On Fridays everyone bought their lunch. During the week, at least half of the kids in my elementary school class brought their lunch. We were called “baggers” when we lined up to go to the cafeteria, though few of us had actually had “bags.” We had stylish boxes, mostly plastic by this time, with Care Bears, My Little Pony, Rainbow Bright and Smurfs emblazoned on the lid. Thermoses were rarely part of the lunch box kit and most of us either brought Capri Sun pouches (which we could never open) or bought milk in the special milk-and-ice cream line. Occasionally, I got the 35 cents to buy a skippy cup of ice cream. Those were good days.
But Friday nearly everyone lined up in the “buyers” line. Friday was pizza day. And no one was going to miss having a slice of pizza — even if it was a rectangle and tasted a bit like cardboard. We would make faces when the cafeteria ladies asked if we wanted salad on our tray. “Poison!” was the joke some of my classmates. Why would we want that? We were in it for the pizza. And maybe some chocolate ice cream.
My other distinct lunch time memory was that the kids who received free or reduced-price lunch had to be in the front of the line. They were branded from the first full day of first grade, as if they were some sort of “other.” Immediately, all the stereotypes and stigmas of being on government assistance were ascribed to them, even if as 7-year olds we didn’t really understand what it all meant.
One of my other fond food memories of childhood revolves around going grocery shopping with my mother. Just before we were bored to death, we finally hit the promised land — the cereal aisle. My brother and I were allowed to select our own cereal and we went up and down the aisle looking not for our favorite brand, not even necessarily the one with the best commercial on Saturday morning TV, but the one with the best toy on the box. We often made our breakfast decision based on the promise of a decoder ring or action figure. Mom would veto the selection if (a) she knew we would not actually eat the cereal selected or (b) the prize was something you had to send away for, because she knew that dealing with our disappointment immediately in the store would be better than incessant wailing against the cereal Gods in the morning before school.
These memories returned this week while listening to the news. On Monday, President Obama signed a child nutrition bill which provided more money to subsidize free meals and more money to schools to offset the high price of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. It’s part of the First Lady’s campaign to help end (or curb) childhood obesity. As a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s, I recall the Regan years of classifying ketchup as a vegetable. So yes, I’m in favor of anything which helps bring better quality, nutritious food to as many children as possible.
Then on Wednesday the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s to stop the company from advertising their Happy Meals with toys. The marketing practices, the group claims, target children under the age of 8 who don’t yet understand the difference between programming and advertising.
Opponents say it’s the responsibility of the parent to watch what their children eat.
For the record, I have no children so I can not attest to first-hand knowledge of the struggle to keep kids healthy and happy and myself sane at the same time. I suspect those three things, while not by nature mutually exclusive, often do not go well together. But any tools to help create a healthier environment are surely worth investigating and trying. After all, we’re not talking about banning Happy Meals — just to stop targeting the ads to kids, making it easier for parents to choose what their kids eat and when.
Our food choices affect our everyday lives. It’s not just long-term health or weight gain, but the effect food has on the body, on the mind and on the spirit. When we start to learn those lessons as children, not in a food-police type of way but in a holistic approach to health and education, we begin to set ourselves up for future success.