Our kids are obese. Our lunches are not tasty. Our attempts to make them healthy are resulting in unprecedented waste.
We are aware that our school lunch programs are getting an F.
My son Corin and I recently took a family gap year for his entire school year of fifth grade. We traveled to 28 countries and visited schools in six of them including Greece, Scotland, Iceland, Mauritius, Thailand and China. Corin attended school as an "international guest," and this included eating "locally." Being a filmmaker, I filmed the experiences we had.
Here are some of our observations.
Childhood obesity was nonexistent. The schools in Iceland use local food -- fish, scalloped potatoes -- and serve it family style so kids only take what they plan to eat. Dessert is fruit -- fresh or dried. There are no soda or candy machines in the hallway. The range of food in packed lunches is more often than not a thermos with dinner leftovers including noodle dishes, soups, stews, rice and other homemade food. There are often no janitors so the kids do the sweeping, wiping and clearing -- imagine!
Rarely did we see packaged chips and sandwiches, and never bologna or other mystery meats. The idea of a plastic-wrapped pre-made lunch hasn't even appeared in most of the world.
What I hear so often is "Well, she doesn't like that" or "He only eats white food." So many parents have become short-order cooks, making noodles for one kid and pizza for another -- while eating something else for themselves. I just scratch my head. How did these kids get here? When did "liking" trump health?
We can't simply blame the schools. Eating habits begin at home. Developing an appreciative palate doesn't happen overnight. My mother was a dietitian and she tried new recipes every week. The mandate was not to finish but to "try" everything. When Corin was a baby I put my own food in the blender so he could eat it and know the joy of many flavors. When he became a toddler, I modeled tasting by viewing new foods as exciting and fun -- instead of with trepidation and warnings like, "You probably won't like this ... so I won't put any on your plate."
We took cooking classes together both here and on the road. He gets his occasional root beer and pizza -- I'm not unreasonable. I have told him, "It's your job to put the right fuel in your body. If you happen to like it, that's a bonus." Fortunately he does like almost everything and is easy to travel with -- another reason to start early with a healthy and open approach to food.
The proof is standing before us each day in terms of health, and he sees this when he participates in school sports. He's tall and strong, and I can literally take him anywhere to eat.
A wise mom once told me, "No kid has ever starved who had good food available." The abundance of prepackaged snacks on hand often doesn't even allow a child to get hungry.
We have a saying in our house, "Hunger is the greatest sauce."
So perhaps we might need to consider allowing our kids to get a bit hungry and then presenting them with some healthy options.
The results could be surprising and contagious.
Mary Katzke is and independent writer, photographer and filmmaker. She lives in Anchorage. More on the World School photography exhibit and documentary film at www.facebook.com/worldschoolfilm.