Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Tale of Two Lunches

Lunch.  It is the poor relation of culinary creativity.  More often than not, lunch is a collection of whatever is pre-packaged in the fridge or cabinets, tossed in a bag.  It is also the stuff of controversy.

In recent weeks, I have heard a few stories about school lunch programs and most of them have made me wince.  First there was the frozen food with years old expiration dates sitting in Boston Public School freezers and storage areas.  The food, although safe, has lost much of its appeal, flavor and nutritional value.  Rather than tossing this stuff, the school district administration gave the food to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections...I guess those folks don't require as much daily recommended nutrition as the kids...hmm.

Next I heard of improperly stored food in Westford.  Apparently rats and mice got first dibs on the school lunch program there...Bags of rice, flour and other dry and canned goods were being stored in a dilapidated building that the Superintendent of Schools and the Director of Food Services didn't know existed.  Despite a suspicious outbreak of intestinal illness at one elementary school, the students in Westford are not in any further danger.  I suspect that the egg on the faces of the school administration will not be served up. 

I saw a news story on Channel 5 about an effort in the Codman Academy Charter School to address childhood hunger and childhood obesity.  It is striking that in this land of plenty, 12 million children go hungry each day and many of those who are hungry are overweight.  It is all about quality and not quantity.  At any rate, this school has decided to EDUCATE their students about food, food science, home economics and healthy life choices.  Students are invited to sign up for cooking classes where they learn about healthy choices and the ways to bring those choices home in their lives!  When they sign up for the classes, they also sign a pledge to avoid junk food, fast food and empty calories.  For many of these students, these are lessons that will save their lives.  Health issues like diabetes and hypertension are prevalent in their families and the faculty at Codman Academy are giving their students the tools to change the odds in favor of a healthy adult life.  In the story, I saw students learning to make hummus and prep vegetables for snacking on the yummy dip.  Most of the kids had never seen a chick-pea before in their diets, but more than a few made the healthy snack and were able to bring some home so other family members could try it too.  The teens at the Academy see this voluntary Junk Food Ban as the beginning of greater things...many believe that if they can make these simple and healthy changes in their lives, then maybe the younger kids will buy into this change earlier.  Smart kids!

The most recent story about school lunches is the one that has given me the most "agita".  One public elementary school in Chicago is banning brown-bagged lunches from home.  The principal of the school states that after seeing some students on a field trip snacking on soda and "flaming hot chips", she felt something had to be done.  She decided that every family in her school would have to buy into the school lunch program at a cost of $50 per month, unless food allergies  or dietary restrictions prevent a student's participation.  Can you see a slippery slope made out of powdered mashed potatoes out there?  Now before I begin my acid reflux filled rant observations, let's recap:  food for school lunches stored beyond the expiration dates or in rat infested warehouses, childhood obesity, and let's throw in a struggling economy to boot...can you see where I might burp at the audacity that a school administration would prohibit me from preparing food for my children?

Contrary to the opening statements of this blog post, brown bagged lunches in our home never lacked culinary creativity.  With very few exceptions like the occasional pizza day, I made bagged lunches for both my girls.  School lunch programs are, in most cases, valiantly fighting a losing battle.  The Federal government had established guidelines and food subsidies that most public schools have to follow.  We've all seen the blocks of cheese food product, ginormous cans of peas, peaches and applesauce, ketchup as a vegetable and who hasn't poked fun a mystery meat...the meat may be a mystery, but it exists in school lunch programs.  Back when my kids were younger, we didn't have the luxury of giving them lunch money on a daily basis...When the monthly lunch calendar came home in the school newsletters or was published in the local paper, I would sit my girls down and let them pick a day or two each month when they could spend the $2.25 for a school hot lunch and milk.  For Carrie, it usually was Chicken Caesar Salad day and Emily loved French Bread Pizza Day.  The rest of the month, I prepared my own versions of what might be offered on the menu or I just got inspired!   At the heart of this tale of two lunches are my girls.  Carrie was not a picky eater, rather she was more discriminating.  She liked variety, but she liked what she liked...In order to get her to eat a balanced lunch, I became pretty creative.  Emily on the other hand was happy to eat the same lunch every day for 12 years.  I am a lot like Carrie and Em takes after her dad who ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch for the first 10 years we were married. 

Carrie loved salads but didn't care much for vegetables...she would have eaten iceberg lettuce and cucumbers until she was blue in the face, as long as it had Christie's Greek salad dressing on it.  In my effort to get her to eat a few more veggies, I created the Carrie Special, which she had for lunch on every first day of school.  In the beginning, the Carrie Special consisted of a half a pita bread lined with two sliced of American cheese, and  stuffed with iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, thinly sliced cucumbers and drizzled with the Greek dressing.  As she grew older and her palate expanded, I added spinach and baby lettuces to the greens mix, the cheese became low fat feta and in addition to the carrots and cukes, I would sometimes add shredded snow peas or black olives.  We used whole wheat pita, lavash or any type of wrap to add variety to her sandwiches...but the first day of school = the Carrie Special.

