Neshobe Community School reached a new watermark of sorts this school year, when more than 50 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. This sobering news came on the heels of the news that Rutland County, of which Brandon is the northernmost town, has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity and Type II diabetes in the State. In a report released in February 2009, Essex and Franklin Counties actually are in worse shape, being both poor and more rural. The Rutland Partnership for Health collaborative, financed by the James T. Bowse Healthy Trust (see www.rrmc.org), health priorities included increasing children’s access to healthy diets and reducing the youth Body-Mass Index, an indicator of obesity.
Yet the food available to children at Neshobe School does not promote these health priorities. When my children were enrolled in the Rutland Northeast Early Childhood Program, snacks were provided entirely by parents’ donations. I knew that the majority of the time, my kids would be drinking juice and eating crackers for snack, because they last a long time and are relatively inexpensive compared to milk and fresh fruits or veggies. I just worked around that with the rest of their meals. But I soon realized that kindergarten severs parts of the maternal umbilical cord I had not anticipated, and provided opportunities for my kids to go far beyond the boundaries of healthy eating habits I had established at home.
For starters, my kids discovered that they could choose chocolate milk instead of skim for lunch, and even morning snack, and that I would be none the wiser. Now that I have two children at Neshobe who share the same lunch period, they actually enjoy ratting each other out about what kind of milk each other ordered; but my newly minted kindergartener has also decided that sometimes it’s better to order chocolate milk than to have the moral higher ground over his older brother.
It wasn’t until I started getting hit with food account overdue notices, however, that I realized my kids were also buying hotdogs, pizza, and other school lunches instead of eating what I had packed at home. My kids are enormously picky eaters; moreover, they will go months insisting on exactly the same lunch, only to suddenly refuse to eat that exact food for the next several years. My middle child, for example, asks for a lunch of cereal and yogurt every single day, but won’t consider adding fruits or vegetables, despite the fact that as a toddler he would stuff entire bananas into his mouth. So I was surprised to discover that in the realm of school lunch, they were willing to be quite adventurous, eating shepherd’s pie, American goulash, and other gloppy casseroles that would have been rejected with a “Yuck! No thank you!” at our dinner table at home.
It’s not only these saturated-fat-and-simple-carbohydrate lunch offerings that are the problem, however, although for kids who depend on school lunch as their primary nutritious meal of the day it is a troubling reality. There are usually one or two fruit and vegetable servings on the menu along with an additional dose of grains. Hot breakfasts are also nutritionally problematic: usually an offering of processed carbohydrates, like funnel cake, waffles, or pretzels, generally with a topping of sugar or syrup, and a side of juice. In addition, in order to help break even financially, the school cafeteria also sells Doritos, granola bars, and, twice a week, popsicles to those kids who can afford to bring in the money. If you look hard enough, you can find the nutritional components that children ages six to 12 are supposed to eat every day: three servings of low-fat or non-fat dairy; one to two more ounces of protein — not quite the recommended four to six recommended, and hardly the dietician’s definition of “lean;” two servings of fruit, though the fruit is often juice rather than the preferred whole fruit; and three servings of grains — again, however, not always the whole grain option currently recognized as optimal to long term health (kids actually need six servings of grains a day, with at least three coming from whole grains). What’s shockingly missing are the four servings of vegetables, with a mixture of “greens” and “oranges.” That’s the equivalent of two cups of cooked or four cups of raw vegetables every day.
For kids dependent on reduced and free breakfast and lunch to provide two of three main meals a day — and at Neshobe, that’s more than half our student population — the likelihood that they will go home to a dinner that consists of four ounces of fish, chicken, or lentils, one and a half cups of vegetables, and three servings of whole grains is doubtful. All the evidence of why lower income families have poorer nutrition points to the fact that lean protein and minimally processed vegetables are among the most expensive foods a family can buy. Friends of mine once experimented with what it would cost to feed their three children according to the federally-recommended food pyramid. The total bill came to $150 a week—and that was at Hannaford prices, for kids who are early elementary aged, not teenagers.
Many children who eat school breakfast and lunch also get after school snacks provided by various child care organizations: the Brandon site of the Rutland County Parent Child Center, the Brandon Boys and Girls Club, and Neshobe’s SOAR program. Here is another opportunity to provide kids with more veggies, whole grains and water, but all of these organizations are also confronting the same high costs of these healthy options as families and schools.
The recent spate of Addison Independent articles state that commercial food services can offer comparable food at much lower costs to small schools. This is a boon to many hard-pressed school budgets this year. However, it seems to me that some of the savings should be invested in improving the overall offerings that these large food services provide. They can apply for Farm Fresh grants, provide only whole grain choices, negotiate bulk purchases of lean protein, and get more local, minimally processed vegetables in the school. According to one article, schools can negotiate these benefits in their contracts. It may cost more than a food service’s “base” package, but it will surely cost less than the current burden of overweight children and poor health outcomes on our tax-supported health care system. And for schools like Neshobe, it serves our Home-School compact that encourages students to “Reach for Your Best.”