A State of the Lunchbox Address
by Martinique Davis
Sep 06, 2012 | 1812 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

When I packed Elle’s little lunchbox on that first day of daycare years ago, it looked something like this: Beautiful CSA fruit diced into bite-sized pieces; something home-cooked scooped carefully into a kid-sized, BPH-free storage container; and a side of organic raisins or cubes of locally made cheese tucked into nice little wax paper bags.

Those were my saintly mother days.

Another child and a lot more hours required at work and daycare later, my kids’ lunchboxes started looking more like this: A PB&J, some pretzels, a tube of squeezable yogurt and a package of something called a “natural” fruit snack…whatever that means.

I tried to make myself feel better about the less-than-perfect contents of my family’s lunchboxes by telling myself that at least most of the items my kids were eating for lunch said “organic” and “made with whole grain” and “no high-fructose corn syrup” on their labels. But therein lay the basis of my food predicament: Everything in my children’s lunchboxes has a label.

In other words, just about everything they ate when I sent them off to daycare and preschool was more than a few steps away from where it began, as a whole food. Bread that has been baked who-knows-where and wrapped in a shiny sheath of plastic; peanuts and berries from exotic origins heated and then plopped into jars and sent to a grocery-store shelf; fruit snacks that look nothing like fruit, save the picture of a peach on their glossy, individually wrapped packages.

But with the summer’s end, and the subsequent bounty of the season corresponding with the return of kids to school cafeterias everywhere, I felt a renewed interest in reviving the healthy lunchbox.

Perusing the shelves of the Wilkinson Public Library’s kid’s room, the title Edible Schoolyard caught my attention. Its author, Alice Waters, is the idealistic, not-from-a-package version of the contemporary lunch lady, who has inspired a new wave of healthy eating in school lunches thanks to her ongoing personal mission to make food, and its creation and preparation, part of the public school curriculum everywhere.

She signed books at the Telluride Film Festival awhile back, was a speaker at Telluride Mountainfilm Festival a number of years ago, right around the time I started packing those first lunchboxes for little Elle (and thus is largely to thank for my saintly days as a healthy lunchbox packer.)

The basis of her philosophy is that food should be an academic subject, and that children learn by doing. so children should play a role in growing and then preparing the food that they eat. That in turn will lead to healthy eating, and thus better health, for the next generations.

I blame my recent lunchbox downfall on my family’s lack of time and money; however, Waters’ book details her work to create a healthy and connected lunch program for literally thousands of children, many of whom attend public schools in underprivileged parts of the country – yet another fact that makes the sorry state of lunchbox affairs at our house even less acceptable. I can surely do more to get my children eating better, while connecting them to the food in their lunchboxes, can’t I?

It started small: Rather than the aforementioned “natural fruit snacks,” I substituted a kid-sized peach, bought from a woman I know who owns an organic farm in Paonia.

Elle returned from preschool, the peach still carefully wrapped in a paper towel.

“Why didn’t you eat the peach I packed you?” I asked her, trying not to sound disappointed.

“What peach?” she said. I then realized that my 4-year-old, who has opened her lunchbox three days a week for much of the last year to find a glossy package with a picture of a peach on it, may not even know what to do with a real peach when she finds it in her lunchbox.

I told Elle about the farm in Paonia where the peach was grown, and that a friend had picked it, just for her. (OK, not exactly the truth, but a little stretching of the facts goes a long way with a little kid.)

The next day I took the extra minute in the morning to cut her peach into slices, and I put them in a little pink Tupperware decorated with princesses (a little advertising goes a long way with a kid, too.)

No peaches came home in that lunchbox, or any other ever since.

I then started packing peas instead of pretzels. While the pea vines we planted this spring have only supplied us with enough of the sweet green treasures to pop a few in our mouths every couple of days, the girls at least know what a pea plant looks like. And they love going out to the garden and picking our garden’s one or two precious peas. I’m pretty sure this is the reason they like eating them, too (even if the peas in their lunch boxes don’t technically come from our own garden.)

I took the big leap when I packed Elle a salad for lunch, instead of the standard PB&J. A sure bet for a lunchtime disaster, I fretted…but I had done my due diligence on this one. Elle had picked that lettuce out of our garden herself, and then she helped me pack that lettuce in her lunchbox before school. To my delight, Elle’s first lunchbox salad was a hit.

I was prouder still, when I read Elle’s report, “All About Me,” a few weeks after I initiated my lunchbox revival. “I have blue eyes,” it started. “I like playing outside with my family. And I like eating lettuce.”

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