Monday, June 4, 2012

I'd Rather Eat Hospital Food

Much has been said recently about the sorry state of American children and much of the blame has been placed on the food that they eat. Because of this, and because of a family history rampant with adult-onset diabetes and other food-related illnesses, we have taken it upon ourselves to try and eat fewer processed and corn-syrup-laden foods. We drink a lot of Sierra Mist Natural on those rare occasions we buy pop and eat home-cooked meals most of the time.

My son is taking swim lessons for next two weeks, and we are, some would say, fortunate enough to have a free lunch program running in the summer set up right next to the municipal pool. Since we get out of lessons right at noon, and it is a 1.5 mile walk home, why not stop and have lunch before we go? Fortunately, we do have to walk a mile and a half from the pool to home and this helps work off the "nutritious" (though free) lunches (lunches which I could enjoy for the paltry sum of $3.25).

So, just as an example of what school lunch will be able to provide my soon-to-be Kindergartener (and for something to do while he's eating lunch), I will document the next two weeks worth of "lunches." 

Day 1:
Foster Farms Corn Dog, (unwashed, and with no way of washing) apple, (frozen) fruit juice (I applaud them for their choice of 100% juice with no corn syrups), "Fancy Ketchup" (fancy, apparently, because it has TWO kinds of corn syrup in it--must be trying to make up for the juice) and chocolate milk (loads of sugar but no corn syrup).

My son ate the apple and drank the milk. We brought the juice home and waited to drink it until it was thawed, the ketchup went straight in the trash, and the corn dog was nibbled at only before being thrown away. We walk by the local hospital on the way home, so I decided to try some cafeteria lunch; I knew that despite hospital food's reputation, I would be able to get a more nutritious lunch. I had a build-your-own salad, got the boy a fruit-and-granola parfait snack, and we shared a bottle of water (which we will refill and freeze and take with us tomorrow). My lunch/Boy's snack $5.40, and everyone's still full five hours later. Tomorrow, I think, I will brown-bag it.

Day 2:
Why must we continue to elect people with no common sense to positions of authority? Truly! No picture today, but some interesting information on the federally-governed Summer Feeding Program.

So, despite it being June, today's lunchtime was 50 degrees with 20 mph wind and drizzle. It was completely miserable and freezing cold. After swim lessons, the last thing my son wanted to do was to sit on the cold, wet ground and eat lunch, especially with a ride from Grandma coming. Fortunately, 200 or so yards away was a bandstand and an opportunity to sit down at picnic tables and find a place out of the wind. We picked up a sack lunch and had sat down when one of the high school kids who was handing out food came up behind us (he had followed us those 200 yards) and told us we had to return to the food area... that we were not allowed to eat anywhere but near their setup table--where there was absolutely no cover other than the trees above. I informed him that we wouldn't eat there, we would take it, and was told that we could not leave with the food. At this point, my son was in tears he was so cold, and screamed at the boy, "But it's FREEZING!" So--not wanting to sacrifice my son's health for a free "lunch"--I handed the lunch (which looked suspiciously like a small microwave burrito, cookies, milk, a fruit cup, and a string cheese) back and we ate chicken salad sandwiches, baby carrots, and chips with my mother.

Mom, though, knows the director of the Treasure Valley Summer Feeding Program and said that he had some interesting things to say about it.

Did you know: Any and all food left over must be thrown away at the end of the day? It cannot be donated to food banks, non-profits, or homeless shelters. In today's environment of 1 in 6 people in the country going hungry every night, leftover food can only be "donated" to Allied Waste Management and used to fill a landfill.

So: Not only do the people in Washington, D.C. who control this program think that processed foods are nutritious and that adults, the homeless, and food banks don't deserve any leftovers, they seem to live in a land where every summer day is a perfect 75 degrees with a light breeze and wouldn't think of giving their food-hander-outers leeway to take the local weather into account.

I wonder how many kids got sick today, and how much of a hit the economy will take from mothers who will have to stay home from work tomorrow because the kids couldn't take their food and eat it at home. Tomorrow should be better... at least about 5 degrees warmer and 15 mph less wind.

Day 3:
My son told me that he would like to eat free lunch in the park "if it's not cold. If it is cold, I want lunch with Grandma again." The wind died down and the sun came out, so we ate lunch under a tree.
Chicken sandwich, celery sticks, chocolate milk, ranch for dippin', and mandarin oranges in water/juice (it was too thin to be syrup).

