People who know me in real life know that I love the preschool/daycare program my boys currently attend.  I mean, I LOVE it.  I love the staff, I love the families, I love the cute little building (it’s in what looks like a gingerbread house, seriously), and I love the warm, inviting atmosphere.  I love how much L. has grown and changed and matured there and how secure he obviously feels in the environment.  I look forward to watching P. grow up there as well.  There’s no place I’d feel more comfortable sending my children each day, and I have absolutely no worries when I drop them off (even on days like today, when P. screamed — poor thing — it’s a new place for him, I have to remember, even though it’s so familiar to us).

There.  Have I adequately expressed my enchantment with this place?  Can I move on now to the other stuff?

The “other stuff” would be the sweet, happy, chirpy e-mail all the parents received last week from the owners of the school (more people I love.  And their kids, who are in L. and P.’s classes, are great too).  In this e-mail, we learned that there was to be a “New, Healthy Snack Menu” for the start of the school year.  Basically, the note said, some parents had expressed a desire to see more fresh produce on the snack lists, and the school had decided it was a good idea.  It was a proud note.  A good note.  I was excited and pleased.  What with the Pizza Fridays and my casual observations that the snacks listed on L.’s daily report for the past 2 years were often what I’d consider “borderline” foods, I was thrilled that this school — which is progressive and unusual and just downright hip in every other way — was taking the initiative to work harder to help us feed our kids well.

It’s not the first time they’ve done something right in the food and nutrition realm, by any means.  For one thing, there is a stated policy that parents should refrain from sending their children to school with soda and candy.  (This does not, I should point out, stop people from sending Yoo-Hoo and Cheetos as a breakfast substitute — but the school can’t police ALL food choices, except in the case of nut products; and the staff who witnessed the Yoo-Hoo and Cheetos incident had the good grace to grit their teeth and look at least somewhat chagrined, if professionally restrained.)  For another, all juice served during snacktime at school is 100 percent juice with no additives, which I see as a reasonable beverage in limited quantities, and whenever canned fruit is served, it’s either packed in juice/water, or is strained thoroughly and rinsed before being given to the kids.  Of course, I’d rather see fresh fruit than canned, but I also understand the intricacies of budgeting and the sad state of food costs in this country.  So I take these policies as small and well-intentioned steps that mean the staff are at least THINKING about healthy food choices.  Too many schools and daycares don’t even bother.

So the new snack menu was unveiled, and I have to say: 1) Again, I appreciate the thought and effort; and 2) I’m disappointed.  Truly.  For one thing, it incorporates only one or two fresh produce-based snacks per week — which, out of 10 snacks, seems like a relatively low ratio.  For another, there doesn’t seem to be any thought process about balancing the types of snacks throughout the day.  It’s a four-week rotation, and in at least 3 of the weeks, there are times when the morning snack and the afternoon snack are of the cracker/cookie variety.  For example: A.M. snack of saltines and milk; P.M. snack of Cheez-Its and milk.  Or: A.M. snack of Ritz crackers and water; P.M. snack of graham crackers and juice.

Of the fresh produce-based snacks (not counting things like canned or dried fruits), I see the following fresh items:
Bananas (1 serving in four weeks)
Cucumbers (1 serving in four weeks)
Apple slices (one serving in four weeks, unless you count the apples in the apple pancakes — also served once)
Pepper strips (1 serving in four weeks, with ranch dressing)
Steamed green beans (1 serving in 4 weeks, with Italian dressing)
Oranges (1 serving in 4 weeks)
Broccoli (1 serving in 4 weeks, with cheese)
Sliced tomatoes (1 serving in 4 weeks, with undefined “dressing”)
Blueberries, which are in the pancakes

I don’t mind the produce choices, necessarily — there’s actually a decent variety — but I do wonder about all the dips and sauces and so forth.  Certainly I won’t cast stones against the idea of making produce a little more palatable to kids — P. went to school today with some leftover, relatively unhealthy, but very tasty pan-fried broccoli and cheese patties I made the other night, so I can’t fault the classic pairing of broccoli and cheese.  But isn’t this part of our problem overall, this Ranch-ification of America?  Aren’t we sort of assuming that our kids won’t like the taste of fruits and vegetables just as they are, and thereby teaching them that the flavor of a processed, bottled salad dressing or dip — probably made with HFCS, preservatives, and all kinds of nasty additives — is to be favored over what nature intends?

I struggle with this.  I struggle with my belief that moderation is OK, and that the disclosed serving sizes of the things I find questionable on the snack menu (like Nilla Wafers) are really quite modest, and not likely to do any real damage to my kids if they’re balanced against the boys’ usual (hopefully) healthy meals.  I struggle with my conscience, with the knowledge that we can do better for our kids than this, but also with the knowledge that the school is doing what it feels it can reasonably do with the money it has — and the guilt of realizing that neither I nor my parenting comrades would want to see our tuition increase substantially to improve the quality of the snacks (I’d rather pack my own than see that happen, honestly).  And I also struggle with the knowledge that I have to live in the real world a little bit, where for many of these kids, the produce snacks will be the only fruits and veggies they’re likely to see in a day.  Just this morning, as I dropped L. off in his Pre-K classroom, he asked what was in his lunchbox.  I responded, “Ham and cheese with avocado; applesauce; orange slices; and banana cookies.”  He hugged me.  And one of his classmates said to me, eagerly, “My daddy packed me a macaroni and cheese lunch with chips and chocolate milk!” I know that kid.  I’ve seen her lunch bin.  And this lunch is pretty typical for her — as well as for most of the other little ones there.

We have a long way to go in this country, as far as nutrition and access to REAL food are concerned — particularly for our children.  In the meantime, I both salute the efforts of schools like ours, and chew on my bone of contention that we should be doing better than we are.  The only thing I can do, I guess, is to keep providing my kids with the food I want them to eat, and hope that it will be enough to teach them the habits I want them to learn.  Maybe our example will help somebody else, possibly even one of their peers, to try to do a bit better.  Only one thing is certain: for now, it’s just a small battle against a snack menu, but it will get harder from here.  I’m afraid to look ahead to what the elementary years will bring.