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Elizabeth Davies: Adults must teach kids about nutrition

Elizabeth Davies

When was the last time you had a rectangle-shaped piece of pizza?

For most of us, it was probably sometime in junior high or high school. School cafeterias are well-known for their rectangle-shaped pizzas.

Sadly, it seems not much has changed in today’s cafeteria. Despite all of the new information that’s come out about healthy eating and nutritionally-charged lifestyles, I understand that today’s schoolchildren are still being fed the same unhealthy meals we got 20 years ago.

A new TV show, “Food Revolution,” has people across the country talking about the food being served in school cafeterias. Airing Friday nights on ABC, the program follows chef Jamie Oliver in his quest to bring healthy foods into schools.

Maybe some people weren’t surprised by what they saw on the show. Others — myself included — were shocked to see first-graders who couldn’t name their vegetables. We couldn’t believe the school district considers a side of fries to be a serving of vegetables. It was mind-blowing that students at the West Virginia grade school where the show was filmed were only served finger foods because administrators assumed children that age were unable to use a fork and knife.

I started asking people I know who spend time in schools — teachers, employees, students — what their cafeteria setting is like. One sixth-grader told me she eats a piece of fruit for lunch each day. That’s it. One piece of fruit. And sometimes “a cookie or chips from the snack bar if I’m hungry,” she added.

Regardless, her cafeteria offers very little from a nutritional standpoint. It’s the same collection of burgers and rectangle-shaped pizza that we had when I was a kid. There may be a sad-looking salad thrown in there, but what nondieting teenager is going to choose a salad when there are fries nearby?

The thing that really gets me, though, is that the same company that provides food to that sixth-grade cafeteria also provides food for teachers and school employees. But instead of grease a la mode, the teachers get a menu with healthier options that include hearty salads and sandwiches.

Why can’t they serve that to the kids? I wondered aloud.

Because the kids don’t want to eat it, came the response.

And there we go. The reason American schoolchildren are eating junk has less to do with how much it costs to feed them or how much easier it is to prepare processed foods. It’s about the fact that we’ve decided to let kids make the rules.

The same scene played out on “Food Revolution.” School administrators said that chef Oliver would not be allowed to continue making healthy meals for the students if the children refused to eat them.

I wonder what those same administrators would say if the students didn’t want to do their math homework. Or if they refused to play basketball in gym class. Or if they insisted on talking during English class. Would it be okay to simply stop teaching, because the children don’t want to learn?

The bottom line is this: It’s up to adults to teach children. We teach them how to behave, we teach them to read and we teach them to write. We teach them how to function as an independent adult.

So why do we fail to teach them about food?

It takes a lot of time, knowledge and repetition before you’ll get a person who willingly takes broccoli instead of fries and an apple for dessert. We can’t expect children to simply take to that style of eating right away, particularly if that’s not what they are fed at home.

But consider this: For at least one meal a day, American schoolchildren could eat pure, healthy foods. They could pronounce every ingredient that goes into their mouths. They could be introduced to foods they may never have found they liked any other way. That’s the power of a school.

It’s up to us to unleash it.

To learn more, or to sign Jamie Oliver’s petition to improve school foods, visit jamieoliver.com.

Contact Elizabeth Davies atedavies@rrstar.com.