Okay, so truth be told, I would have probably served this to my son if we had it at home (minus the celery, as it didn't/wouldn't get eaten). This is something my son likes, and he actually ate most of the sandwich and all of the fruit. Though at home I would have probably substituted the breaded, processed chicken patty for baked chicken breast, I don't have many complaints about this one.

I wonder what's on the menu for tomorrow.

Day 4:
Well, whatever hopes I had for the Summer Feeding Program actually getting better (as in, healthier) were dashed today.
So, the baby carrots, peaches, and graham crackers are good (though that's a heck of a lot of packaging that will just get thrown away). The marinara sauce for dipping and the chocolate milk are both okay, nutrition-wise. But what is the main course? Cheesy Bread. That's what is there, staying toasty warm in the foil packet: freaking cheesy bread! Cheesy bread is an appetizer you get with your delivery pizza! It's not to take the place of a sandwich! Two, six- by one-inch slices of mozzarella-infused white bread. A heart attack wrapped in foil, that's what that is. It was so thick and heavy that my son--who absolutely adores cheese and will eat it all day every day if I would let him--couldn't finish it. He made me proud, though, when he saved room for the fruit and did get at least some tomato sauce on the bread before he stuffed it in his mouth.

Boy, am I glad it's grocery-shopping day today. Off to get some real food. At least his tummy won't be growling.

Day 5:
Hopes for a good lunch dashed again.
Yep. That is a hot pocket. Sure, it may be a generic one, and it was probably baked to save time rather than microwaved, but that there is a peperoni pizza Hot Pocket, more chocolate milk, animal "crackers" (whose three main ingredients are enriched flour, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup), and orange and the raisins (both with just one ingredient). My son enjoys Hot Pockets, and peperoni pizza, so this was a good lunch in his eyes. And who, other than the manufacturers wanting a cheap sweetener, thought that putting high fructose corn syrup in "crackers" was a good idea!? The orange and raisins were, fortunately for his health, the hands-down favorites, though I saw quite a few full boxes and unpeeled oranges in the trash.

Well, we're half done... with swim lessons and these lunches. There is, of course, a Summer Feeding Program location close to our house (about 2/3 a mile away), but if this is standard fare I think we'll pass. We can always hope that next week is better.

Day 6:
Swim lessons are going well. My son is finally no longer afraid to put his whole head under the water, so they're going much more... swimmingly than before. Lunch, however, is not. Back like a bad case of heartburn (drum roll, please)...

... another Hot Pocket! This time, Sausage, Egg & Cheese is accompanied by the ever-present chocolate milk, Apple & Cherry juice box, string cheese and an apple. Now, I'm one of those people who maintains that placing nutrition facts on food has just ruined food for all of us. But, really, String Cheese manufacturers? Out of 80 calories, 50 are fat? And you added salt to cheese? Really? (Did you know that if you ate just five string cheeses, you'll have 100% of your daily requirement for calcium?) But when compared to the Hot Pocket, that "salty" string cheese is ambrosia, the food of the gods. If you haven't yet been appalled today, check out this "healthy" lunch's main course's nutrition facts and ingredients list. Hopefully, though, you have already been appalled today and you won't, because it will just send you through the roof. Instead, here's a funny video about Hot Pockets. This is the same stuff our kids are eating on a regular basis--during the school year, usually breakfast and lunch--and, for some reason, we're surprised that they're the first generation that may not outlive their parents.

Day 7: 
I gotta say, this whole experience is starting to weigh on me the more I think about it. When one thinks about the fact that these meals that Joe and Jane Taxpayer are providing these kids could very well be the only thing these kids eat all day... this just doesn't seem right. I mean, I get the "It's free!" But, really, for these meals' nutritional content, we might as well simply be buying Happy Meals for these kids every day. Today's meal:

In addition to the carrots, the canned pineapple and the usual chocolate milk (my son actually asked if he could have white milk today, but chocolate is the only option available), that is a slice of stuffed-crust pizza bread, pepperoni flavor. Mozzarella cheese is stuffed into both sides of the crust. Really, what can be said? If this is the only thing many of these kids will eat in the day... is this what they deserve? Is this what we should be feeding those who cannot feed themselves?

