Today, the First Lady, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and celebrity chef Rachael Ray teamed up to announce the new regulations for healthy school food.  They talked about all the hot-button issues so many of us are intimately — and perhaps too vehemently — acquainted with, like reducing the fried foods, sodium, processed offerings, and sugar.  They said many of the right things, the things we want to hear about the food that’s being served to our kids: more vegetables, more fruits, healthier grains.  Some people are calling it a win, some people (like myself) are a bit ambivalent, and some, predictably, are crying foul on the new guidelines.

Among the naysayers, one of the most popular battle cries is “But they won’t EAT it!”  There seems to be a prevailing “wisdom” among those who decry the government’s intervention into its own school lunch program — a “wisdom” that tells us that American children will starve before eating something they don’t like (or, more accurately, THINK they don’t like).  And of course, in practice, there seems to be some unfortunate accuracy to the claim that lunchtime waste goes up exponentially along with the health quotient of the meal being served.  Even the LAUSD, after Jamie Oliver’s much-publicized intervention there, appears to have experienced quite a downturn in student enthusiasm for healthy lunches after the departure of the famous chef.

And yet.  YET.  You’ll never convince me that the observance of more apples in the trash, more quinoa salad untouched, more beans and rice thrown over for black-market Cheetos, actually mean that American children will not eat healthy food.  That’s the simple answer, sure, but it’s not the RIGHT answer.  There are dozens, literally dozens, of factors that go into the battle being fought with our kids over nutrition, not just in the school lunchrooms but in homes across the country.  But without examining all of those factors in detail, I’ll just boil it down to one key point:

Maybe they’re just not hungry.  Or, more accurately, maybe they’re not hungry ENOUGH.

I wonder several times a week, as I read Karen le Billon’s accounts of school lunches in France, just how it is that we as a culture miss the simple and obvious truth that if kids in other countries can eat well, our kids can also eat well.  Children in France are not made of different stuff than American children.  To put it quite simply, a lion eats meat, whether he is an African lion strolling the savannah, or a lion in a zoo somewhere halfway around the world who has never seen the wild beyond his man-made habitat.  Children are children, and are born omnivores, no matter where they are raised.

So what’s the difference?  Well, CULTURE, of course, I’m sure many of you are saying with rolled eyes.  But what does that mean, really?  Culture = traditions = habits = foodways = a relationship with food, shaped by family influence, peer influence, locale (in that herring might be more common than avocado, say, in Sweden), and expectations — to simplify sociological and anthropological fact, with all apologies to those of you more learned than I in these matters.  In other words, a child’s relationship to food is shaped by the way others around them eat and expect them to eat.  And we knew that.  But.

BUT.  I think we sometimes overlook the little things, the subtle nuances of food cultures that probably make a much bigger difference than we care to recognize.  For example, when those French children are being served their lovely four-course meals at lunchtime, they’ve probably not just eaten a sugary, starch-heavy, or artificially large snack just two hours prior.  In fact, I may miss my guess here, but they possibly haven’t eaten a snack of any kind at all.

It’s not that children in other cultures eat better than American children simply because the traditional foods of those cultures are healthier, or because their parents have more time to cook, or because there are greater expectations placed upon them to eat what they’re served — though all of those things may or may not be true, to varying degrees.  It’s that in many other parts of the world, meals are meals, and they’re not mucked up by constant eating.

Our kids eat too much.  They eat too often, rather, and with too much anxiety applied by well-meaning adults (parents, school administrators, activity providers, etc) to their possible HUNGER.  And let’s face it: in the absence of true hunger, aren’t YOU more likely to eat only what you think will taste the best, and skip the things that are less appealing to you?

L. came home today with a lunchbox that was mainly empty, but his vegetables had only barely been touched.  Now, L. is a child who LIKES vegetables, and had asked for the lunch he was given; and he’s also a child who understands that it’s important for him to eat the vegetables Mommy and Daddy serve to him.  But he didn’t eat them, despite the fact that his lunch wasn’t overly large or filling.  I was surprised…until I thought through his morning and realized he’d had a good breakfast at 7:45 a.m., followed by a “snack” of cereal and milk at school (around 9 a.m.), and sat down to lunch sometime between 11:30 and noon.

In the interim, he played with Legos, sang songs and listened to stories at circle time, did some art projects, and had show and tell.  He’d had neither the time nor the activity to get truly HUNGRY.  Peckish, yes.  A bit empty, certainly.  But gnawingly, startlingly HUNGRY?  I doubt it.

When was the last time you heard your child’s stomach growl?  If you can remember it, you’re probably farther ahead of the game than most Americans.  We’re so concerned that our kids will go hungry that we don’t let them get acquainted with what hunger actually feels like.  And then, when they fuss about eating things that are less appealing to them, we assume that the problem lies in the food, or in the children themselves (“Oh, she’s just so picky”).

It doesn’t.  The problem lies in us, and in our culture of nutrition anxiety.

So I say to you, Ms. Obama, and you, Secretary Vilsack: I sincerely appreciate what you are attempting here, and I applaud your motives.  I am pleased with the thought that has gone into trying to improve school food, and while I don’t think the new regulations have real teeth or will make substantive changes to the day-to-day realities in our schools, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to tear down small victories on the road to real progress.  But sadly, your new regulations exist within a larger cultural vortex that, if not exactly damning to progress of this kind, will certainly offer up at least a measurable and frustrating amount of resistance.  Your added vegetables may be destined for the trash, no matter how appetizing you make them, simply because you’re feeding them to children who don’t need, at that precise moment, to be fed.  Or don’t need to be fed quite so MUCH.  Or in such an option-rich environment.

See, if you know your next snack is just a few hours away, the peas just don’t seem necessary.  If you know your after-school activity will be serving graham crackers and chocolate milk, bok choy can be tossed with impunity.  And if you’ve got 400 calories’ worth of meat and starch on your plate, you’d have to be pretty hungry to delve into the creamed spinach, don’t you think?

I don’t mean to imply that we don’t have a serious — urgent, in fact — childhood hunger issue in this country.  Lest anyone take issue with this post, I’m not really talking about kids who get only one or two square meals a day.  I daresay that if you go to, say, a soup kitchen, more of the 5-year-olds in that room will be eating their vegetables than in the average kindergarten cafeteria.  What I’m talking about is more the kids who wake up to a bowl of cereal with juice, head off to school and eat their snack of cheese and crackers two hours later, and after another two hours, march into the cafeteria and stand in line to be served their 600 calories of hot food.  And then know they’ll eat again 2-3 hours later, and again 2-3 hours after that.

If you look at it that way…it seems so simple.  We’re not growing eaters because we’re not growing kids who are hungry enough to eat.  In our quest to make sure they’re nourished, we’re overfeeding them to the point that they feel no regret in leaving behind the MOST nourishing items on their plates, because food is nothing to them — it’s something that appears, disappears, and reappears before they can give it a second thought. Twelve months from now, give or take — maybe sooner, maybe later — someone will write an article discussing the deleterious effects of the new school food guidelines, and how many fruits and vegetables are being wasted because the children “won’t” eat them.  And nowhere in the whole heated debate over what kids should and shouldn’t be eating, and when, will the truth be mentioned.

They may just not be hungry.