Cafe Society

Five ways to make public-school food and drinks healthier

When money and ethics collide, the crash is usually fun to watch. But when you throw public school meals into that mix, you get an ugly food fight with few winners and lots of losers -- and those losers are kids who are just trying to eat their lunches and get to recess.

Since childhood obesity is on the rise, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is revamping public school nutrition guidelines aimed at limiting the amount of sugar, salt and fat in school lunches as well as other foods sold at schools, including vending-machine snacks. The new rules are supposed to be officially released in June, but if they contain anything as ridiculous as "pizzagate" -- when industry lobbyists got lawmakers to block limits on French fries and classified pizza as a vegetable in 2011 -- then kids are going to keep getting fatter. And so are junk-food industry bank accounts.

We here at Cafe Society know that we have already screwed ourselves with decades of chili dogs and non-light beer, but kids still have a chance to live, thrive and not get Type II diabetes by the time they are 26. So in that spirit, here is our list -- fueled by chocolate-covered chocolate chip granola bars -- of the top five ways to really make school foods and drinks healthier.

5. Die, pop, die.

Many schools have voluntarily given soda pop and soda machines the fat boot, but if all of them would, then children would be forced to drink...water. We are lucky to live in a time in America when fresh, clean, fluoridated water is readily available, and even if you have to dress it up in a fancy bottle with a fancy label, getting the rugrats in the habit of naturally hydrating themselves while they are still impressionable is going to make it easier than waiting for them to figure that shit out in college -- home of the overnight-frozen water bottle that yields cold melt. This has the added bonus of keeping the younglings from tearing up mommy and daddy's dental insurance deductibles or matriculating to the big time with brown, rotted stumps in their heads.

4. Mend the vend. Upgrading vending machines from Snickers bar ATMs to glass houses of vegetable sticks isn't a new concept. We should have vending units like Japan does, which stock everything from flowers to raisins to bricks. Spend the money on the machines, schools, and offer students those little tubs of hummus and pita, or an almond-Craisin mix. Sure, they will whine a bit when you replace their Cheetos with chicken salad and wheat crackers, but kids are pretty whiny anyway, so complex carbs will give them more energy to complain about all the other things they don't like, which are intellectual character-building exercises for teachers and parents. 2. Put some "give a shit" back in regular school-lunch preparation.

Pre-made, pre-packaged, frozen ingredients have become staples in school-lunch programs across the country, and it's rare to find a cafeteria that prepares all-fresh foods. That being said, if public schools are taking this issue seriously and not just paying lasagna lip service, then they should be hiring adequate cooking staff, paying them good wages, and training them to prepare even simple basics like soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees from scratch. Making spaghetti sauce takes longer than opening a can, but a plate of steaming, tangy tomato sauce-smothered pasta tastes so much better. Add a green salad, fresh fruit and a whole-grain roll to that, and you have a meal that will rival what well-fed kids get at home for supper.

1. Be more like Denver Public Schools.

DPS does a fan-fucking-tastic job of planning and creating impressive lunch menus that include things like spinach salad, garden chili, sweet potato sticks, Orange Chicken with brown rice, garden greens, honey-glazed oatmeal rolls -- and fresh fruit choices every single day. And their lunches meet or exceed current USDA guidelines for fat and calories. Denver gets it -- and although other cities can't be exactly like us, they should really try.

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz