Michelle Obama's ideals for school meals unreal

Luis Fábregas
| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 10:07 p.m.

There's more to life than french fries and pizza.

That seemed to be Michelle Obama's thinking when she pushed a campaign to fight childhood obesity. The first lady has told kids to eat fewer calories, be more physically active and make wiser food choices. Amen to that.

But wouldn't you know it, kids aren't clamoring for carrots and celery sticks. The revamped menus in school cafeterias (baked fish nuggets, anyone?) have sparked a steady refrain of comments like “Yuck!” and “Gross!” I've heard of kids who've responded by tossing fruit and little bags of carrots in the garbage.

The Associated Press reported this week that some schools are dropping out of the $11 billion National School Lunch Program because kids are bringing food from home or sometimes going hungry.

I bet a Wendy's pretzel bacon cheeseburger wasn't what Mrs. Obama had in mind. Surely she doesn't want low-income students who might get their only “big meal” at school to dump it in a trash bin.

I reached out to registered dietitian Judy Dodd, who has been involved with the local chapter of the “Let's Move” initiative. She's heard many stories about students lashing out against the program but said the problem isn't new.

“I see it as an education issue and a support issue,” said Dodd, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. “(The program) is not working in many places because the kids have made up their minds and the adult caregivers that influence the kids have made up their minds.”

But what about the chicken nuggets that taste like rocks, as I heard one child complain? Dodd said they taste different because they're baked, not fried. They still have chicken, still have protein, she said.

Try telling that to a 10-year-old.

For such campaigns to work, Dodd said, they must start earlier in a child's life. Parents and teachers must reinforce the message, she said.

“We should've started with the preschool through third or fourth grade,” Dodd said. “Trying to do it across the board is wrong.”

It's too soon to say whether Obama's plan will prevail. Can we persuade our children to give up items that make childhood fun and carefree? Is Mrs. Obama credible enough to do this, even after professing her love of Pamela's pancakes in the Strip District a few years ago?

You have to admit that teaching kids to eat whole wheat pizza and baked sweet potato fries can be as arduous as teaching them to like opera. Kids want ice cream and potato chips — the same as adults. You never leave a party and turn to your spouse, saying, “That veggie tray was truly out of this world.”

The importance of better nutrition shouldn't be overlooked. But we need to be realistic. Though setting limits on calories is wise, it can't be a one-size-fits-all approach. Think of the high school athlete forced to eat a skimpy lunch only to face hours of calorie-burning soccer practice after school.

Perhaps Dodd said it best: “I don't have a problem with children having potatoes or some of the foods they're throwing rocks at. The point is: What's a reasonable portion for a child?”

That's right. Let them eat french fries.

Luis Fábregas is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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