Chicken nuggets and school lunches

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(Host) This is national school lunch week, and commentator Vern Grubinger has been thinking about what his kids eat, and why.

(Grubinger) Behold the chicken nugget. Nature’s perfect food, says son number one. “Look, they’re golden brown, bite size, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside!” Son number two wonders, “Daddy, what are chicken nuggets made of?”

“Well, chicken I suppose, I mean… I hope. Let’s look it up.” We surf the net. “Yup, says right here, chicken patties, wow, 16 grams of fat per serving!”
“Don’t be so negative, Dad. They serve them at school, and they taste good!”
“They’re actually pulverized poultry pellets – still wanna eat ’em?”
“Gross! Why do grown-ups have to wreck everything?”

And so concludes today’s nutrition lesson. Helping kids eat well is easy the first few years when parents control what goes in their mouth, other than small household objects. After that, it’s birthday parties, meals with friends – and school lunches.

At home, we try to eat healthy food: fresh local vegetables, whole grains, no artificial stuff. But weekday lunches are out of our control. Hot dogs, French fries, canned fruit, and yes, chicken nuggets. What’s a granola-lovin’, tofu-totin’ Dad to do?

Well, I don’t blame the schools. They’re trying hard with the money they have. The 47,000 school lunches served every day in Vermont cost an average of $2.15 apiece, and only 42% of that is for food. What kind of a lunch can YOU make for a buck?

These cheap lunches are due in part to the national school lunch program’s low reimbursement rate to schools, and nutritional requirements that don’t emphasize freshness or quality.

Meanwhile, trends in child health are alarming. Obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other disorders linked to bad eating habits are on the rise. Obviously, school lunches aren’t the only cause. TV ads promote junk food, fast food restaurants serve it, and busy lifestyles discourage home cooking.

Something needs to be done. Fortunately there’s a growing interest in farm-to-school programs. These aim to improve child nutrition while enhancing local markets for farmers. They work best when linked to classroom curriculum that helps kids connect to where their food comes from.

A leading example is Vermont FEED, or Food Education Every Day, a collaborative program of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Food Works, and Shelburne Farms. So far, Vermont FEED has worked with 4 schools to show that local food CAN be brought into cafeterias AND classrooms. The USDA also has a fledgling program aimed at connecting farms and schools.

But communities don’t need a program to help them start addressing this issue. Parents and school boards can work with cooks and food vendors to encourage the use of local food, and to look for a little more money per meal if that’s what it takes. It’s a win-win investment. Healthier kids, healthier farms. They go together like soup and sandwich.

With a beak to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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