In this first week of school for so many kids, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the feeding of my little guys and how the school environment and home environments differ.  In short, I think I’m chewing on the question: Where’s the balance?  Because surely a balance has to be struck between being a crazy OCD foodie mom, and letting them live in the world inhabited by their peers — even, I’m discovering, at the tender ages of 4 and 1.  So unless I intend to leap across tables in a panic each time one of my boys is about to bite into a Nilla Wafer, there are things in the realm of feeding these little people, at least for now, that I’m going to have to learn to live with.

Yesterday’s post was about the new “healthy” snack menu at the school they are both currently attending.  I should point out that this particular preschool does not have an established hot meal program, which sets it apart from the two other daycare/preschool facilities our family has experienced.  (In a good way, as far as I’m concerned.)  There is, I think, some opportunity for parents to leave money with the staff to have a grilled cheese sandwich or something similar bought at the restaurant across the street, in the case of emergencies — but, as any faithful reader of mine well knows, I don’t REALLY believe in packed-lunch emergencies.  I guess if you live quite far from the school and suddenly arrive to discover that your child’s lovingly packed lunch has remained on the kitchen counter, I can support the act of pulling out $3 and desperately ordering a grilled cheese…but that’s as far as my sympathy for the “lunch emergency” extends.  At any rate, I don’t see many parents using this service, which I suppose is a good thing.  Packed lunches tend to be the norm at this school

However, that is apparently unusual.  I’ll never forget the first daycare L. went to, from the ages of 1-2 1/2.  My reasons for not forgetting it are far-ranging, and all entirely negative — it turned out to be a terrible place, and I regret that we didn’t get the real “red flags” to alert us to that for nearly eighteen months.  But I digress.  One of the more minor things they did that bugged me continually was their pestering of J. and me about signing L. up for the hot lunch program.  “It’s included in the tuition anyway!” they’d encourage.  “Don’t you want him eating what the other kids are eating?”  Or, my favorite: “OUR meals are carefully balanced.” (Implying, somehow, that L.’s packed lunches were not?)  A look at the menu was unnecessary, but I humored them, and I still say that L.’s favorite grilled salmon, cous cous, and butternut squash could take their chicken parmesan patties, buttered noodles, and canned fruit cocktail ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.  (By the way, I’m being generous — that was probably the least heinous lunch on their menu, by my recall.)  Anyway, we declined politely, time after time, and continued to send his lunch.  And then one day, I looked at L.’s daily report sheet, where it proclaimed that he’d eaten…hot dogs?  WTF?  “We didn’t want to exclude him from the school picnic,” I was told frostily.  “All the other kids had hot dogs, so we served one to him, too.  It didn’t seem right to make him different.”  And I was handed his perfectly good, unopened, unexamined lunch — which, since it had been taken out of refrigeration and put into his cubby after the lunch period, was now all waste.  I’m pretty sure that my reaction was perceived as out of proportion (ever seen the Incredible Hulk?), and when we left the school, I’m certain they were happy to see the back end of L.’s insane Food Fuhrer of a mother.

Now we’ve just dodged the school lunch program bullet again, as P. has been moved from the program he attended in infancy to the school L. has gone to since we snatched him from the maw of the Evil Empire.  (OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it seemed that bad to us.)  P.’s old program wasn’t bad — in fact, it was quite good.  We were happy with the care he received there.  It just wasn’t the right permanent fit for him, in terms of what our whole family would need — driving back and forth across town, for one thing, was getting pretty old; and the preschool program there didn’t fit with our philosophies about early education in the same way that the current place does.  So we’ve moved him, a decision we’re happy with, and even more so as I know that we moved him just in time to avoid the Dreaded Invitation To Sign Up For Hot Lunch.

A look at the website for the old place tells the tale: they have a “Healthy Habits” program, as well as a statement on the site that subtly discourages the packing of a lunch from home by putting several parameters around it, including a time limit on from-home breakfasts for early arrival kids (they’ll be served a “healthy habits” breakfast/snack later!).  Parents are assured that “lunch will be VERY nutritious” and will “include all food groups as well as milk.”  Snacks, also, are touted as “nutritious” and include such favorites as graham crackers, Saltines, and Nilla Wafers — which, in my book, are not so much “nutritious” as “empty calories not worth fighting about,” even if you DO pair them with some kind of fruit.  Which is fine, I suppose — but don’t tell me the wolf in sheep’s clothing is really a sheep.

So I looked at the lunch menu, intrigued about this “Healthy Habits” business, and lo and behold!  The same school lunch madness we’ve come to know and love in this country.  First of all, there’s a statement on the menu that parents have the option on ANY GIVEN DAY, as often as they would like, to substitute Chicken Nuggets as their child’s entree.  And for what might they be substituting the nuggets?  Hot dogs, grilled cheese, spaghetti with meatballs, and pizza.  Those are the only other lunch entrees.  Each one is served with — wait for it — French Fries.  Every day.  Oh, except on Pizza days; I guess somehow pizza is perceived as being more of a “junk food” than the others?  Closer inspection proves that the french fries are supposed to be the “vegetable” — after all, the site SAYS that they’re eating from all food groups! — and the only other veggie in sight is the carrot stick that is served with the pizza.  Oh, yeah, and every day there’s a nondescript “fruit.”

This is not just a rant, believe me — I think what I’m trying to say here is that as parents, we are continually dodging a hail of meteors showering us, and our kids, with a food culture that is as misguided as it is pervasive.  We’re required to make decisions every day that go beyond the simple “what to feed them” questions our great-grandmothers faced.  It’s now about dodging a food culture that puts additives and chemicals and substandard foodlike substances into the mainstream food supply; dodging a culture that places nutritionally vapid foods into schools and pushes our children to eat them, both for convenience and for conformity; and dodging the slings and arrows around us, as the school administrators staunchly stand behind the “solid nutritional science” of their offerings, other parents mumble about why we just can’t cave in and let our kids eat like everyone else, and our kids start to grow up and look around them and wonder if the homemade tuna on wheat with spinach is really better than the corn dog their friends are eating.  For now, we’ve chosen to place our kids in a school where the food culture — despite my gripes of yesterday — is largely more positive than in the other places we’ve seen.  But is every parent as food literate as we like to think we are?  And is it fair to leave the growth and health of our children to that kind of chance?  And if we aren’t demanding that our schools and child care centers be food literate, then just who, exactly, should be?