A few months ago, while volunteering for a literacy program at a local elementary school, I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar with a room full of kindergartners.
It's a classic children's book by Eric Carle with a classic lesson: You'll feel a lot better if you eat what nature intended — leaves and fruit — than if you load up on ice cream and cupcakes.
After a discussion and drawing exercise that seemed to get the kids fired up about healthy eating, the teacher rewarded them each with a Starburst — a waxy little square of sugar and chemicals that immediately undid an hour's worth of teaching.
I guess the schools in Hernando have tried to cut down on junk. Juice and sports drinks replaced Cokes in vending machines six years ago. More snacks are sold late in the day and fewer during lunch hour. Offerings in the cafeteria are slightly healthier. Little Debbie snack cakes, for example, can contain no more than 35 percent of calories from sugar and 30 percent from fat.
But it's still junk. And there's a reason I didn't name the school where I read about the caterpillar: I know it's not the only one promoting, however unconsciously, crummy eating habits.
As a parent, I judge this partly on the after-school contents of my kid's pants pockets and lunch boxes. On a good day, it's just the remnant of sugar-packed granola bars. More often, there are wadded-up candy wrappers or empty bags of Mini Oreos.
We don't give them this stuff. They trade for it in the cafeteria, which is why sandwiches on whole grain bread usually come home uneaten. They get junk from coaches who encourage them to have a snack before competition. And, though doling out candy seems a strange way to ensure an orderly classroom, nearly every year at least one of my children's teachers has used candy as a bribe for good behavior.
So, I guess it's clear by now that I'm all for Michelle Obama's call to eliminate junk food from schools. In fact, I think it's long overdue, and even hold the extreme view that diet is to us what lead pipes were to Rome — a long-term, unaddressed drag on public health.
At least Romans had the excuse of ignorance. We all know about the diseases — from diabetes to heart ailments — linked to eating sugary, fatty processed foods. There's even evidence that the height of the average American, which in recent decades has been surpassed by Europeans, has stalled or declined partly because of our junk diets. Is it a coincidence that the second-grader I see sucking on a lollipop at the bus stop in the morning is tiny for her age and still talks like a toddler? I don't think so. Where is she getting the nutrients she needs to develop?
Maybe, in fact, we're too aware of the dangers of junk food. Maybe you're sick of hearing about them, and maybe you don't like the idea of blaming our schools, which are certainly not the main source of the problem.
But they are one place where we can control what our children eat and the one institution most responsible for reinforcing the lessons of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Here's a similar lesson from a pithy new book called Food Rules, by Michael Pollan: "Eat only foods that will eventually rot.''
I don't think Little Debbie snack cakes qualify.