WASHINGTON – You think the debate about the country’s debt and jobless recovery is fraught with contention, hyperbole and righteous grandiosity?
Take a stroll through the school cafeteria if you want to see a daily dose of political hand-to-hand combat.
Wonks are busy trying to legislate the slop out of cafeteria lunches. Foodies are wielding their forks in a revolution exalting the virtues of kale and quinoa to the lunch ladies. And assembling a politically correct brought-from-home lunch is more perilous than walking into a Chinese basketball practice wearing a Georgetown sweatshirt.
What kids eat at school is a topic of endless national debate.
If you’ve got school-age kids, you’re ducking the food grenades daily. If your kids are grown, you’ll be stunned to hear what’s happened to the old PB&J-in-a-Spider-Man-lunchbox routine. And if you don’t have kids, prepare to be amused.
Not only are brown bags out (paper waste!) and peanut butter and jelly largely verboten (allergies!), but many schools also police the snacks and even the kinds of containers the food is in. The level of patrolling varies by school district.
I’ll admit to getting at least one curt note shoved into my kid’s lunchbox reminding me of the school’s food policy, along with the bagged evidence of the contraband that was confiscated. In one case, it was a single Christmas-wrapped chocolate Kiss.
One public school in Chicago was so fed up last year with junk parents packed that it banned home lunches altogether, saving parents from inevitable failure and food police intervention.
Of course, I’ve heard packed-lunch horror stories. Teachers have seen slabs of cold pizza masquerading as lunch. College hangover? Yes. Pre-K lunch? No. Among other gourmet delights: an unopened can of vienna sausages, and a couple of giant candy bars, with nothing else.
The lunchbox itself can be fraught with peril. Anything commercial is bad, bad, bad. Spider-Man? Hannah Montana? Clone Wars? Totally out. Might as well call social services.
If a school doesn’t want to outright ban such things, the teacher gently suggests “nonviolent” themes (good luck if you’ve got a boy) or urges you to “Think outside the box!” when selecting kids’ gear.
I made this apparently huge faux pas with my older son’s first lunchbox, a Buzz Lightyear model that was singularly garish amid the neat row of noncommercial, whimsical containers from L.L. Bean and Hanna Andersson.
Buzz’s smiling endorsement of the Disney mega-machine cost me $8 at Toys R Us. Meanwhile, the simplicity of a caterpillar, antique robot or whimsical zoo scene costs more than a fancy downtown lunch.
When we bought our lunchboxes this year (nonlicensed, generic robots at Target – win!), I realized that there was a whole host of other things I was supposed to be afraid of.
“Ultra Safe! PVC Free! Worry free!” read the label hanging from the robot’s ear, assuring me that there is also no lead to be found in the squishy lunch bag. Really? I thought all I had to fear was the other parents. I totally forgot to worry about the physical, not just psychological, harm that Buzz was inflicting on my child.
As for what’s inside the lunchbox? Schools want you to save the environment (and cut down on their trash), so they ask you to package everything in separate, reusable containers.
When you also follow their guidelines on providing one food of every group and every color, that means you have about eight pieces of plastic to wash every night. Wait, I have two kids. So that’s 16.
Oh, and by the way, at least one school in Maryland asks you to hand wash all those tiny Tupperwares, rather than use the dishwasher. So as not to release any carcinogenic BPAs from the plastic, of course.
No wonder bento boxes are becoming all the rage in certain upscale ZIP codes.
The bento crowd is into food that’s kawaii, the Japanese term for super cute. Think Hello Kitty. These are parents – OK, moms – with an artistic flair, an armory of special tools and maybe a little more time than the rest of us.
They make tiny, winking faces on rice balls, shape eggs into kittens, and add small triangles of ham for pink ears and a nose. You can make entire sea creature scenes out of meat and cheese (try the special cutter that turns a weiner into an octopus or penguin), a Jawa out of pita and purple lettuce, or spell your child’s name out of delicate sheets of egg omelette.
There’s an entire cottage industry that’s grown up around this. Check out the gallery at bentolunch.net, where a Texas mom posts her intricate daily creation along with other readers’ masterpieces in an alpha-mom throwdown that makes bake sale competitions look ho-hum.
It is quickly becoming the scrapbooking of this decade.
Tired yet? Maybe buying school lunches isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Email me your school lunch angst at firstname.lastname@example.org.