The kids in Daniel's kindergarten class have a snack set out every morning to eat while they're working on projects. Every family is supposed to contribute at least one large box of crackers every month, but half (or more) of the kids in Daniel's class don't contribute, and I suspect it's because they can't afford to. Many of these children eat breakfast and lunch at school every day, which means that the lion's share of their nutritional intake is what the district provides.
This alarms me. We have a copy of the school menu posted on the fridge so that Daniel knows when his favorites are being offered (predictably, cheese pizza, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese), though he usually just brings a cold lunch from home. But every month I look at that menu and I see what some kids are eating at school every single day, and frankly, it's not great. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the lack of vegetables being served. Sometimes, vegetables only appear once or twice per week on the menu, unless you count baked french fries and chocolate beet muffins, which I don't.
Now, I know that the Madison school district is doing what it can, given tight budgets and the challenge of creating and distributing thousands of meals to kids every single day. This year they stopped offering sugar cereals and chocolate milk at breakfast. I think some kids might have complained, but it was certainly the right thing to do. Usually sandwiches and hot dogs are served with whole grain bread/buns. This is a step in the right direction. Also, menus sometimes feature produce from local farms, like carrots and apples in the fall. This is definitely a step in the right direction.
Given Governor Walker's budget-slashing to education (Wisconsin leads the nation in dollar-per-student cuts), and given the years-long tradition of terrible school lunches in this country, I don't expect big improvements in the near future. I remember some of the gag-worthy options I grew up with (tater tot casserole, anyone?), and I think Madison's doing better than that, at least.
But it's still not good enough. Good nutrition for growing children is one of my soap box topics lately. Fortunately, we have some highly respected people taking on the cause of better eating, people like Michelle Obama (how I revere her, I really do) and Mark Bittman of the New York Times. (I saw the latter speak downtown last weekend, and it was downright inspiring. The man is just so full of common sense! We need to eat more plants and way less processed food, he said. We need to make real, whole food affordable for everyone. We need to stop subsidizing huge producers of junk food and support sustainable agriculture. And so on...if the kids hadn't been so tired and squirmy, I would have stayed long enough to buy his latest book and have him sign it.)
Well, anyway. Short of winning the lottery and donating fresh produce for the entire school district every day (which I would do if I could), I can't change the lunch menu, and I certainly can't convince everyone to eat better. I can, however, offer some decent snacks for my son's kindergarten class. Think globally, act locally, y'know. So because many children in this classroom can't afford to bring snacks, and because so many of the snacks they have are highly processed foods (like crackers, understandably), I'm going to try to bring something whole and healthy once a week from now until the end of the school year. This morning, for example, I washed two quarts of organic strawberries and sliced a loaf of homemade bread for the class. I was afraid the kids might think it was a little weird getting slices of bread instead of townhouse crackers, but later in the morning I got an email from the teacher saying Thank you, The kids loved the snack, and hardly a crumb was left. It was encouraging. Next week I think I'll bring cornmeal muffins and apple slices.