The Conservative Feminist: "Pink Slime" and the Trouble With Enforcing Healthy School Lunches

Pink slime has indisputably been served to American schoolchildren over the last few years. Now, both civilians and politicians are pushing to eliminate the stuff from school lunches.

Apr 16, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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’MERICA

My mom grew up on a diet of fried bologna and white bread and TV dinners.  She worked at McDonalds as a teenager and ate many of her meals there.  She didn’t know much about diet or nutrition, mostly because it wasn’t talked about the way it is today.  No one cared so much.

When I was born, it became quickly apparent that I was allergic to dairy -- like, severely allergic.  I was hard to feed, but I loved to eat.  My mom had to start cooking, because -- and if you’re allergic to dairy then you already know this -- there is whey protein in everything.

Now, allergy-free (a medical miracle!), I am able to look back and realize how lucky I was to have food awareness thrust upon me at such an early age.  In order to keep from dying, I had to read the ingredients on everything.  

After my mom experienced a health scare, food became even more scrutinized. She started cooking all of our meals from scratch. Preservatives and additives were denigrated in favor of fruits and vegetables and organic meats.

But here’s the interesting thing: My mom never policed what we ate outside the home. And yet even without her supervision, we hardly ever ate crap.

Nutritional awareness became ingrained in us. We would still eat fast food with our friends, but we knew it was bad for us. And since we were so accustomed to fresh food, it always made us feel sick.

Now, as an adult in charge of feeding myself every day, the awareness that I learned as a child manifests in my diet.  And it’s not because I’m trying really hard to eat healthy; it’s just because, frankly, fake food freaks me the fuck out.

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My dinner now.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a media buzz around “pink slime,” which is the ammonia-treated lean beef that worms its way into grocery stores and fast food joints and -- most alarmingly -- school lunches nationwide.

I’ve read the research, and while I wouldn’t eat the stuff, it doesn’t seem too different than a lot of the fake food that exists on our grocery shelves and in our cafeterias.

But even though I think the media-induced hysteria around “pink slime” has been a little over-the-top given the crap most people eat every day without fussing, I’m grateful for it because it gives us the opportunity to address a REAL problem:  nutrition and its relation to school lunch.

Pink slime has indisputably been served to American schoolchildren over the last few years. Now, both civilians and politicians are pushing to eliminate the stuff from school lunches.

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the sudden focus on pink slime. If we’re so concerned about what our kids are eating at school, why wasn’t there more of an outcry when, just a few months ago, the Obama administration approved school lunch regulations that allow the tomato paste on pizza to count as a serving of vegetables?

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Pizza = vegetable, right? RIGHT?

 We’ve all heard the statistics: More than one-third of American adults are obese.  17% of children are as well. Yes, you can be overweight and healthy. You’re not guaranteed to develop diabetes. You probably know someone who was overweight and lived to be 90 years old without ever even getting sick.

 

But those happy endings are the exception, not the rule. Many people in this country who are overweight or obese are not overweight in spite of their eating habits, but rather because of them. And many of those people will suffer medical consequences of their obesity.

So why isn’t nutrition a focal point in schools? The answer is complex.

First, schools are graded (and receive funding) based on test scores.  Any subject not receiving a quantifiable grade that can translate into larger funding is, rationally, relegated to the back burner in terms of attention.

This isn’t because principals and teachers are soul-sucking, money-grubbing, evil assholes. (Except for maybe my 8th grade history teacher. I still hate you, Mr. R!) It’s because our schools are already broke, and they need every penny they can get, however they can get them. And our federal government has it set up so that the way they get those much-needed extra pennies is through test scores.

Second, there is some debate around whether school lunch makes any difference at all. A recent study out of Pennsylvania State University found no link between consumption of school lunch and increase in childhood obesity. The theory is that an unhealthy school lunch is just a drop in the bucket for a lot of American children, whose entire food intake is characterized by junk food and corn-based snacks.

