In today’s LA Times, David Just and Brian Wansink weigh in on the behavioral fallout of revamping school cafeteria food choices by eliminating commercial fast food and flavored milks. They contend that giving kids a choice of foods increases the chance that kids will choose healthy foods at least some of the time instead of tossing out the tray and sneaking pizza orders into school.
A few of their observations–that fresh fruit is more appealing and gets chosen more often when placed in an attractive bowl right by the cash register checkout–make sense. Cafeterias could do more to arrange the choices they have in keeping with the way restaurants from banquet-style buffets to the corner Starbucks have found effective. Put the fruit right by the cash register and that impulse-buy instinct will kick in. Now if only they had a better strategy for vegetables. Or at least a more nutritious and less dismal choice than carrots vs. celery.
But what really struck me in this article wasn’t the fact that Wansink, the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, and his colleague David Just seem to be condoning the continued availability of fast food in public school cafeterias.
The most striking thing about this article on an overchewed topic was the picture at the top of the page: a high school cafeteria display with single-serving “Uncrustables” white-bread sandwiches (Smucker’s brand) on a shelf that was labeled “Fresh Apple Slices” (none in sight, but I bet they would have been branded in baggies as well) and little bags of baby carrots (couldn’t tell which brand, only that there was one).
I know the existence of carrots is an improvement. I know that sandwiches are generally less awful than pizza and fries. But the bagginess of the whole thing–wrapping something in plastic pouches at a factory makes it officially dead and stale. Not fresh.
The apples, if they actually exist at that school, are already cut into pieces that are either browning or have had to be treated with ascorbic acid (well, that would be the best option, and would sneak in a little vitamin C) or another anti-browning agent. The sandwiches on white gummy-looking bread have the crusts removed. It’s as though the kids in the cafeteria were four years old and couldn’t handle biting into a whole apple or peeling an orange or eating a sandwich on actual bread with crusts (and I mean really, what about all those hamburger buns?) It’s disheartening.
I realize a lot of school cafeterias got rid of their dishwashers as well as their full-function kitchens a generation ago. But they could be offering food that looks and tastes fresher and less like it had been sitting for ages in a vending machine.
If you’re going to offer sandwiches in the cafeteria, why not let the kids choose bread and fillings at a sandwich line? It would take a staff person to assemble them, most likely for reasons of discipline as well as hygiene, but the food would look fresher and probably be fresher, and the act of choosing and ordering a bespoke sandwich would probably make it more appealing than taking another soulless packet off the shelf. There’d be less plastic trash too.
The labor issue–there’s always a labor issue with hand-assembled sandwiches, assuming you’re not going to let the kids make their own. But you could, maybe as much as once a week, let different clubs at the school take turns running a sandwich line as a fundraiser, get a free lunch that day themselves and charge a nickel or so above the standard lunch price for their cause. Or do a school-wide chili cookoff event once a year with different teams competing. It would be a lot more fun than the dim “choice” of celery vs. carrots (and of course 89% of students will choose carrots over celery–carrots are faintly sweet, while celery is overtly bitter even though it’s a savory bitter).
If the school isn’t already shackled by a year-long exclusive contract with a food-packaging company like Smucker’s, offering a student-run sandwich line once in a while might actually come out less expensive and wasteful.
Filed under: cooking, Food Politics, frugality, kid food, nutrition | Tagged: Brian Wansink, David Just, food marketing to kids, food policy, nutrition, school cafeterias, school food, Smucker's, USDA, vegetables |