Day 8:
Okay, I just about did a happy dance right there in the park when I saw this today's food. It's another one my son would eat at home, but, well, just look:

That there in the middle is a fresh spinach salad with two slices of mandarin orange. The main course is baked chicken nuggets and the meal is rounded out with juice and milk. Of course, the salad is supposed to be made more appetizing to young kids by smothering it in ranch dressing (and I shudder to think how many salads were thrown out completely untouched). But that is a healthy baby-spinach-and-orange salad. Unfortunately, I know by now not to get my hopes up for tomorrow's lunch.

Day 9:
Well, it was Diving Board Day in swim lessons. With three perfect leaps into the water, my son was talking about joining the US Olympic dive team (we're very excited about the Olympics this summer). Then we went to lunch.

When I asked my son what his main course was, he looked at it, took a bite, scrunched up his little face and shook his head. I'm still not quite sure what that is. When I took it out of the bag, at first I thought it might be a sandwich, seeing the round, tan-ish bread-like things, but it wasn't a sandwich. I think it might be pancakes (syrup was included--but not opened, first three ingredients were corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and water), but there was a daub of scrambled egg in there too. The little bit I did eat tasted whole-wheat-y, but, still, it was too "interesting" for my son, he didn't finish it. Also included were animal crackers (ingredients: flour, sugar, high fructose corn syrup), applesauce, milk, and carrots. If they are whole wheat, or buckwheat pancakes, can't have anything bad to say about that... without the syrup, of course. It just seems odd to have breakfast for lunch.

Day 10: 
Well, today's the last day of swim lessons and free lunches. If you're reading this, it's a bit too early for lunch, but I found this interesting story from England in my Facebook feed and wanted to make sure that it got in here. 9 -Year-Old's School Dinner Blog Shut Down by Council Check back soon for today's pic and evaluation.

 Last day. Chicken fingers, juice, milk, mini pretzels (which includes more high fructose corn syrup than salt) and an orange. When compared to the rest of the meals, there's not much I can say (though chicken strips from a single chicken would have been much better than processed), except, again, fruit comes from Florida, milk comes from Texas, mini pretzels come from somewhere in the Midwest, and the juice... well, gonna have to plant a lot of trees to reduce that carbon footprint. Also, really, who puts high fructose corn syrup in pretzels? I don't remember that ingredient in my The Joy of Cooking. And this is why our kids are getting diabetes earlier and earlier. Sugar is in everything! Yes, I know, Corn Council, your body doesn't know the difference between "real sugar" and "corn sugar", but HFCS is in absolutely everything from ketchup to syrup, to animal cookies to cough syrup, to soda. It's even in those Hot Pockets we ate earlier! It's these "hidden sugars" that are helping waistlines expand all over the country, and killing pancreases around the world.

I know, I know, some of you are saying, "Well, it's free, it's optional. People don't have to eat this if they don't want to." When one has to choose between eating this "nutritionally-questionable" food and not eating and going hungry for the day--because for some of these kids those are their only options--it becomes much less optional. So, what can be done?

If you have been as outraged as I have been over these "nutritious, healthy lunches" contact your congressperson. Send them a link to this blog so they can see for themselves what the kids are eating. While non-profit organizations may be doing the food prep and paying for people to hand out food, this is a federally-funded and federally-mandated program. I'm not doing this to stop the federal program. Some of these kids truly have no other option. But, for those kids who have no other options--and not the kids who have food in the cupboard but choose to go the easy route and have their food made for them--we need to do something


  1. Yep, the government's idea of a good lunch for children still has a long ways to go. Too much white flour, white sugar, salt, and most importantly, WASTE. Sack lunches should have fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, whole grains, and protein. Instead they get sweetened chocolate milk, canned fruit... and it doesn't matter if it's canned in juice or syrup, it's way too much sugar, and white bread.

    And then any unopened, especially UNDISTRIBUTED sack lunches should be packed up and given to the nearest shelter or food bank.

    1. Today's lunch was worse than the chicken sandwich (it was a dry sandwich--no mayo, ketchup, or anything), but at least it was better than the cheesy bread. Pizza Hot Pockets.

      Mom told me that the guy who runs it (mentioned in Day 2) also runs a summer feeding program a few days a week at a local church (within walking distance of our house). He is not allowed to take any leftovers and distribute it at his government-recognized non-profit (the church) to kids and adults in need. That rule, I think, out of all of the stupid, arbitrary government rules imposed on the program makes me the most upset.

      I wonder if they package the leftovers that have to be discarded well enough, would gleaners be able to come by and use the food--especially the canned stuff--or would the Brown Shirts from the government come and take the gleaners away?