Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Penalty Zone . . . Where Good Ideas Go Bad

By Angela Phelan
Senior Vice President, Clarion Group

In response to the article in Food Management, announcing the loss of revenue in the Ontario, Canada, schools because of resistance to "healthy food," I ask that the food police on school boards everywhere us a modicum of common sense when revising the school menus.

To the kind of knee-jerk response to the notion that "kids won't eat healthy food," I offer the following:
Roasted chicken mashed potatoes, broccoli-cheddar soup made with fresh chicken or vegetable stock, pasta dressed with lightly cooked, fresh tomato sauce, crisp roasted potato spears, baked sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, blueberries, strawberries, bananas, apples, lemonade made with fresh lemons and sweetened with honey, hamburgers made with fresh-ground, hormone-free, lean beef broiled and served on a bun (whole wheat) with a side of lettuce (mixed spring greens) and tomato (vine-ripened, pesticide-free).

Are these "healthy foods"? Yes -- if they are prepared from fresh ingredients, free of hormones, pesticides, trans fats and other "fillers," so often the silent ingredients in convenience foods. Homemade food, prepared by people who believe that we are on a mission to feed healthy children and keep them that way. That's what makes food "healthy," not overcooked brussel sprouts.

This is a tiny, very basic list. But this is healthy and delicious food. The idea should be to add to the nutritious enjoyment of food and not create a penalty zone for healthy eating. Simply removing candy bars is a good idea turned on its head. Seventy percent dark chocolate is good food. Can we offer real chocolate instead of a mound of chemically treated fillers and seduce a child into a mouth-watering snack attack? Adults make choices based on price and quality. Children make choices based on simple gratification. It is our job to offer children choices that reflect the quality we ourselves feel we deserve. This requires research and not a blind obedience to a health initiative that means well and at the same time turns children into involuntary gatekeepers.

We could withdraw the fryers by offering alternatives that re really good. Baked sweet potato "fries," sweet and slightly salty fresh potato "fries" baked in the oven. If anyone cares to source it, there's a new perforated, heavy metal roasting pan designed especially to create a crisp surface on the hallowed "french fry." It is a simple marvel. It is widely available. Shouldn't the operators try it? Potatoes are a great source of vitamin C and potassium. No reason not to make them a part of a student's diet. But not if the potato is coated with chemicals to keep it from moulding during packing and shipping and then it is dropped into a few gallons of very murky hot fat.

Do those fatty potatoes sell? Of course. It's all about conditioning a child from pre-toddler days to pick up a "french fry" as one of his very first non-baby foods. This conditioning can be changed by creating new habits at home. Schools can -- and must -- follow through and add to new normal. Bake potatoes in their skins, or peeled and mashed, roasted with rosemary, or cut into batons and oven-fried on the baking sheet mentioned above. It could be a brave new world! A healthy alternative to the hot dog? Maybe it's a freshly made meatball (oven baked) hero, using homemade ingredients, dressed with some fresh sauce and served with a sprinkling of low-fat cheese.

The planners of student menus need to consider the fact that these students have even more highly-tuned palates than their parents. Taste buds die off as one ages, but the healthy child and teenager still has the very heightened olfactory and sensory monitors that signal "yes" or "no," with little room for "maybe." Why is it that "Mom's fabulous roast chicken" works? It smells wonderful and tastes even better. When food in school cafeterias is made fresh and smells wonderful, children will eat it.

We are on a national mission to snatch our children back from the looming medical crisis they face -- overweight, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In the very young. It is simply not acceptable. So, reeling off negative sales figures as a justification, possibly, to revert to menus "designed to sell," is a disservice to the entire community -- but most especially to the students -- who are blissfully unaware of their own vulnerability.

Why not treat the student at school as you would treat yourself? Make changes slowly, but keep moving forward. Offer high quality alternatives and most important: Remember that school feeding is about nourishing children so they will be in optimum condition to learn and live. Finding the best way to healthy and delicious eating for students will not be found in the penalty zone.