Years ago, when I first approached school administrators about their food policy, I took for granted that logic and science would inform and direct their decisions. It seemed a fair assumption in light of their thoughtful treatment of other issues – from faculty selection to curriculum development to security policy to athletic schedules. But while intellect prevailed in every other facet of school life, the food discussion went straight to emotion – and extreme emotion – yelling, judging, name-calling and fist-waving.
Truth is, I didn’t see it coming. I’m a researcher by nature and training, so while I am certainly motivated by emotion – love for my children – I tend to intellectualize important decisions. And of all the issues, food seemed the most straightforward: Science and common sense tell us that food affects children’s health, behavior and performance, so we should make every effort to feed them the best, most nutritious food possible. But as the food debate in our school and community spiraled to an angry, poisonous peak, I found myself ill-equipped to counter the personal attacks and divisive posturing. And while no one likes to be called nasty names by people they’ve never met, I was honestly more disturbed that the important discussion of school food had been hijacked. We were in such an emotional and unproductive place, and no amount of reason or data could get us back on track.
A low point came during a meeting with nutrition supervisors from across the city. A colleague of mine did a short briefing on the exciting work of Chef Bobo, Ann Cooper and Lee Allinger who were charting a course towards fresher, more nutritious school food for every child in America. I remember thinking how poised and compelling a presenter she was, when from the back of the room came a throaty “You people just don’t understand. You can’t take away their Ding Dongs.” Before any of us could process her comment, the food services director of a statewide community aid program had risen to her feet. With tears in her eyes, she pleaded with us to understand that breakfast cakes made the children really happy, and that for some of the pre-schoolers it was the only food – the only source of happiness – in their entire day. Visibly moved, my colleague asked quietly, “Well, if that is the only food that those babies are going to eat all day, shouldn’t it be the absolute-most nutritious food we can manage?” I know that she said it out of love and I know just as well that it was taken as judgment. Hence the lunge across the table that we jokingly/nervously came to call the Ding Dong assault. Our effort to “improve” school food was taken as an indictment of an entire philosophy of childcare.
And while I’ll leave it to the social scientists to explore in depth, I must note that some variation of “the Ding Dongs make them happy” presented itself at every turn. Countless debates arose over Snickers bars, Kool-Aid and hot dogs – not the experiential kind at festivals or ballparks, but the Monday through Friday kind and whether they should be part of an educational food policy. The discussions were heated and circular and often culminated with one school administrator or another saying “My mom fed us hot dogs and blue juice and we turned out ok.” End of discussion.
It was my grandmother who observed that food is inextricably linked to people’s notions of love and mothering. If you’re not careful, she said, they’ll think you’re saying they’re bad moms, or – worse yet – that their moms were. Hence the elevated passions, the screaming matches, the lunge across the table and the resultant lesson: Tread carefully when you’re talking about someone’s mother. And with food, you always are.