According to a recent news article in the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, an unintended consequence of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has been loads of apples and celery being dumped in the cafeteria trash can.
I fear my son is guilty.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, rolled out by first lady Michelle Obama and the USDA, overhauled school lunches and put the smack-down on basically everything one of my sons will eat: french fries, chicken nuggets and sugary treats like yogurt (not the healthy kind of yogurt, but the flavored, mix-ins kind).
This son, whom I can’t name, has been a picky eater from the beginning. As young as 2, he went on food strikes that lasted for what felt like days and sent me into full-blown panic attacks that he might die of starvation.
“He won’t,” the doctor assured me with an infuriating smile. “Just let him cry it out.”
This doctor, my son’s first pediatrician, had silver hair and grown children. Did he even remember what it’s like listening to a hungry toddler moan and cry in his bed at night? Or did he, like my own husband, only know what it’s like to have waxed philosophical about childhood nutrition before retreating to the living room to watch ESPN, leaving his wife to deal with crying babies who won’t go to bed?
I struggled with my son’s eating habits for years, and when he was still young enough, I stopped just short of force-feeding him all the “right things.” My standards of what is “healthy” dipped dangerously low.
If my son was eating, it was a victory. When he ate a smidgen of spinach artichoke dip on a tortilla chip, I did the wave. When he agreed to put cheese on his buttered noodles, I thought confetti would fall from the ceiling. When he took one miniscule bite of scrambled egg, I wept with joy as I envisioned his body’s cells devouring the morsel.
Any time I found a reasonably healthy food my son would eat, I went to great lengths to stock up on it. I once traveled an entire city in search of a specific kind of yogurt: one that is creamy and light, but doesn’t have any “bits” in it. You see, for my son, it’s a texture-thing, not a taste-thing.
I came home from the yogurt quest with bags of different brands for him to try. None were right. Then we found the one, that blessed blend of creamy, light and bit-less yogurt that my son could eat by the gallons. And the next month, the manufacturer put it on their discontinued list. If I could find that yogurt company’s decision-maker, I’d fall on my knees before him and beg him to change his mind.
That’s how bad the eating situation gets at my house.
This was all a family secret — a private torture — until my son went to school, where he’d eat lunch in public.
What on earth could I pack for this texturally and food-challenged kid?
I knew what my son would eat for lunch, but that’s a different thing than what he should eat. Would the teachers think less of me if I packed his lunch with only peanut butter on bread and a bag of crackers? Would the other kids have baby carrots and hummus?
A new rat race began. Apparently, it isn’t enough to get your child to school on time and in matching clothes; now you have to pack them an all-organic, balanced lunch, too.
I was destined to lose.
But I dutifully packed my son’s lunch with carrots, applesauce and anything else that “looked good,” along with his peanut-butter bread and crackers. Then one day, his preschool teacher sent home a note: “He doesn’t eat the carrots. They just go in the trash. Feel free to pack what he’ll actually eat.”
Ironically (or perhaps obviously), for all my son’s texture problems, he will eat just about any type of candy or sweet. I could easily fill his lunch with chocolate and cookies. He’d eat those. But I don’t, not even when his bag seems nearly empty, because I’ve learned to compromise with lunch.
I’ll forgo the makes-me-feel-like-a-better-parent carrots, but I won’t succumb to sweets and junk food. Then, at dinner, when I can oversee, I stand my ground about “one bite of green beans” and “one piece of chicken.” And once a month, my son agrees to buy school lunch. I have no idea what he eats from it, but I have my guesses: the roll with butter. The rest probably goes in the trash.
So I understand the school lunch overhaul of 2010. Really, I do. And I’m appreciative of our government’s attention to children’s health. But I’m not surprised, and maybe even a little comforted, that my kid isn’t the only one dumping the greens in the trash bin.
Sarah Smiley is a Navy spouse and author of “Shore Leave,” a nationally syndicated column.