Emily ate ham and cheese on whole wheat most days.  I would get antsy with her lunch so occasionally, I would make her some variation of PB&J or chicken salad. Every so often, Emily would get a special treat...she loved chicken if this was on the dinner menu at our house, I would make an extra drumstick or two for lunch that week...Chicken on the Bone...right Em?!

Both girls would get yogurt for lunch once or twice a week too.  At between $0.50 and $0.75 per serving when I purchased  it at the grocery store, it was a far less expensive way to get some calcium into teenaged girls than paying $1.25 for the exact same cup of yogurt provided by the schools.  If I planned well and cut my coupons, I could give my girls a very healthy lunch for about $1.20 per day...almost half what the schools charged for "hot lunch"...if the girls ordered off the a la carte line at school, they could spend $5.00 at lunch easily.  Then there were the days when the cafeteria ladies ran out of the advertised meals and the kids were often handed a tray of food they neither liked or wanted...but they "bought" lunch that a lunch they would get and a lunch they would mostly dump in the trash...none of us were happy when that happened.

Each time my girls opened their lunch bags...we used white craft bags that I purchased at Costco...they would see their sandwich/salad/yogurt/other protein source, sliced veggies with light ranch dressing or hummus, a piece of fruit, popcorn or pretzles, a 100% fruit juice or money for milk.  They also got a might have been homemade cookies, graham crackers or a bag of homemade gorp; our version contained raisins, Cheerios, nuts (no nuts for Emily) and chocolate chips.   When the girls were running cross country or track and field, they would get an additional piece of fruit and a half a sandwich because many a semester, they were eating lunch as early as 10:30 am!

I mentioned that we used white lunch bags.  I switched to the white ones when Carrie entered Middle School.  Lunch boxes were strictly K-5!   I also developed the habit of decorating or sending encouraging messages on those bags.  When Emily hit middle school, the messages became more involved and I would put puzzles or riddles on the front of the bag and write the answers on the bottom.  By the time she graduated high school, she had a group of friends who would join her in solving the brain-teasers.  I even had requests from her friends to make them lunches on their birthdays.  My daughters' lunches became a bit of a curiosity or novelty for them and their friends.  Many a day I would hear from one or both of them that their friends were surprised by something in the lunch bag.  One time I sent Emily to school with a blood orange.  She peeled it and as she ate it, she dramatically let the juice run down her chin...her friend Olivia was grossed out and intrigued all the same...and she tried the orange, which we believe has a slightly sweeter, more intense orange flavor and of course a dark red juice.  Some days Emily would ask me to pack extra of something because her friends were dying to try it, or as in one sad case, the friend often didn't have a lunch.

Carrie caught the attention of her lunchmates when she brought a peanut butter, kiwi and coconut sandwich on oatmeal bread to school.  In the days that followed, some kids brought variations containing strawberries, other berries, bananas, raisins and much about sparking culinary creativity!

In the end though, the most important ingredient in those lunches...yup, it is sappy...was the love.  Every time my girls opened those bags, they knew someone at home was loving them.  How sad would it have been to have had that part of our family history changed by a blanket policy...NO BROWN BAGS ALLOWED?

I think people like Chef Jamie Oliver or the folks over at Codman Academy have it right.  Teach people about food.  Teach them the science of food, health, growth and development.  Bring Home Ecnomics back to the curriculum. Offer nutritional guidelines and sample menus.  Develop food cooperatives were folks can come together to learn about nutrition and smart ways to feed families on a budget.   I understand the good intentions the Chicago principal has, but when these kids go home and some day graduate...she won't be there to advise the families on healthy nutrition.  She'll  fill bellies...but what about their minds...shape habits...encourage creativity and personal responsibility.  Share with parents and care-givers that making a good lunch is a great way to show how much you love your children.

In my faith, I have been taught, if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.  Rather than feeding those kids one meal a day, why not teach the parents and the children about eating healthfully?  Like the students at Codman Academy endorse...with simple, smart changes you can see a better, healtier future.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Reality TV

This morning, the TV and  radio talk shows as well as social networks were all a-twitter about Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey engaging Snooki, of the reality TV show, Jersey Shore, to be a guest speaker for the student population.  Her fee...$32,000.   Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison is also engaged to speak...she will earn $30, 000 as the University's commencement speaker.  Reality bites.

I am all for free speech and I am sure that Rutger's is proud of Jersey's own Snooki.  Perhaps they consider her the anti-role model.  The gist  of her message was, and I am paraphrasing her, Yo, youse guys it is important that you should study hard, but make for damn sure you party harder.  Groan.

