When bake sales go bad

When I was in high school, I survived on cottage cheese, canned pineapple, diet cola and greasy (but surprisingly delicious) chocolate chip cookies from the school cafeteria (with the occasional bag of doritos and/or french fries from the same). Even just reading that over, I feel a little sick to my stomach. What was with all that cottage cheese? I must have read in one of those magazines I scoured to find out what being a woman was all about that cottage cheese is low-cal. Today I can’t even look at the stuff. Ditto with diet cola (or any form of faux sugar). I sometimes drank 8 cans a day. When it’s discovered someday that synthetic sweeteners are the root of all evil, I’ll know for certain what caused my downfall.

Our school cafeteria was one of those places you wouldn’t be surprised to see turning up in a John Hughes movie—snarling, underpaid, underappreciated lunch ladies in hair nets and grease-splattered tunics, surly, pimple-faced teenagers (with very bad hair—it was the 1980s) dividing the room into Jocks, Geeks and Stoners.

Frankly, it’s hard to believe we made it out alive. Really.

I’ve been thinking about that cafeteria this fall, partly because of the big stink in the U.S. about Congress arguing pizza should be considered a vegetable in school lunch (egad—see the startling story about how corporate food companies are driving this here), and partly because the province of Ontario introduced a new healthy food policy that changes the kinds of food and drinks that can be purchased in schools.

At my kids’ school—which does not offer either a snack or a meal, it mostly means fewer cupcakes, cookies on a stick and doughnuts for sale in the lobby before 9 a.m. (Bake sales aren’t banned entirely, the number of times they can be offered per year has just been limited.)

But in cafeterias (like the one at my old high school), it has been a pretty radical shift. Foods with “few or no essential nutrients and/or contain high amounts of fat, sugar and/or sodium” are not allowed to be sold—no deep fried french fries, for instance. Other, not so healthy items, are allowed occasionally, and healthy options are recommended for regular consumption.

Despite the fact that I managed to survive my own unhealthy teenage eating experience, I think this is a great advance. (And anyway, when was the fact that I survived such and such a thing an intelligent basis for an argument anyway? You could smoke in bars, restaurants, airplanes and your workplace, then, too, and no one’s arguing smoking isn’t actually so bad for you.)

There are some parent and teachers grumbling that the new policy is making it harder to raise money for classrooms, but I think this is simply because change is difficult. People have relied on bake sales for a long time, but there are surely lots of ways to raise funds that don’t rely on jacking kids up on sweets before the bell rings.

Whenever I’m thinking or talking about this subject, I always return to the fact that if we want children to learn about healthy eating habits, we have to be consistent, and feeding them junk at school (in the cafeteria or elsewhere) sends the absolute wrong message. You can’t teach them about nutrition in health class and then ply them with greasy pizza and french fires in the cafeteria. And if educational institutions don’t commit to being consistent in their teaching (and surely teaching in a general sense continues in the cafeteria), how can we expect kids to make sense of any of this?

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