Living Without Corn Syrup and Peanut Butter: A Suburban Childhood

They're taking candy from the babies.

Little Jimmy, age 8, approaches the microphone and looks around at all the strange grown-ups smiling at him. He smiles back at the ones in the suits sitting behind the long table and notices a few have faces like they’re stuck in traffic. Now I know why mommy calls them bored members, he thinks.

Jimmy clears his throat, rocks back onto his heels and twiddles his toes, and begins to speak. “Hello. My name is Jimmy and I am in second grade. I don’t think the school should serve cookies.”

Wait a minute, he thinks to himself and pauses. Shouldn’t serve cookies? But I like cookies? Am I forgetting the words?

He looks to his mother, who confirms he’s remembering things correctly with a nod of her head, and he continues.

“Also, last month it was Sarah’s birthday in class. We were served soda. Did you know that soft drinks are a leading contributor to childhood dia … dia … dia-beeeed-ies?”

And such has become a common site at school board and PTO meetings in suburban Philadelphia, and no doubt many schools across the country. On one side, you have the well-intentioned parents, who have seen the enemy and it is high-fructose corn syrup. They’ve got solid intel on their side. Twenty percent of American children are obese, and the number is rising. By the time they receive their high-school diploma, only slightly less than that 20 percent will have developed their first risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Don’t believe them? Just ask Michelle Obama.

On the other side, you’ve got the school and its cold calculations. “Well, we can put celery in front of little Jimmy, but he’s just as likely to stick it up his nose than into his mouth,” they argue. Revenues trump absolute nutrition, and we do the best we can. Brown-bag it if that isn’t good enough for you.

On their side are all of the conservatives who can’t stand Michelle Obama, or her push-ups, and have to vent their anger about invasive social policy somewhere.

Mix in tight budgets, a few extended discussions about whether or not profit and plantains are mutually exclusive, an unreturned phone call to the cafeteria director, and a thinly veiled suggestion that parents parent their own children, and suddenly you have everyone crying over spilt strawberry milk.

Fortunately, this issue is one of those situations where a perceived negative is actually a positive, like when your doctor tells you to stop exercising so much or that guy on CNN talks about healthy inflation. If you have dozens of parents showing up to rag about what’s on the lunch menu, that’s infinitely better than a bunch of parents telling their kids to bring home extra soft pretzels for dinner. And they’re right anyway: Kids are getting fatter, and like it or not, schools have to do their best in feeding them 180 meals a year.

Unfortunately, the sights are being set on some rather low-hanging fruit. No more M&M fundraisers? Axe pretzel day? Replace birthday cupcakes with birthday brussels sprouts? Every young kid’s dream.

And if a child has a food allergy? Forget about it. Campus-wide ban on peanut butter. Next thing you know, the school’s eight-year-old version of Charlie Sheen in Ferris Bueller is sitting next to little Jimmy in the principal’s office, asking him what he did to end up in the slammer. “Peanut butter crackers,” Jimmy will reply.

Now, the net result of these wars will most likely be positive. Worst-case scenario, the board acquiesces to an organic-only menu and lets chickens free-range on the soccer fields, loses $50,000 grand in six months, smacks its head and goes back to meet somewhere in the middle. That and nobody buys the homemade edible arrangements the middle school’s soccer team is pushing this year.

Best-case scenario is that kids don’t get fat, especially those who might come from a home where those 180 meals truly are critical. Cholesterol and blood pressure returns to where it’s supposed to be for a teenager.

All that is needed is a little discretion about just how far to push these things. Last time I checked, sweets still do have a place on top of the food pyramid (update: they don’t). And please, if you’re a commanding officer in the nutrition wars, don’t use little Jimmy as a pawn.