In case you’ve been living under a rock — or you don’t live the life of an erstwhile food blogger — let me start by announcing, a bit underwhelmingly late, that the government has just passed a new, important, and largely positive food law.  It’s called the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, and it provides funding and other provisions for a variety of essential nutrition programs — not the least of which is a series of measures directed at the National School Lunch Program.  I won’t presume to be as up-to-speed on this as many of my compatriots are, and instead recommend the following excellent post from The Lunch Tray to those who are interested in finding out more: The Day After: Reflections on the New School Food Law.

My first reaction, as I read Bettina’s assessment of things, was to zero in on the “makeover” of school lunches that will supposedly result from this bill.  Fried chicken patty swapped out for barbecued = good.  White bun swapped for whole wheat = good.  Whole milk swapped for 1 percent = good.  Canned green beans swapped for locally grown carrots = a locavore mom’s dream.  But the little niggling voice in the back of my head was already grumbling, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I mean, seriously — I have happily and often fed my kids barbecued chicken/pork/beef on whole wheat buns, with a side of some local vegetable, some milk, and fruit (there are sliced apples included in the lunch makeover, too).  What was my issue?

I guess I couldn’t believe that the new foods would really be as good as they might LOOK, on the surface.  Barbecue sauce, as anyone who’s read labels even a little bit can tell you, is often just a swath of high-fructose corn syrup and caramel colors washed over whatever meat it’s supposed to disguise.  And the words “barbecue chicken PATTY” make me nervous, because nothing in there gives me confidence that the meal would include actual chicken as opposed to that dastardly institutional Frankenfood, pressmeat.  Whole-wheat buns sound good until you check the ingredients and see that they contain very little whole wheat and a whole lot of nasty fillers (HFCS again, for most of them, along with some odd ingredients that really don’t belong in bread).  And as far as the switch from whole milk to one percent?  From everything I’ve read and experienced of school lunches recently, pretty much anyone who’s not still living in the Bronze Age has been offering low fat milk alternatives for quite some time now.

In other words, to steal a phrase from a famous Mike Myers sketch: The New School Lunch is neither truly new, nor really a lunch.  Discuss.

Oh, I know.  I’m being ridiculous and I’m griping for the sake of griping.  I’m committing the cardinal sin of activists the world over: secretly desiring sweeping and vast change and not acknowledging the value of baby steps.  I recognize that.  I understand that this law is a good thing.  And believe it or not, I’m thrilled — I really, truly am — and proud that our legislators are trying to prioritize the health and well-being of our children and families, and are actually including FOOD (of all things!) in the list of areas to improve to that end.

And even though I may eye this somewhat critically (that is, after all, the job of a food blogger, right?)…I know how valuable this measure will be.  And I may be growling about the hidden junk in “healthier” school foods, but they’re still better than Butter Rolls.

That’s right.  I said Butter Rolls.

I used to teach an arts extension program in the Bronx.  Not a good neighborhood in the Bronx, either; it was the kind of school where the kids would come in talking about how somebody’s brother just went to prison for dealing, or how they had watched a neighbor attack his girlfriend on the subway train.  One of my students once started earning money in tiny, tiny amounts by doing favors for neighbors (carrying groceries upstairs, taking their trash out) and saved it all for months to buy a Valentine’s gift for his mother.  When the big day came, he wouldn’t speak to anyone.  Small wonder: his older brother stole all of that money and used it to buy drugs.  But he couldn’t be too upset, because the next day one of his classmates started sleeping in the back stairwell of her apartment building, after her family’s apartment was damaged in a fire and they had no place else to go.  What a wonderful world.

The kids used to pool their pocket money in the mornings and walk past the corner store on their way to school.  They’d buy as many Butter Rolls as they could from the man behind the counter, who spent the rest of the day after the “breakfast rush” selling chiefly cigarettes and lottery tickets.  Then they’d divvy up the rolls amongst all the kids in the group so everybody had something to eat before school.  What’s a Butter Roll, you ask?  It’s a big, white, tissue-y, bland kaiser roll type of thing, split in half as if for a sandwich, and slathered in the middle with what looked like — I am not exaggerating — nearly an inch of butter.  The counter man would cut the “sandwiches” in half so the kids could divide them more easily.

They’d wash these down with soda or Yoo-Hoo.  The counter man sold them the drinks for 25 cents apiece.  He liked kids.

Why the corner store?  Why Butter Rolls and Yoo-Hoo?  Because there was no other place for them to get something, between home and school, or anywhere within a reasonable walking distance.  They lived in an area that I always think of when I hear the term “food drought” — a place where, sure, there were EDIBLES around, but where dinner was going to likely come either from a cheap takeout restaurant or from a bodega.  As we all know, “edibles” are not necessarily actual food.  So they were doing the best they could, with the resources they had, to get themselves fed.

Those are the kids for whom the quasi-chicken, the artificial barbecue sauce, the questionably whole-grain rolls do matter.  Significantly.  Any step up in the quality of the food will have a major impact, long-term, on their quality of life.  Think of the school lunch as being the only truly square meal many of them might have all day; then multiply the health implications of the fried chicken patty and the whole milk and the white buns by the 180 days of school they should be attending.  Then figure out how significantly their health might be changed by chicken that’s not fried.  Milk that’s lower-fat.  Buns that might contain a little fiber and a few B vitamins.

We have a serious food gap in this country, and too many of us don’t feel it acutely enough to recognize the enormous value of just one or two small changes.  The possible value of the additional 6 cents provided for each student’s meal by the new bill is far, far greater than any simple mathematical equation could tell.  So I’m fighting my impulse to take a fine-toothed comb to this thing, because I’m one of the lucky people who lives near a supermarket and doesn’t have to send my kids off to school every morning with a little money for a Butter Roll.

And when I realized that, last night, I packed TWO fruits and TWO vegetables in each of my kids’ lunchboxes, in celebration of the fact that I could.  Happy Friday, America.  We just did something pretty good.