Students I speak with observe that school food is often either unappetizing (overcooked cafeteria veggies) or unhealthy. Tasty junk food at school has become a magnet for kids across the nation, encouraging nutrition choices that hurt kids now, and build unhealthy habits for the long run.
Thankfully, a growing wave of school boards is starting to tackle the issue, one school district at a time. A quick phone call to your school board could help tip them into action.
But even when action is taken, there is usually a lag of a year or more before the menu actually changes. The Organic Lunchbox is something simple you can do in the meantime to provide your children delicious food that gives them energy for today and builds healthy, vibrant bodies for tomorrow. I’m encouraging parents everywhere to give their children at least one serving of organic food every day this year. Here’s why, then how:
Toxic chemicals are toxic.
We know that pesticides and other chemicals (such as mercury) that can contaminate our food supply cause serious health problems if the exposures to these chemicals are high enough. These problems include cancers (such as brain cancer, breast cancer, and childhood leukemia), behavior problems, ADHD, learning disabilities, genital abnormalities, and reproductive problems.
We know that the very problems that can be caused by these environmental chemicals are increasing in our society and in our children. We know that childhood brain cancer and leukemia have each increased by more than 50 percent since 1975. We know that autism diagnoses have increased 10 times since the 1980’s.
We know that children have higher exposures to pesticides and other chemicals than do adults, and that even at the same exposures, they are at higher risk.
We’ve known from several good studies that pesticides and toxic chemicals aren’t just in the environment – but get into our developing children’s bodies. Some kids have high levels and others quite low. What’s different between these kids? Is there anything simple and practical that parents can do to lower their own children’s risks? A provocative study was published in October 2002 in the Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, NIH. Here, children were divided into two groups: those who ate mostly conventional foods and those who ate mostly organic foods. All urine for 24 hours was collected from each child. Children who ate conventional diets had mean pesticide concentrations in their urine 9 times higher than the children who ate organic! Their levels indicated that they had exceeded safe exposure levels set by the EPA and were at increased risk to their health. By contrast, those children who ate organic foods were well within the EPA levels deemed to cause negligible risk. Feeding children organic foods is something simple and practical parents can do right now to protect their children and help them build healthy bodies.
The Organic Lunchbox
I recommend that children get a variety of healthy foods. Together, the foods below would make an ideal lunch, loaded with body-building vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other important nutrients (perhaps some that haven’t even been discovered yet). I’m asking parents to include at least one of these items every day. Even adding one of these a day could make a big difference for our children and our environment:
A Serving of Organic Fruit
- This might be an organic apple, organic grapes, or a bag of organic cherries from the local farmers’ market. Thankfully, organic produce is available at more and more grocery stores as well. And the more that people ask for organic produce, the more available it will be. There are so many types of delicious fruit! My kids love kiwi bowls. Take a kiwi, cut it in half, and scoop out the yummy treasure using the thick skin as a bowl.
A Serving of Organic Veggies
- This might be a bag of small carrots from Earthbound Farms. Some kids like veggies (and even fruit) better if they are sent with a dip. A variety of dressings or yogurts can make tasty dips. Ants on a log are a perennial favorite (raisons on a peanut butter- or cream cheese- filled celery stick). My kids sometimes enjoy fresh sugar snap peas to munch, or English peas to shell and pop into the mouth – we get them both at the farmers’ market. Or you might get veggies in as a snack food, such as Just Veggies, or in a drink (such as carrot orange or carrot berry juice).
A Serving of Organic Whole Grains
- The easiest way to get this in is as a bread, a cereal, or a cracker. I like breads from Rudi’s Organic Bakery. The French Meadow Bakery also makes some delicious organic breads. A simple sandwich can be a convenient centerpiece to a great lunch. Keep in mind, though, that not all lunches need a centerpiece. A hunk of bread along with the other items in the lunchbox can make a perfect lunch without a ‘main dish’.
An Organic Calcium Source
- Two out of three kids in the U.S. do not get enough calcium in their diets! School-age children need at least 800 mg daily through age 8, and 1300 mg daily from age 9 to 13. A glass of milk has about 300 mg; a serving of yogurt about 400 mg; a slice of cheese might have about 200 mg. Those who don’t get calcium at lunch are unlikely to meet their daily needs. Lunch might include a serving of Stonyfield Farm organic yogurt – in a cup, as a fun Squeezer, or as an organic drinkable yogurt. Organic cheese is another good option. For kids who don’t do dairy, there are many other calcium options, including green vegetables, or even calcium enriched juices.
An Organic Source of Lean Protein
- You may have already provided your child with protein by giving them yogurt or a simple sandwich with Organic cheese. If there is not another protein source in the lunchbox yet, consider a hardboiled egg (perhaps an organic egg high in DHA), organic beans, or a sandwich with lean organic meats.
They DON’T Need: added sugars (especially high fructose corn syrups), added fats (especially partially hydrogenated fats), lots of artificial colors and other chemicals, or foods grown with pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones.
The Evil Twin
Let’s compare the commonsense, tasty lunch above with a popular prepackaged combination lunch-in-a-box, the kinds some kids fight over in the grocery store aisles. The one in front of me contains hot dogs, with cola to drink, and candy for dessert.
The Organic Fruit? None
- There is no fruit at all. 0% of the daily requirement for vitamin C (among many others).
The Organic Vegetable? None
- There is no vegetable, unless you count the catsup. 0% of the recommended servings of vegetables. Less than 2% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A.
The Organic Whole Grain? None
- There is no whole grain. Only highly processed, nutritionally depleted white bread, with insufficient fiber.
The Organic Calcium Source?
- There is a small amount of calcium, but not close to the amount needed at lunch to meet the day’s requirements – it leaves them needing to catch up.
The Lean Protein Source?
- No lean protein source here. The saturated fats are artery-clogging and fattening even to kids. What protein there is comes from mechanically separated turkey and pork treated with sodium diacetate, sodium erythorbate, and nitrites. We know nothing about how the animals were raised.
It Also Contains: caffeine, chemical preservatives such as potassium sorbate and calcium proprionate, artificial chemical flavors, artificial chemical colors, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, added sugar, dextrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup – about 12 teaspoons of sugars, and more saturated fatthan anyone should eat at a meal.
All of the vitamins or minerals whose levels are disclosed on the package are quite low. It would take 10 of these meals to give a day’s supply of calcium or iron, 50 meals to get a day’s supply of vitamin A, and you would never get enough vitamin C – no matter how many of these you ate. Ten of these meals would supply almost 5000 calories, almost 200 gm of fat, and 8500 mg of sodium. This is part of what we mean by empty calories.
This may seem like an unfair comparison, but children eat food like this evil twin every day – food that they purchase at school, or pack along with them. The number one food kids eat? French Fries!
The Lunchbox Challenge
Let this be the year where you give your child at least one serving of organic food a day. The Organic Lunchbox is one great option. If packing lunch doesn’t work well for your family, consider starting the day right with a serving of organic food for breakfast. The research is clear that whether and what a child eats at breakfast makes a difference in learning, behavior, and test scores all morning long.
Isn’t it great that choosing healthy delicious food can make a real difference for our children today – and in years to come when they have walked out their childhoods, out of our homes, out of our reach, but never out of our hearts!
Last reviewed: January 14, 2005