Homegrown tomatoes on ciabatta bread with local goat cheese, pesto and lettuce break up the turkey sandwich routine.

Pack a lunch, feed a child for life

We started packing our children's lunch in first grade, after a year of giving the school lunch program a try.

Maybe it was the day I dropped by to eat lunch, bought a salad and bit into frozen lettuce. A teacher who always brought her own lunch saw me standing in line and said, "I can't believe you're going to eat that."

Maybe it was hearing that my kids had trouble getting a third fruit or vegetable, instead being steered to a less expensive dessert. And the cafeteria managerís big selling point, that the school lunch was the cheapest option, didnít help matters. You get what you pay for.

Above all, though, we were tired of them eating the kind of food we would never serve at home: high in sodium, fat and sugar, heavy on red meat and cheese, milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones to boost production, canned vegetables and fruit packed in syrup.

Although the federal school lunch program sets certain guidelines for school districts, it doesn't really enforce them. There are no real repercussions for districts that don't meet them, because that would mean withholding federal funds for lunch, which would leave children hungry.

Nobody wants to do that, so some schools keep dishing up the same old food: chicken nuggets, pizza, nachos with beef and cheese, burgers, sloppy joes and, at my childrenís elementary school, the Friday fat and salt trifecta: Popcorn shrimp, macaroni and cheese and cornbread. Whatís in them? More than two-thirds of a dayís maximum suggested sodium (more than a dayís worth for African-Americans, who are at higher risk of high blood pressure and kidney disease) and 55 percent of the daily max for saturated fat.

Itís great that the corn dog is made from chicken and whole grains now instead of higher-fat beef sausaged in a refined-flour crust. But itís still a corn dog.

So we pack. Today they're having homemade tomato soup with tortellini and fresh spinach, a roll, cucumbers, carrots and grape tomatoes from our garden. Last week I roasted a whole chicken and saved the meat for wraps, with grape tomatoes, pesto, lettuce and roasted eggplant and zucchini. Some weeks it's turkey sandwiches from a whole breast we roast; other weeks, they get deli meat that's not treated with additional nitrites or nitrates. Garden tomatoes on ciabatta with goat cheese, pesto and lettuce were on the menu recently. We spend more time than we'd like on preparing these lunches, but we want to make sure they get the kind of food that will teach good eating habits and set them up for a lifetime of healthy choices.

Many other parents are working to improve school meal choices, too, from their childrenís lunch boxes to whatís served in the cafeteria line. Some have started farm-to-school programs that connect cafeterias with fresh, locally grown produce. Some are working with a Whole Foods-sponsored program that offers suggestions and tools for improving lunch programs from Ann Cooper, who runs the famed Berkeley, Calif. school lunch program. Others worked with Slow Food USA to organize a national day of action with Labor Day eat-ins from Bellingham, Wash. to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In October, Congress takes up the Child Nutrition Act, which covers school meals. It gets re-authorized every five years, with money set aside for breakfasts and lunches. But this year, there could be changes. After years of studying how to work the 2005 federal dietary guidelines into school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to come out with new standards that call for healthier meals. That could also come as soon as October. Many school districts already serve meals that work in more whole grains, vegetables, fruit and lean meats than in the past. Deep fryers are out; steamers and salad bars are in.

Depending on whom you believe, the School Nutrition Association, the trade group of meal planners, may be rethinking things as well. The School Lunch Blog offers a disappointing report from this year's convention, where junk food and breaded meat dominated. The New York Times reports encouragingly on efforts by the group to reach out to Ann Cooper and other advocates of change.

I'd like to think the Times is right on this, but change is slow to happen, especially in my school district in Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta. Here, children are invited to an annual vendor fair to sample and rate choices for next year's meals. I went a couple of years ago and saw table after table of chicken nuggets -- now breaded with whole grains! -- as well as breaded, fried green beans and other foods no sane parent would choose for their child. The idea is for children to pick their favorites, thereby ensuring that if schools serve the meal, kids will eat it.

It's an interesting dilemma: Get downgraded by state nutrition program staff because kids are throwing away food uneaten, or serve them food that may not be as healthy as other choices, to avoid waste? I'd feel sorry for the school meals program, except it also lets first-graders use their lunch money to buy ice cream, Doritos, cookies and Pop Tarts.

As parents, we make choices for our children because they lack the maturity to make those choices themselves. I wish every school district in the country would serve healthy meals to children and offer no bad choices in the lunch line, especially the district my children attend. Until that happens, we'll be packing their meals.

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