Wednesday, September 04, 2013

What's in your lunch box?

Mona Lisa Lunch Tote from Cafepress
School started yesterday, so I've been thinking about what goes in all the lunch boxes and lunch bags all over the country. I remember from childhood the smell of a lunch in a brown paper bag. When I was in elementary school, I went home for lunch almost every day. But in Junior High, I remember the smelly brown bags with wax-paper-wrapped sandwiches, probably on white bread, and an apple every day. Maybe a carrot stick or a cookie. Inside the sandwiches: peanut butter (no jelly for me) or sliced cheese; cream cheese or some sort of meat; maybe tuna fish. My mother, who packed our lunches, didn't think it was a lunch without a sandwich. I almost always brought my lunch right through high school. I didn't like and rarely ate cafeteria food -- for one exception, see this.

Here's what I think is odd: the lunches my mother packed would mainly comply with the advice that parents are getting now to encourage healthier eating. If the food industry made small-sized bags of potato chips then, we never heard of them; Lunchables were distantly in the future. Yogurt wasn't a commonly sold or eaten food until some time after I was in school; it seems to have become a staple of lunches brought from home. Most yogurt -- especially the ones targeted to kids -- is a heavily sweetened and not particularly wonderful food masquerading as healthful.

The lunches we rejected from the cafeteria were probably no better in nutritional value than the ones that are under scrutiny now, and probably didn't taste any better than the nutritionally improved ones kids are rejecting, either. I suspect that politics is behind some of the big objections that kids (no doubt encouraged by their parents) are making to the changes in school cafeteria food when the objectors seem to all be from tea-party country and they mention Michelle Obama by name and hold her responsible. I have this funny feeling that only a satirist (like The Onion or Andy Borowitz) could do justice to the politicization of school lunch contents as well as to some of the other excessive trends.

Lunch boxes, for some reason, weren't cool when I was a lunch-taker; neither were thermoses. I think they were for littler kids. After lunch, we could throw away everything that came with lunch. That didn't usually include any food: we were all inducted into the Clean Plate Club though no one ever named it. A few years after I was in school, instead of waxed paper or waxed sandwich bags, plastic baggies became common. Much more recently, schools have been nudging both mothers and kids towards reusable containers instead of disposable wrappings.

Will this trend continue? Two years ago, an article in the New York Times reported "Sales of environmentally friendly back-to-school products are up just about everywhere." By that time at Miriam and Alice's Oak View Elementary school, kids had already done an experiment to compare the trash on a day when everyone brought lunch in disposable bags and on a day when everyone who could brought their food in reusable containers. The resulting trash quantities really impressed the whole school! Nobody wanted to be seen making piles of trash like that.

In the family, Miriam says she plans to take only a little bit for lunch because she'll be eating very early, so she got  a new small lunch box to start Junior High. Alice says she doesn't have a new lunch box yet. Last year in Minnesota, they did eat school lunches, which were designed to have healthy food and lots of vegetables in them and also were usually served on reusable plates. They also had a deal with a farm to send the edible leftovers and plate scrapings to the pigs.

Overall, in lunch boxes this school year, I suspect that there will be lots of interesting and exotic foods as mothers strive to meet more and more competitive demands for health and fanciness. A few mothers might follow the trend of making highly decorative Japanese lunches, as illustrated by a screen shot from google images. A few might make labor-intensive gourmet treats based on recipes like those in a pretentious article in Bon Appetit.

Most kids' lunches, according to the news, will be some combination of convenience lunch food like yogurt cups and mini-bags of chips or carrots and traditional choices like my mother made. I hope there's really a trend towards better health and environmental responsibility, but that might be wishful thinking.

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