Some of you may know that I was a teacher in a former life. For five years I taught 9th grade physical science in the second largest school district in our state. I started as a wet-behind-the-ears 22 year old college graduate. I knew a lot about science and education, I didn't know much about teaching.
As a teacher of freshmen, most of my students were 14 and 15 years old. But we had a few 16 year olds mixed in, depending on birthdays, retention, etc. One young man will forever be burned in my mind. He was a tall young man who every day would fold himself into one of my desks and place his head upon his desk and immediately fall asleep. He never caused a problem, but he also never did any work. Even on lab days (which were at least twice a week), he would sleep on the lab stool with his head on the table.
I went to my team leader, a salt-of-the-earth man who taught next door to me, and asked him about this student we both had in class. Yes, he slept in George's class as well. The only thing he didn't sleep through was lunch. I asked, "Why is he here? If he doesn't want to be in school, why doesn't he just drop out? He's sixteen, he could do it." George put his arm around this polyanna-teacher's shoulders and said, "He's here because it's probably his only safe place. He probably doesn't sleep at night because of some sort of family trouble, he may be homeless. And he's here for lunch because I'm sure it's the only hot meal he gets all day."
My eyes were opened in a way that day that they could never have been opened in a college classroom.
I came from a home where food was never an issue. My safety was never an issue. I may have had to work hard on the farm, but I always had a hot meal and a warm bed at night and breakfast in the morning.
This past month, the USDA released new dietary guidelines for school lunch. (You can find them HERE) As a biologist and someone who taught anatomy and physiology as a part time job, I'm appalled. Apparently dietitians no longer take anatomy courses because the first thing you would learn about the nervous system and the brain in MY three credit college class is that the brain is fueled by protein and fat. And the USDA has all but eliminated protein and fat from the school lunch menu.
Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston A. Price Foundation shared the following in a speech in 2010: (source - http://www.westonaprice.org/mentalemotional-health/nutrition-and-mental-development)
"Now, if we look at the fats in the brain, the two major fats are saturated fat and a fat called arachidonic acid. But we're not supposed to eat saturated fats, right? Yet saturated fats like butter, meat fats, lard, and coconut oil are the kinds of fats your brain wants and needs. And if you don't eat those fats, your body says, "Well, give me that next best thing: refined carbohydrates." Your body can make saturated fats out of refined carbohydrates. And that's how people get cravings for refined carbohydrates - especially pregnant women and growing children. Unfortunately, eating refined carbohydrates robs the body of nutrients, while natural saturated animal fats provide some very important nutrients.
The other really interesting fat in the brain is arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that is only in animal fats, such as in butter, egg yolks, organ meats, and meat fats. Like saturated fats, arachidonic acid has been the victim of demonization."
And what happens when the brain is deprived of its preferred fuel? Ms. Morrell tell us in the same speech:
"Today the horrible condition called autism - along with other manifestation of brain starvation such as learning disorders, mental problems, inability to concentrate, behavior problems, violence, addiction and mental retardation threaten the fabric of our culture.
I'm not going to mince words here. These problems are the direct result of the dietary guidelines coming out of the Department of Agriculture since the early 1980's,...
Having recently given birth to three children in three years, I know a little something about the pregnancy and the infant/toddler diet recommendations. Do you know why pregnant women are to eat fats? Do you know why infants and toddlers are to drink high saturated fat breastmilk, formula and whole milk? The fat is necessary for brain development and function! But, I guess when you reach school age, you know longer need to develop your brain or require it to function.
I have a friend who used to work in the ED classroom. If you don't know, ED stands for emotionally disturbed. These are the kids who suffer from many of the brain starvation diagnoses that Ms. Morrell listed above. In this classroom, the ED staff decided to modify the diets of their students to eliminate refined carbohydrates, and to add more fat and protein. It took about two days for the students to detoxify and after those two days, their behavior problems were dramatically reduced.
After a while, the ED staff stopped the special lunches. Why? Did they quit working? No, but the parents wouldn't feed them those same foods on the weekend so it took until Wednesday every week to detox the students from their diets at home.
I tell you that to illustrate the foundation of my philosophy of education:
The school (teachers, coaches, bus drivers, school lunch programs) can do NO MORE and NO LESS than what is reinforced at home.
The USDA changed the school lunch guidelines to reduce calories...across the board...for every student. Athletes, video-game junkies, dancers, science nerds, boys, girls: they all get the same calories. For a student in K-5, they are allowed 550-650 calories for lunch; a high school student gets 750-850 calories. My toddlers eat more calories than that! But we're expecting children to not only function, but to use their brains in higher learning processes.
When it comes to protein, it gets worse. A K-5 student is only allowed 8-10oz of meat (or meat alternatives), high schoolers get 10-12oz per WEEK! A large egg without a shell weighs 1.7oz, my kids routinely eat at least three eggs for breakfast. Oh wait, did you think that kids who eat breakfast at school would be getting eggs? Sorry, no student can have protein for breakfast, only lunches. Breakfasts are strictly grains, fruit and milk. No protein allowed. Oh, and the milk is skim milk, which is basically sugar water. No healthy fats there.
To boil it down (school kitchen humor intended), this is my question: Per the Feeding America website,
According to the USDA, over 16 million children lived in food insecure (low food security and very low food security) households in 2010.
We have 16 million children in this country who don't know where their next meal is coming from, but we're going to limit their food intake at school? The only hot meal some of them will get in a day?
I have a friend who is an amazing mother. She and her husband have fostered many children in addition to raising their own five children. Last spring she told me of a moment that broke her heart. They were planting their very large family garden, everyone was helping. Their foster son, who had been with them for about 6 months asked what vegetables they could plant in pots. My friend said, "Well, almost anything could be planted in a pot, but we've got plenty of room here to plant anything you want." Her foster son kept asking and wondering, particularly about carrots. Finally, she asked him why. He replied, "If I plant the vegetables in pots, then when I get sent back to my mom I can take some food with me." After some questioning of the social worker, my friend discovered that this boy's mom would use her money to buy video games rather than food.
USDA officials, are you willing to look in the face of this boy and tell him he can't have seconds or leftovers? Because by painting the child obesity situation with your very wide brush, you are adversely affecting so many others. You cannot change the eating habits of children by limiting their caloric intake in 5 or 10 meals a week. That's only 25-50% of the meals those kids consume per week.
And the calories you are providing them are not calories that provide brain nutrition. Everyone needs a balanced diet...but this diet is not balanced. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a colorful plate and eating fruits and vegetables. But adding more fruits and vegetables to the exclusion of fats and proteins is not the solution. You are depriving children of the very fuel their little (and not so little) brains and bodies need to power themselves.
The USDA wants to boil it down to a matter of calories. It's a matter of children. Those children who can afford to buy another meal will, or they will go to the gas station after school to buy junk food. But those children who can't afford another meal are the ones who won't be getting food at home on a regular basis. And you've just sent them to bed on 850 calories...