Have school cafeterias across the country become another political arena?


My first assignment (as a teacher) was last summer at a Title 1 middle school in east Tulsa. Title 1 schools provide free breakfast and lunch.

The first morning in the cafeteria, I saw kids throwing disposable breakfast trays of untouched food into the trash, except for the chocolate milk. Apparently, the only way kids can get chocolate milk is to go through the food line and take the food tray.

I asked my closest colleague: “What the heck?”

She described how terrible the cafeteria food was. I’ll quote: “The food is inedible. Not a single teacher eats in the cafeteria.”

I asked why the cafeteria continues to prepare “inedible” meals knowing they will go to waste.

the answer? “Michelle Obama.”

Oh boy, I thought. This is an answer that probably has more layers than an onion.

As First Lady, Michelle Obama has taken up the issue of childhood obesity. I remember pictures of Mrs. Obama and her two daughters tending to the White House vegetable garden, which she modeled on Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II Victory Garden. She even wrote a best-selling book called “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.”

Mrs. Obama’s influence led to the establishment of dietary guidelines, which included more fresh fruits and vegetables and less fat, starches and sugar, in school cafeterias across the country.

However, on January 17, 2020, which was Mrs. Obama’s birthday and three days before President Donald Trump left office, the Agriculture Department enacted rules that would give schools greater freedom to decide how much fruit to serve during breakfast and what types of fruits to serve. Vegetables. To include in lunches. It would also expand the scope of what constitutes snacks, the idea being that schools could serve foods such as hamburgers and hot dogs as snacks.

Let’s go back to summer school. …Later that day, my curiosity led me to eat lunch in the cafeteria.

This is what was presented:

1. Whole wheat tortilla chicken quesadilla

2. Steamed broccoli

3. Baked apple slices

4. Chocolate milk. I was told that if regular milk was offered, more than 90% of it would not be consumed. The lesser evil was to serve chocolate milk.

I must share that my mother was a nutritionist. Korean food is generally healthy, and the meals at Lee’s house were good, healthy and delicious. So, for my trained taste, the school lunch was great. Greetings to the cafeteria workers!

Every day, a faculty member would take orders from the staff and head to McDonald’s or Taco Bell. In fact, no faculty member ate in the cafeteria.

Children are not blind. Neither are the deaf. Their little antennae are very sharp. They (and cafeteria workers) see what faculty eat, and hear when school lunches are deemed “inedible.”

Scientists, including anthropologists, believe that humans, by design, crave fat, salt, and sugar. This is how we have survived and grown as a species. But in 21st-century Oklahoma, food is no longer something we must hunt (or chase), grow, or feed through physical exertion.

The food industry lobbied the Agriculture Department under Trump to relax dietary guidelines because the proposed bills died in Congress at the committee level. The votes were divided along party lines.

Weeks after taking office, President Joe Biden directed the Agriculture Department to roll back dietary guidelines from when Mrs. Obama was a year younger.

The questions to ask are: Do Republicans like burgers, and Democrats like apples? Or have school cafeterias across the country become another political arena?

If the latter is true, our children’s tastes may need adjusting every four years.

K.  John Lee

K. John Lee

K. John Lee worked last year as a teacher in Tulsa Public Schools.

This article originally appeared in The Oklahoman: Do teachers not eat school lunches and model student behavior?

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