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Fed Up with Rhetoric

May 8, 2014

Documentaries about food are my kind of movies. And as it just so happens, there is a new one that’s coming to theaters tomorrow. It’s called Fed Up and you can watch the trailer below.

Based on the trailer, it seems to be largely about America’s eating problem, our national weight gain, and the ubiquity of sugar in the foods we eat. We eat a lot of processed crap, thanks in part to government subsidies that encourage the production of corn and soy, which then flood the market with inexpensive sugar and fat.

I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on their specific arguments, but one of their promotional tweets last week got me all hot under the collar. You can see the full tweet and my reaction here, however the relevant text is below.

The answer to today’s trivia is $2.86. Do you think this is enough to provide students w/ a healthy meal? #FedUpMovie

How can I say this gently…

Well, let start with some retail food prices that I know off the top of my head:
– Whole foods has organic dried beans and lentils for $2 a pound
– HWFC typically sells organic corn meal for about $1 a pound
– Trader Joe’s sells a pound of organic 100% whole grain pasta for under $1.50
– Four pounds of dried chickpeas from a local Indian market cost $5
– Two pounds of protein rich chickpea flour will set you back a mere $3

Other ingredients that are widely considered to be healthful and are also super cheap:
– Fresh tofu
– Brown rice
– Day old bread
– Eggs
– Carrots
– Onions
– Cabbage
– Canned tomatoes
– Potatoes
– Sweet potatoes
– Plantains
– Frozen peas

The trick to cooking healthy foods on a budget is to look internationally and see what’s nourished generations in developing nations.

There are so many variations on Indian dal, it makes my head spin. And they don’t have to be made fiery hot either. Chana masala is one of the most loved dishes in the Fussy household. But even classic potato dishes can be adapted to an American audience. Spiced potatoes with peas can be folded into whole wheat flour and butter hand-pies, with some lentil soup on the side.

Latin America with all of its bean and corn meal based dishes is a natural source for inspiration. You don’t have to roll tamales, nor load up the cornmeal with tons of lard. A simple cornmeal, water and salt mixture can easily be turned into a tamale casserole with beans and enchilada sauce (maybe a little bit of cheese and sour cream for kicks).

Lots of Asia is quite poor. Brown rice with tofu and vegetables can make a stir fry. A little bit of meat and egg can be transformed into fried rice. What kid wouldn’t flip for the sweet and salty chapchae of Korea with its clear sweet potato noodles and colorful julienne of vegetables? Sure, most schools stay away from peanut butter, but the classic Thai flavor of fish sauce can be Americanized with peanut butter on whole wheat spaghetti (with some parboiled broccoli).

Burgers don’t have to be made out of beef. Beans can be combined with bread crumbs and eggs into patties. So can sweet potatoes and chickpeas. Savory bread pudding may not be standard kid fare, but with a little bit of bacon, egg, cheese and sweet sauteed onions, it’s got a lot of very friendly flavors.

Hearty soups and stews with crusty breads. Potato pancakes with shredded zucchini. Polenta sticks with tomato sauce. Rice and bean burritos. Frittate. A whole world of pastas, and a staggering variety of bean dishes.

You may be thinking, “Kids won’t eat any of this stuff.”

And maybe you have a point. Kids like the familiar. But it’s the familiar that’s the problem.

There is no real path to a more healthful chicken nugget within the confines of the school food budget. And even if you could find something that worked, we would still be doing a disservice to our children. We would still be teaching them that things that look like chicken nuggets are food.

Even in Princeton, the school lunch menu this week is:
Monday – Chicago style hot dog
Tuesday – Whole grain breaded chicken patty
Wednesday – Beef Italian meat sauce on whole grain pasta
Thursday – Turkey macho nachos
Friday – Whole grain cheese pizza

Even though it’s Princeton, the food is still made by Chartwells. And since I have no idea where these presumably highly processed meats come from, Young Master Fussy abstains from these offerings.

