errors of their glaze. And the Inky slapped more, um, fat on the fire with a commentary this week by nutrition researcher Neal Barnard, the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who’s pushing the Healthy School Meals Act in Congress, intended to put more fruits, veggies and whole grains on Junior’s current pizza/burger/fries-laden plate.
Well, the crap on Junior’s plate is downright wholesome compared to the lunch Nazis’ reasoning. Kids are in school for one meal out of three for 180 days a year. That means they eat 16 percent of their total annual meals there. So even if those meals are fat-filled, salt-encrusted horrors, they’re a minor part of a kid’s overall food intake. Wait, wait, the Nazis scream—what about modeling good nutrition for kids? Shouldn’t schools do that, since parents don’t seem willing or able? Where are these same people when we’re talking about sex education in schools, can you tell me?
Common sense says you can lay however many tofu stir-fries you like on that cafeteria tray; outside his eight hours in school, Junior’s gonna be bombarded by a world in which Burger King’s expanding into brunch, KFC’s latest sandwich features bacon and cheese nestled between two slabs of fried chicken, and Taco Bell thinks we need Fourth Meal, because the three we have just aren’t enough. Hell, the only place he’s safe from SuperSizing is at school.
Barnard writes that school lunches are “ground zero in the war against childhood obesity.” Uh-uh, Neil. Ground zero is the giant corporations that are more than willing to push Americans’ sorry-ass impulse control all the way to an early grave. The only reason everybody piles on the school lunch is because it’s something we have a shot at being able to change and control. The real differences won’t come until we hit those corporations where it hurts—not just with a sugar tax, but with salt and fat and cholesterol taxes, too. And while we’re at it, let’s outlaw the drive-thru. If I’ve got to have that Angus Bacon & Cheese burger, at least make me walk to the counter for it.
SANDY HINGSTON is a Philly Mag senior editor.