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Tray Target

Those of us who survived public education know school lunches are supposed to be the subject of ridicule. We were never really sure about the "mystery meat" on the bun or the whiter shade of pale that constituted our turkey in gravy, but we nonetheless ate up and lived to tell the tale. I wonder if our own kids will be so lucky.

A friend recently showed me the lunch menu for her daughter's elementary school. Chicken nuggets on a bun, hot dog with chili and cheese, and pepperoni hot pockets were some of the lunch highlights. The school also offered breakfast selections including French toast sticks.

Maybe they haven't heard about the childhood obesity problem. Maybe they haven't heard that an increasing number of children, yes, children, are suffering from hypertension. Maybe they haven't heard about how pregnant women forgo caffeine and junk food to make sure that their babies are born healthy. I didn't forgo all temptation for nine months just to turn my child over to that kind of eating! In loco parentis? Not so much.

What these foods contain is as scary as what they lack. They contain hydrogenated vegetable oil (basis of the trans fat that New York City has banned from restaurants due to its public health ramifications), and vast amounts of sodium and fat. Using white breads and rolls, they lack the fiber and protein that are the saving grace of good carbohydrates.

There are movements in various parts of the country trying to get schools to pay attention to their menus, turning them onto the benefits of locally grown, fresh food. New York City non-profit b-healthy, chef Alice Waters' program in San Francisco, and others are trying to get schools to take out the breaded, prepackaged foods and instead offer meals made with wholesome, fresh ingredients.

Of course, parents who want to ensure better nutrition for their kids have the option of making lunches at home. However, we would be better served if all options available were good options. Choose healthy food from home or healthy food at school, thereby removing the twin risks of temptation and peer pressure that lead some kids to choose the hot pockets over Mom's PB&J on whole wheat.

Furthermore, there are many children whose families qualify for free or reduced-price lunches precisely because they can't afford to buy their way out of this problem. Poor-quality school lunches may be their only choice. In the case of the school I mentioned, 28 percent of children there receive free or reduced-price lunches. For them, the district is clearly cooking up a raw deal.

Merrilee Witherell is a mother living in Cato. Got an opinion? Send submissions to Because I Said So!
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