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Veg-phobia II: Summer Edition

My daughter is at camp for two weeks, the longest she’s been away from home, learning to deal with meals and insulin on her own (with the camp nurse’s help). After six months of calculating and eight weeks of giving herself shots, I know she’s ready to do it, and the nurse is ready, and her counselors are ready. And I overprepared and brought more supplies than she’ll need (my daughter has nicknamed this “Mom-anoia”).

I brought everything and a little bit more–including carrots and celery sticks and low-fat cheese sticks, and a loaf of whole wheat bread for activity carbs. I felt like I was turning into my grandmother, who used to bring shopping bags full of real bagels and corn rye on the plane with her from New York whenever she and Grandpa visited us in small-town Virginia.

But really. The nurse laughed at first when I asked a couple of weeks ago if the camp kitchen had vegetables as an option for campers who needed a non-junk snack (I’d looked at the sample menus online and they looked a bit Boy-Ar-Dee to me), but then she admitted the camp doesn’t really serve a lot of vegetables and suggested I bring them for her to store in the infirmary fridge. They don’t have anything whole wheat either. I think she stopped laughing and started sounding rueful about a third of the way through her reply. “We have fruit,” she said half-heartedly, knowing immediately that it wouldn’t really do for a diabetic.

The food at camp is a smack in the face with the wet rag of reality: this is how the rest of the country eats today. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a great camp in every other respect, with a long track record all over the Americas and people of my generation who still feel immensely grateful to have gone as kids. We were very fortunate to get a scholarship for it.

So what’s gone wrong with the food? It’s like school cafeteria food in the ’70s, but without the kale or the stewed tomatoes, the half-hearted iceberg lettuce salads or the lima beans. Take all that away and you have spaghetti, turkey burgers, the occasional chicken or tuna fish, grilled cheese, pizza, some form of potatoes or corn, and fruit. Some protein, a surprising amount of fat, hidden and otherwise, highish salt and a lot of starches on top of starches. It’s also “all you can eat.” But what are you really getting that’s worth seconds? No fiber. No vitamins. Few minerals. Nothing green. Per the Sylvia cartoons, “We feature all-white meals.”

Vegetables? Salad if you’re lucky. Broccoli? Nearly unheard of. Tomatoes? only occasionally. Red cabbage, carrots, celery or any other noshing vegetable of worth? Um, not this summer.

And it is summer. Best time of year for greens. This is when it’s all happening at the farmers’ markets all over the country, and your local newspaper is probably exhorting you to get out there and try it. And did I mention this is California, prime place for vegetabalia all year round?

How did this happen? To a well-educated, professional and middle-class part of the population, no less? The nurse tried to explain to me, “This is what they’re used to at home. The kitchen figures the kids won’t eat them.”

Disheartening in the extreme. But she’s right about the way families tend to eat these days. We saw it firsthand when some dear friends of ours came to visit from the east coast a couple of weeks ago. Their kids are active, bright, very social and outgoing, a lot like them.

But try to serve a meal and one or another parent will suddenly take you aside and whisper apologetically the things they’ve come to believe are written in stone: “He hates pasta–we don’t want you to go to any trouble. We’ll just go around the corner and pick him up something,” meaning a take-out box of highly sauced meat and a pile of fried rice–and no vegetables–from the Panda Express. The parents also conveniently managed to bring back the same thing for themselves. This after I’d cooked a meal of fresh food and had already put it out on the table.

As for the daughter who did eat pasta, “She doesn’t eat vegetables,” was the quick, almost defensive, warning as I started to put out…are you scared yet? a bowl of lightly steamed broccoli, bright green, and a bowl with tomatoes and basil in oil and vinegar. Never even gave the girl a chance to taste it and decide for herself whether to make faces (not that she would, as long as her parents weren’t there). They just assumed.

Aside from the insult factor, which was pretty high, it quickly became obvious that neither of the parents were that keen on eating vegetables themselves.

At a restaurant that offers really good salads as an option on the side of a grilled sandwich, and makes good roast potatoes from scratch, they let the kids choose generic fries, which came in a huge mound, to someone’s great relief–mostly the parents’. The kids have learned to put a smug expression on their faces whenever this happens, because their parents have protected them once again from having to deal with something new (and why, at that age, should vegetables of any kind be new or an ordeal?) But they’re actually missing out on so much by eating so narrowly.

And I think this is where the rubber hits the road today. The kids rarely ever see vegetables at home, and their parents treat them as an inconvenience, something to be feared and avoided. The kitchen counters and floors are always pristine. You never see green or red or purple stains on the cutting boards. They never buy herbs that come in a bunch rather than a jar. They too are really missing out, especially in the summertime.

In other countries people look forward all winter to the return of spring weather and the first greens of the year. They’re tired of everything being sweet or bland or starchy or preserved. They want something fresh, with the flavor that only comes from something growing and green (or red, or yellow, or these days purple and orange). They want basil and mint and oregano and rosemary. That’s what summer is all about.

Here? Another burger and fries, please. Make it pale, flabby, not too challenging–fresh food frightens me.

The remedy for veg-phobia is pretty simple, though. Michelle Obama and all those schools clamoring for school gardens are starting to have the right idea. Get those kids out into a vegetable garden to plant and weed, or at the very least, take them out to one of the pick-your-own farms one weekend. Have them pick the vegetables for the day–choose a few familiar ones and a few more exotic ones, and have them ask the farmers what to do with them. Have the kids make the salad or chop the zucchini or mix the vinaigrette.  Taste some herbs too. They’ll have fun doing it if they’re with their friends or classmates. And once they get hands-on, they’ll try all of it. And maybe their parents will stop hedging so much and be proud of them.

As for camp–my daughter will make it through, and she’ll learn to adapt to most of it without me there to calculate carbs with her. She may turn up her nose at more carrots and celery by next week, or she may be relieved, but at least she’s got the option. And luckily for her, there’s still a bit more summer available after she comes home. Thank g-d it’s only for two weeks.

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