Government Cheese

Because They Are Poisoning Us

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Food Fight in the School Cafeteria

It certainly isn’t news that America’s public schools serve unfavorable food in their cafeterias, nor that many offer vending machines selling crap. In need of the extra income, many schools have resorted to installing fast food franchises right in their lunch lines. Do we really want a lunch menu that feels it must compete with fast food outlets and junk food machines?

Competition is healthy, of course, but parents need to enjoy a monopoly when it comes to feeding their offspring. Is the Free Marketplace the ideal laboratory for the social experiment we call our future? As our society increases its access to fast, cheap, garbage chow, it is time for parents to reclaim the public schools as one of their children’s few remaining nutritional havens.

True Story:

When I visited my son’s middle school last year for a band concert I was appalled at the hand-scrawled sign taped to a soda machine in the lobby of the building:


Imagine my relief at the assurance that the youngsters were only allowed to drink Coke before 7:30 AM!

Sometimes the junk slips past the hall monitors in less obvious ways. This article by Andrew Stark in Policy Review discusses the strings attached to the money from which many schools benefit through private advertising. Each morning millions of children in 12,000 schools are a “captive audience” to the closed-circuit cable magazine “Channel One”. The ten-minute daily cablecast has replaced those morning announcements that greeted most of us through that brassy squawk-box.

The controversy, Stark explains, is in the fact that the teen-oriented cable show contains two minutes of commercial time which is sold to sponsors who know they can reach a teenage market that spends 57 billion dollars of its own money annually. Spots peddling everything kids buy, like sneakers and cereal, video game systems and high-carb drinks, are disguised as current events human interest pieces and pseudo-educational science experiments.

Schools benefit from what is a reciprocal deal: Channel One provides the free television monitors and satellite dishes, and the ten minutes of infotainment, in exchange for two minutes’ of the children’s attention, of the teachers’ time, of the classrooms’ integrity. To most schools, famously strapped for valuable supplies, this means $17,000 worth of free A-V equipment, and to many teachers, a welcome 12-minute break in their lessons.

But something is kind of creepy about the arrangement. What would Orwell say? It’s all a little Big-Brothery, don’t you find? Would you accept this arrangement at home? “Let us pump free cable TV into your living rooms. We’ll supply the TV, the cable, the entertainment, and, oh, yeah, a couple commercials too.”

Certainly, there are few school systems that would not benefit from the free equipment. Stark also describes how poorer schools accept Channel One at a rate six times more than wealthier systems do. And there are few American schoolchildren who are not exposed to ten times the amount of commercial broadcasting at home.

School is Supposed to be Good for You

But the point is that school time should be different than after-school time, and different from free time at home. Schoolwork is different than the chores our kids are expected to complete at home. And school lunches ought to be different than what a teenager would eat at the malt shop after school.

School cafeteria chefs need to cook more like cafeteria chefs and leave the chicken nuggets and French fries to the shopping mall food courts.

If you were competing with MTV for your teen’s attention, you wouldn’t be evenly matched. Nor would your parental advice stand any chance against your kids’ I-Pod. So why would you expect a fair fight if your child was given the opportunity to choose between what you were serving for dinner and what he could buy with his allowance at his favorite burger hang-out?

Is there a such thing as a parent who makes a pot roast or a casserole every weeknight, dishes it up, and then offers it to her children along with the option of KFC popcorn chicken or a Big Mac? Do you prepare a fresh garden salad from scratch, top it with a grilled salmon filet, and then hold it over your family’s dinner table with a Monty Hall-like offer, “Now, Junior, you can take this healthy meal I’ve prepared myself OR trade it in for the Wendy’s Value Meal Carol Merrill has behind Door Number Two.”?

Or would you install a Pepsi machine in your kitchen, or allow a candy rack on your sideboard, and offer your family the choice of chocolate, soda, or chips instead of your homemade meals?

This is exactly what our schools’ cafeterias do on a daily basis. More wholesome, if somewhat unappealing, balanced lunches are served in the same space as pizza, corn chips, and chocolate bars. Cola nuts, un-cola nuts…Will you choose wisely?

Time For A Quiz, Class

Kris Axtman of the Christian Science Monitor asks,

Given the choice for lunch, most children would choose:

A. M&Ms and a Diet Coke.

B. Meatloaf and steamed carrots.

'Duh,... That’s a no-brainer.'
(CSM, May 16, 2002)

The story celebrates Elaine Hime, a Houston mother, and my new hero. When she learned her son Jackson ate only chocolate and soda for lunch every day, she started running a twenty-dollar cafeteria tab from which her seventh-grader could deduct his lunch money, only for “ordinary food”. This is a wonderful parent.

Margo Wootan of the bloated Washington PAC called the Center for Science in the Public Interest explains that 98 percent of high schools in the U.S. are forced to exploit their students’ weakness for junk food-stocked vending machines, the profits from which are spent on supplies like sports equipment and band uniforms, books and computers.

98 percent! Think of that. Have you ever accomplished a success rate of 98 percent of anything you attempted? When’s the last time a high school enjoyed graduating that majority of its students? Imagine even a 98 percent attendance rate! Our schools can’t seem to pass 71% of their students, but they’re batting .980 in the sugar series! Three-fourths of middle schools, and nearly half of our elementary schools also have candy and pop machines.

Ms. Wootan, Part of the Problem

“We recognize that schools are facing financial pressures,” concedes Wootan, “but it would be very shortsighted for us to fund our schools at the expense of our children’s health.”

Waddya mean ‘would be’?! Don’t use the subjunctive mood with me, lady! It is shortsighted.

It is criminal. It is not something we would suffer in our own homes, and it is not something we should allow in our schools’ cafeterias.


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