Growing up, I was certainly one of the lucky ones. I had two great parents, who are still married after 52 years. Except for the occasional petty disagreement, my siblings and I have had a great relationship. I also have no urges to write a tell-all book about awful things that happened to me in my youth. (My drunken uncle once bit me at a wedding once, but that's about the worst of it.) So, you may be asking, "What does all of this have to do with school lunch programs?" The answer: Everything.
In our house everything happened around the dinner table. When I look back on my childhood and think about certain moments, the important ones I recall all happened around that table. From tattling on my brother, to poking fun at my sister or my dad yelling at me to finally telling my mother that I was the one who smashed the vase. It was always the part of the day I could be myself, be open about my thoughts and feelings with the most important people in my life and not be worried about anything else. These were moments I cherished, and moments I believe that are invaluable to children. They help them grow as people, develop confidence and create community in the home--skills that last a lifetime. Unfortunately, too many children today miss out on this.
Laurie David, who sits on the Advisory Board of the Children's Nature Institute, wrote in her book, "The Family Dinner," "...imagine sitting down and connecting with your children every day in a cheerful, significant way." Not only do I imagine this for families, but I imagine it for school lunch as well. Imagine kids walking in for lunch, setting the table and sharing a meal as a family or a community--talking, interacting and eating. Or let me pose the question like this: Would you ever think of feeding your children at home in the same way that we feed them in a school lunch cafeteria? Would you have your own children line up for dinner, spoon some food onto their plate and let them eat on the sofa while playing with their cell phones? It seems like an absurd question doesn't it? You would be creating an environment of chaos, with no boundaries and nothing learned, while also creating bad habits. So why would you think that would create anything different in the schools?
Over the past 30 years, school lunch has deteriorated to an abysmal level. It's been about, "We need it done faster," "How can we do it for less?" and "We need to maximize profits." Statements like these have made it nearly impossible to feed our children anything substantial and nutritious. Nutritious--for mind and body--being the key.
When we met with the School District of Philadelphia's Senior Vice President of Food Services the first thing he said to us was, "What's wrong with school lunches? It meets all of the government requirements." Really? Not only do they consider berry-flavored Jell-O a serving of fruit, but they've also accepted that nothing close to resembling a fresh vegetable ever hits the lunch tray. This is unacceptable to me. Our children deserve better.
We want our children to learn, to be social and to be productive. We buy them books and teach them to read and write. Yet, when it comes to feeding them the energy that is necessary to make their minds and bodies function better, we put them in a line, give them a tray and slop unrecognizable food onto it. If we did not put gasoline in a car would it run? If we did not plug in a computer would it work? Then why do we expect our children to grow, be productive and flourish without the right energy going inside of them?
The key here is to establish an environment that promotes healthy eating and creates awareness, and family-style eating creates that exact environment. It's an environment where kids are not just eating lunch, they're dining. It completely changes behavior because they are interacting, learning social skills and connecting with each other all at the same time. Focusing solely on the quality of the food is completely missing out on half of the equation. Telling children something is healthy and expecting them to eat it is probably one of the more arduous tasks ever. Anyone who has children knows chicken nuggets and French fries always get a "hip hip hurray," while carrot sticks and spinach elicit a chorus "yucks" and "boos". But sitting at the table and placing all those things around them changes the game. All of the sudden you're not just shoving something healthy down their throat. You're talking, eating, engaging and connecting. You're speaking a language that they can comprehend.
To put this idea to the test, for the last two summers our foundation has launched a family-style eating program at Dream Camp in Philadelphia, which is a five-week summer program for low-income families. There are 300 children split into two separate lunches, and all of them are fed at round tables, family-style. We've taught them to set the table, clear plates, pass food and eat healthy. Instantly, behavior infractions went from 30 daily to an average of four. Same children, different environment.
When we held a parents forum to hear what was going on at home we received an outpouring of positive feedback. It seems the children were taking this program home, asking their parents to set the table, requesting to buy fresh vegetables and make the recipes they were given at camp. The children were teaching the parents!
These children have made a real connection between healthy eating and healthy living. They make better decisions about their own health, they influence their families and they are a voice for better choices in their communities. This all was accomplished over the course of five scant weeks. Imagine the possibilities of this if we did it longer and on a larger scale.
When it comes to the task of understanding why things work in the world, it seems that we pay too much attention to the grand schemes, and too little to the beauty of the simpler, obvious choices. These choices can change the world.
A little food for thought: Food can empower children. Food can inspire change. Food can create community. Food and family are the keys to a simpler healthier world.
We certainly know what makes sense, and we certainly know in an instant what feels right. (Even if we second guess ourselves at times.) If we do not inspire our children to nourish their minds and bodies through healthy eating and encourage family values, we inhibit their ability to learn and excel. We have a responsibility to this generation, and to the many generations to come to inspire a change. So, let's all sit down together at the table, and let's get started.