One day, while sitting in the cafeteria at the casino where I used to work, I happened to overhear an argument between two coworkers that made me laugh fit to bursting. Joe, a dyed in the wool Republican who could have given Dick Cheney lessons in far right conservatism, and Frank, a man whose liberal leanings ran somewhere to the left of Lenin, were sitting at a table, loudly debating whether Ronald Reagan was, “the best dang president this country has ever had the brains to elect” or, as Frank would opine, “a senile old fascist who increased military spending at the expense of public school funding and whose administration tried to classify ketchup as a vegetable to keep the costs of school lunches down.” Frank went on to blame Reagan for the sorry state of affairs that is our nation’s public school system including its “nutritional and physical decline”.
“We’ve raised a nation full of fatties thanks to that buffoon,” Frank stated adamantly, “and it gets worse with every generation.”
It was this latter assertion that had given me a case of the chuckles. Not because I didn’t believe a politician or government organization could do something as stupid as classify a condiment a vegetable. Live in southern Louisiana long enough and you’ll get an education in bureaucratic ineptitude. Nor did I disagree with him over the fact that children are less physically fit today than they were when I was in elementary school. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled since 1980. No, what had amused me was the belief that nutrition was something that can be learned in a public school setting, and the idea that a healthy diet could be legislated. Personal experience has taught me that a well-balanced diet is not something that can be picked up in an academic setting along with reading, writing, and arithmetic—at least, not by that alone. Healthy eating habits start at home.
I grew up eating my elementary school lunches during the Reagan administration. Back then, according to the laws set up by the USDA, a well-rounded school meal was supposed to consist of at least one meat or protein—usually Salisbury steak or soy burger, one milk—whole or chocolate—one bread, and two servings of fruit or vegetables. “Fruit” was usually a tiny cup of fruit cocktail and “vegetables” was almost always spinach or steamed carrots. I detested both. This was back in the day when they served you what they had whether you liked it or not, as opposed to choosing what you wanted. I remember sitting in the cafeteria, stuffing my spinach into my empty milk carton, hoping the eagle eyed lunch lady didn’t spot me. I’ll be the first to admit this diet of mystery meat, chocolate milk, and fruit drenched in sugar wasn’t exactly a meal built for champions, but even sans spinach, my school lunch was better than what I ate at home.
A typical breakfast in the Griffin household consisted of a bowl of some sugar coated cereal drowned in whole milk and a cup of coffee—I’ve been drinking coffee since the age of five—with at least six teaspoons of sugar. If my mother could be bothered to cook, it was either a plate stacked with syrup drenched pancakes or greasy cheese omelets, fatty bacon, and a big bowl of grits mixed with huge pats of butter. When mom was in diet mode, she ate oatmeal topped with cinnamon with wheat toast on the side, but she never forced that stuff on me or my sisters. If we ran out of cereal and all else failed, there was usually some left over pizza from the night before.
Did I mention my family was big into ordering take-out? Our drug of choice was pizza covered in pepperoni and enough cheese to choke an elephant. We ordered Chinese if we wanted to be fancy. We went to McDonalds if we just wanted something quick and convenient. There were also one or two restaurants nearby that had “call-in ordering” and “curb-side take away” when I was a kid. I’m sure there are more now what with the fact that Americans today spend 48 percent of their food budget on restaurant food, according to the National Restaurant Association, compared to the 23 percent spent in the 1950’s.
And, of course, there were the snacks. Our cupboards were filled with boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes, cartons of cookies—Chips Ahoy! Chocolate Chip was one of my all-time favorites—and huge family-sized bags of potato chips. These food items were never regulated by my parents. My sisters and I could eat them whenever the mood struck. It was more like grazing than snacking. The American Academy of Pediatrics Handbook, suggests school age children eat three meals a day with at least one snack in the afternoon. This varies depending on the time between meals. Also, these snacks should be rich in nutrients, not full of empty calories like the snacks of my youth. My parents hadn’t read that book, apparently.
Some will take a look at this list of diet no-no’s and blame the food and beverage industry for my appalling lack of childhood nutrition. Some will go further, suggesting that we should be less concerned about legislating school meals and more worried about regulating the guys in charge of making and selling our food. It’s easy to see why. The industry has been using faulty health claims (makers of POM and their claims that their product can prevent cancer, heart disease, and erectile dysfunction) and misleading marketing lingo (Low-fat, all natural) to confuse shoppers for years. And while I’ll agree they can be a sneaky bunch, the food and beverage industry didn’t do my parents’ shopping and I’m pretty sure they didn’t tell them it was okay for me to eat pizza for breakfast either.
And I can’t entirely blame the USDA or those in charge of public school nutritional guidelines and education. Even with the problems of a dwindling budget, I can’t say they didn’t try. I remember the day my second grade teacher, Mrs. Guidry, took it upon herself to teach her students the importance of a well-balanced meal. She showed us pictures of all the food groups and explained the necessity for moderation and smaller portion sizes. Puppets were used as a teaching aid in the hopes of drawing in our impressionable young minds and oh so short attention spans. It was a lost cause for me. By then, I had already learned how to reach the snack cupboard by climbing on top of one of the kitchen chairs. The first time I was caught doing this by my dad, he asked me to get him some Oreos while I was up there.
I am now a grown woman with control over my own shopping list, and I am literally trying to unlearn years of bad behavior to keep myself from ending up dead of a heart attack by age forty like my father, or stricken with a chronic, life threatening disease like type 2 diabetes, a disease my mother is currently struggling with. It’s a daily battle, one I am slowly, grudgingly beginning to win with hard work, patience, and a twelve-step-program mentality.
Looking back, I knew I was eating the wrong things. I didn’t need Mrs. Guidry’s puppet show to tell me that. The fact that I was growing wider faster than I was growing taller told me all I needed to know, and my parent’s own declining health showed me what I had to look forward to in the future. No, I didn’t need puppets or pictures of the food groups. What I needed were parents who cared enough about my health and their own to step up to the plate—pardon the pun—and tell me, “No more cookies!” I didn’t need the school board to increase its budget and install a salad bar in the cafeteria. I needed boundaries on what I could eat, how much I could eat, and how often by the people in my family in charge of the grocery shopping. It is the responsibility of every parent to instill healthy eating habits into their own children. Without the parents acting as the gatekeepers to the kitchen pantry, the school board, the USDA, this entire generation of “fatties”, are all fighting a losing battle, and the nation’s children will be the casualties.