To be fair, each one comes with access to the cold vegetable and fruit bar in addition to one hot vegetable from the serving line. On those days when YMF does buy lunch, I’ve never successfully been able to compel him to even try one of those fruits or vegetables.

Simply offering fruits and vegetables in addition to the standard industrial food crap isn’t the answer. Nor is pushing salad. Yes, I’m sure that some kids simply adore salad. Good for you if your child eats the stuff. But all of the greens with any nutrition in them are fundamentally bitter, and most of the dressings used to hide the taste of lettuce are generally filled with vile stuff. Plus, pushing salad on kids produces a ton of waste. They just won’t eat it.

That’s why I think the answer is to transform the way we think about food. It shouldn’t be a couple ounces of meat, with some starch, veg and fruit. Rather we should try to get children more familiar with foods that use meat as a flavoring agent (if it’s even used at all) so that all of the good healthful stuff that’s full of dietary fiber, vegetable-based protein, and vegetables is on the center of the plate.

And the best part is that with the right training, and a shift in mindset, you can totally execute meals like this for less than $2.86 per kid. Which is good, because as far as I can tell, that cost includes labor and supplies too. The real number for food seems to be closer to a buck. But that’s still doable with the above menu items too, especially when paying wholesale government rates.

Granted, to make my pipe dream a reality some of the government regulations would have to change too. And there’s pretty much no hope of that ever happening as long as big food maintains a cozy relationship with Congress.

But a guy can dream.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2014 7:01 pm

    Did you ever watch any of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show? There was some of the usual producer-driven “reality show drama,” but mostly I found it to be a pretty compelling look inside a (typically) terrible school lunch program. Kind of amazing that a show like that was on network TV, even if it was banished to Friday nights.

    Anyway, on the topic of dal, my new favorite version comes from Suvir Saran. The depth of flavor here is phenomenal: http://www.suvir.com/Lentil_Dal.html

  2. May 9, 2014 1:33 pm

    With all due respect I say with a saddened heart that your absolutely wonderful idea on changes to make to school lunches will never see implementation. I’d be surprised if anything remotely like it even made it to the point that it got serious review by those within the system that make such decisions. That’s because decisions like what food to supply for lunches and other meals is based on costs combined with kickbacks. If some education bureaucrat can’t get a little something for themselves out of the deal then the vendor can forget about that school lunch contract. It may not always be a direct kickback like a bribe but you can bet that someone connected to that bureaucrat is getting something and then passing some of that back. This is how government works and most of us in America know this and just accept it because we’re too busy in our lives to try and cleanup/fix government.

    As if it weren’t bad enough that our kids eat garbage in school if they don’t bring food from home, some schools in Chicago are banning home-packed lunches. These unaccountable education bullies are telling parents they no longer get to decide what their child eats for lunch while at school. How’s that for an out of control Orwellian system?

  3. May 12, 2014 11:02 am

    bluecollarcritic has some relevant points, however none of them are good reasons to roll over and play dead. They all call for more food activism, not despair. Your post, although kind of ouchy, is important so please please please keep writing about our essential need for good quality food.

    • May 14, 2014 2:20 pm

      @Lorres

      I just wanted to clarify that I was not advocating rolling over and playing dead. I just believe that the power/resource necessary to force a change at that level in government is greater than what is currently available in our world where too many believe eating out at McDonalds is an OK substitute for a proper meal. The public has been dumbed down (both thru educational re-programming and physically through mass drugging of the public via the water supply by fluoridation) and tuned out by mind numbing, brain cell destroying voyeurism broadcast to us via the boob tube every day. You’re more likely to get people to spend a dollar to vote on who gets thrown out of the house in this week’s episode of “Trailer Trash Smack Down” then you are to care about what is being done to their kids school lunch.

      If these people are willing to put up with the government molesting their kids at the airport and the bus/train stations in the name of security theatre then they’ll tolerate whatever the school serves their kids so long as the kids are being fed something. It’s a real shame.

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