This got me thinking about Reality TV.  I surmise that this phenomenon arose around the same the Writers' Guild in Hollywood went on strike back in 1999.  In order to satiate our gluttonous need for TV, networks and producers struck upon the idea of slinging together regular Joes and Janes, sans scripts, plots and character development and taped the ensuing mess.  MTV started things off in the early '90's with The Real Life, which was a much needed filler, with them having moved away from music videos...VH1 was crushing them in that department.  The first notable reality TV that filtered into our household's 21st century viewing was Survivor.  It was exotic, provocative and a six week series during the summer.  It was something to watch other than old Seinfeld episodes.  I have to admit, it was kinda cool watching the castaways using primitive tools and skills as they competed in strange competitions; and of course there were the alliances.  I watched about 50% of the first survivor series and less and less of the next two series...and now not at all.  I just didn't like the meaner, coarser side of human nature.

Since the writers' strike, a spectrum of really good to really bad reality shows has emerged.  I get it that reality and what's good are in the eyes of the beholder, but there is some real dreck on TV these days.  You can still watch 20 somethings on The Real Life, use and abuse each other or you can watch talented performers on American Idol (thankfully without sharp-tongued Simon...I never watched the show because his cold criticism seemed mean spirited and made me very uncomfortable...not the reality I wanted to experience, thank you very much.)   There are a slew of Housewives from Orange County to Miami who bring a new definition of witch to our lexicon.  These are 30, 40 and 50 something  year old women who pull hair, flip tables, scheme and sabotage against other women whom they call friends.  It proves money doesn't buy happiness or class.  I used to watch these disasters...kind of rubber-necking on just couldn't look away from the horror.  My year in France cured me of my predilection for that particular genre of Reality TV.  Books are way better and less stupid.

I like the reality shows that teach me something. Top Chef , can be a bit soap-opera like, but all in all, I learn about techniques and trends in cuisine and often, you can see the better nature of people who are comfortable and confident in their craft.  Most other cooking shows with celebrity "chefs", I watch with the sound off because you just can't fix stupid sometimes.  "I like to toast walnuts and add them to salads for their toasted, nutty flavor."  Duh! I thought you added them because they taste like cheese.  "Mmm, mint is so fresh and minty."  Shut up already.  Tell me something I didn't know like, tearing basil leaves is better than chopping them if you want to use them as  a fresh garnish...cutting them with a knife darkens the edges. 

Some of the talent shows are pretty good and then there are those that aren't.  I only watch the finale of Dancing with the Stars,  on occasion, because I like beautiful ballroom dancing and you don't see that until the end of the series...Skating with the Stars, not gonna watch it...America's Funniest Home it when there is nothing on and my reading glasses go missing...and it is good to laugh at the silliness.  Wipeout on the other hand is just dumb.  My favorite talent show is The Sing-Off.  A Capella groups compete to win a recording contract.  Judges evaluate and educate the performers.  The groups cheer each other on, demonstrating good sportsmanship...and the music reminds me of my days in High School and College choir.  It is a short and sweet 4 drama, no bitchiness...just people who love to sing. 

From wasted enterprises like Bridezillas or My Super Sweet 16 Party and even John and Kate Plus Eight, we see the worst of American life; the selfishness, the wanton excess, the crudeness and the thoughtlessness of our society.   Considering that more and more programming on TV falls into this ilk, it is shaping how young people view themselves and society.  Recently there was a study done by the Culture and Media Institute demonstrating that the once sexually charged cable reality shows are moving more toward violence to entice viewership...Rutgers' Sweetheart Snooki has been filmed and arrested for fighting on her show and out at public appearances...and she still has a place on TV despite her actions.  I guess it proves the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity...after her arrests, viewership on Jersey Shore increased.  What is this saying about reality...the real world?

My kids are gonna cringe, but I have to say it...when I was a kid reality TV came in the form of documentaries, educational specials, sporting events and a few cooking shows, thanks to Julia Child.  I watched Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic, Boston/New England sports teams and PBS. I loved The French Chef and Crockett's Victory Garden.  The other thing about the "reality" shows of the '70's was, although some were on once a week and most others were looked forward to them and the content served to enhance your reality, not morph it into some degradation of culture and society.  We were not overexposed to anything...and what I call "crap" TV just wasn't an option. 

But, there is a super-saturation of crap TV on today...hundreds of cable and satellite channels...Netflix, on-demand, TiVo...and people watch it. People, Americans in particular, have become used to watching reality TV rather than living their own realities. 

Is it no wonder that Snooki can get $32k for a speaking appearance?  Stupid is as stupid does...and most of  reality TV is making us stupid.

I'd recommend reading a book...maybe something by Toni Morrison.  But if you  and your kids want to watch TV, ask yourself, Is this something I would watch with my parents or grandparents?  If the answer is no, think about why and change the channel.