Third, school districts that have exhibited genuine concern about nutrition have been met with resistance and, in the notable case of LAUSD, outright refusal.  And I’m not talking about the financiers or the food lobbies here -- I’m talking about the students.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) had instituted a school lunch overhaul.  They replaced 26-ingredient hamburgers (26 ingredients! In a hamburger!) with vegetarian curry and low-fat tamales and fresh quinoa salads. They won awards, and people saw LAUSD as a model for how all school districts should treat school lunch.  

After all, around 32 million children eat school meals every day. What a change there would be if instead of “nachos” (chips and canned cheese) they were fed a vegetable-rich Pad Thai!  If instead of chocolate and “strawberry” milk, only low-fat milk was on the menu!

But the students were having none of it. In a display of capitalism that warms the cockles of my heart even as it overwhelms me with disappointment, a black market of junk food sprang up almost immediately. School-supplied entrees were trashed by the thousand-fold.  Children were being sent home for fainting because they’d rather go hungry than eat the new food.

Which leads me to my penultimate point: We’re going about this the wrong way, people. Nutritional awareness is a problem that cannot be fixed top-down.  It must be addressed bottom-up.

Forcing healthy lunch foods on kids whose lives outside of school are filled with delicious, salty, fatty junk foods is an expensive battle, and one that we’re going to lose. Even if we police the black markets and force them to eat the quinoa, as soon as they’re 16 and can leave campus for lunch, guess what they’re going to go buy?

We’re not setting up our children to manage their lives once they’re thrust into the real world --  a world in which they will be bombarded by fast food advertisements, in which there are health-food deserts, in which cooking from scratch is rapidly becoming a lost art.

I am a huge advocate for Sex Ed because I think we need to focus on giving kids the tools to manage their own lives. I am, obviously, enormously in favor of personal responsibility -- but personal responsibility is a pipe dream if we don’t teach our kids how to be responsible.

For the same reasons that I support Sex Ed, I support Nutritional Awareness programs. Because life doesn’t end when you turn 18 and stop going to high school.  It’s just beginning, and most of what you need to know in order to thrive can’t be discovered in a simple Google search. These are life skills that we’re talking about. They deserve attention.

Here are the realities:  There are a set number of hours in a school day. Schools have a very limited amount of funding (we can change that, but it will be very hard).  Kids -- especially poorer kids who are reliant on subsidized lunches -- go home to an environment where junk food is the norm.  Kids are rigid when it comes to food, and they don’t like trying new things.

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Cabbage soup!  It’s better than it sounds.

And here are my thoughts on the matter: There are some hard decisions that need to be made here. We need to seriously rethink our priorities. Any restructuring of school programs will meet with resistance, because we are set in our ways.

But we must restructure. Much of what is being taught is out-of-touch with the realities of today’s world. My littlest sister is in middle school, and she’s taking Geography. We probably all had to take Geography.  But if we want to know where something is, nowadays it’s only a Google away. Don’t know where Belgium is? Google it and you’ll get a handy map AND a history of Belgium AND current news reports on Belgium-related topics.

Knowledge of Belgium’s geographical position is a fact that is readily available. And with the onslaught of technology, these facts will become even more readily available as Internet-on-phones becomes the norm.  

Nutritional awareness is something more than just a fact.  It is an amalgamation of lots of facts that must be massaged and interpreted in order to generate a lifestyle.

And that’s why we have Sex Ed -- because lifestyles must be taught if they are to be adopted.  Facts need not be, at least not anymore.  

There will be some kids who go into careers where immediate knowledge of Belgium’s location is necessary. However, (a) those kids are few and far between; and (b) they’re only a Google away from that information, anyway.

If I were offered the opportunity to redesign our school system, I would replace fact- and memorization-based classes with lifestyle classes.  Sex Ed, Cooking & Nutrition, Shop Class, Personal Finance, Logic & Cost/Benefit Analysis, Emotional Health. These are all things that can’t just be Googled.

So these are the things that must be taught.