Socio-economic status

My husband and I went to excellent elementary and secondary schools and then we graduated from college. Although we both have had no formal education or training in nutrition, we have a basic grasp of healthy food and how to nourish our bodies and those of our littlest family member too.

We would be considered “middle class” by most Americans, but if you compare us to the rest of the world, we are in the top 3-5% of income worldwide and our standard of living is high (we have all basic necessities met as well as lots of fun extras). Consider that half of the world’s population subsists on less than $1 per day and you get really happy about your life if you live in America.

Through my “middle class” eyes, some of the meals offered to the children at my school make me wonder, but then again I have no training in nutrition (just an interest). All I can say is that I wouldn’t want my toddler eating the school lunches. Lucky for us because of our socio-economic status we can make sure that our little one gets the best possible food either at the best possible school or through meals we pack for him at home.

Some have asked what the kids think of the meals. Well, they always try to say something positive about the food. I hear “good” or “great.” I’m thinking that if they didn’t like it, they just don’t answer. Overall, none of the kids want to sit around and discuss their lunches. I don’t pry because I know that for some, the school lunch is their best (or only) meal of the day.

What do they know about food? Can they have an opinion if they can’t compare the meal to anything? For example, at different times over this past weekend I prepared catfish, edamame, swiss chard, rice, rolls, avocado, eggs, sausage, and bacon for my family for various meals.

Socio-economic status makes it hard for these kids to experience food in the way that “rich” people like us get to. So when these students are given food, they just say “thank you.”

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26 thoughts on “Socio-economic status

  1. I think that it's important to remember that as much as you'd like an honest opinion from those students who are used to better food, there are some who probably feel obliged to say it's good. While it's nice that they're being polite to a teacher, or just avoiding a potential lecture on being grateful (and this is me thinking back to my own teachers, here!) I'm sure that there are plenty of kids who just eat the school lunches out of habit – it's pretty easy to eat something mediocre when you're hungry!

  2. Yesterday was "fried dough" and one 5th grade girl was dying for another piece (a serving is half a round) because at 1:30pm it was The First Thing she'd eaten all day. She said there was no food in the house (cereal or milk when questioned) for breakfast. Or anything to bring for snack. Her stomach was growling so loud she said she could barely concentrate on her test. So yeah, alot of kids in my school are thankful for what they get.

  3. I guess I have a hard time understanding how anyone in this country would be struggling to get enough to eat. I grew up extremely poor, and I lived in one of the poorest parts of the country, and yet I was a FAT kid, and I didn't know of one single kid in school who went without eating. And it's been shown that the poorer people are, the heavier they are, so it's very hard for me to understand that.

    Now that doesn't mean there aren't poor people out there who don't get enough food. I've personally known people who get food stamps, but they go out and sell the food stamps for drugs or money for clothes or what have you, and they let their kids basically starve.

    I'm convinced that a good, balanced diet doesn't cost very much. With a little effort and planning, you could feed a family of four for $50 a week. I understand that some people don't have $50 a week, but why don't they have it? Is it because they are paying bills that they have to and they're doing the best that they can, or is it because they spent their whole check on drugs, gambling, or pretty things and now there's nothing left for them to feed their kids? I may seem harsh, but I know too many people who actually do that sort of thing, and I feel no sympathy for them because they won't change their ways. I only feel for their innocent children who did nothing wrong.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I am also an elementary school teacher. I currently work in a highly affluent public school, but in the past I worked in Title One schools with 70% or higher free and reduced lunch status. 2/3 of my students bring their lunch each day in my current school. That was not the case in my other school. Most of our kids also ate the free breakfast, which I fear was just as unhealthy as the lunches. As you say, they had little choice in the matter and they were the best meals our kids had each day. There is a reason why that district offered breakfasts and lunches at select schools throughout the summer. What a shame.

    There is also something to be said about the extreme amount of packaging that comes with your lunches. When I was a kid all of the meals were made right at our school (yes it was still the USDA school lunch boxes of food). That has all changed in recent years. What additional environmental impact comes with that?

  5. Thanks for this blog. It's sad that many schoolkids (and many adults) have never had truly delicious and nutritious food, so they accept mediocre and bad food. A whole generation, maybe two, has grown up without ever having tasted a truly great peach or tomato or green bean. Their knowledge of "tomato" is based on ketchup and pizza, and "peach" might be a peach-flavored jelly bean. Super-sugar or HFCS is their criterion for sweetness, and salty grease a substitute for taste. Without a knowledge, even a dim memory, of authentic taste, kids and consumers think only in terms of belly-filling and cheap prices. Who's going to demand a peach they never had?
    To try and recover taste, and a language of taste, a friend has started doing "taste education" in her Consumer Ed (used to call it Home-Ec) course at the h.s. where she teaches. One day they were studying "sweet" and she brought in store apples, local heirloom apples, and candy from the store. She had kids consciously smell, chew, taste, swallow, and take notes on the sensations. They were able to identify the simple, sweet, slightly chemical taste of the store candy, the musty refrigerator smell on the store apple, as well as a bitter off-taste, and the complex aroma and sweet-tart taste of the heirloom apple. This is a way to begin to reclaim our sensory language, our elemental heritage and connection to the good earth.

  6. Thank you for this blog. Your commentary (especially in posts like this one) and the visuals together are really powerful.

  7. Would it be a crazy idea for an organization to give elementary school kids a really quality meal for a day? That is, a special meal, made from food that is nutritionally sound, environmentally conscious, and ethical to the workers who produce it? (slow food – esque?) Perhaps accompanied by a lesson or discussion on what's nutritional in the meal and why, why it both tastes good to us and is good for the environment, and how and through whom the food got from somewhere in a field to the child's plate in an elementary school.

  8. Thanks for bringing this issue to light, Mrs. Q!
    This is the realism of the system we have and a first-hand view of what will happen more and more if things do not change. Basically, the "haves" who can afford things (health care, organic food, square meals, etc) will have them, and "have-nots" will get whatever scraps they can and fend for themselves. All the while, the upper crust will continue to consume and hoard their fortunes, looking the other way… Meanwhile, the middle class will continue to struggle and wonder when they will fall into the group of “have-nots”. Good thing is, by number and strength, I see a lot more marginal middle class and have-nots when I look around this nation, and the time is right for some activism and change. Bad thing is, as recent events have shown the elitist’s stranglehold on our already corporatized, and increasingly police-state government, this may be easier said than done…

  9. the sausage,bacon and catfish you prepare at home are some of the worst things you could feed your family!

  10. Soicoeconomic status can account for many answers to today's questions. However, I fault the previous leaders in this country. Who were the first ones to say that making chemicals to taste "like" food was the way to go? I also fault today's leaders. If we are to start a healthcare debate or reform, let's start with what we are feeding ourselves. The food industry is so entrenched in politics I don't know how it CAN start, but this is where it should start.

    And you, Miss "School Lunch Project" are doing a FINE job in bringing this to the forefront. If I may, I will be linking you to my website and blog as well…thanks in advance.

  11. And whoever said above that the sausage, bacon, and catfish are "some of the worst"…do some more research please. Real food trumps chemicals anyday. Bacon, some have called the world's most perfect food. Look it up.

  12. Bacon might be called "the world's most perfect food" by those that love its taste. There are no nutritional experts calling it that. What research have you found that calls it that? Any links or websites to back this up?

    That said, that doesn't mean that reasonable amounts aren't OK now and then.


  13. We should also remember that lots of adults (including those that are "middle" class or higher) don't know how to make a nutritious meal – or just don't make them for various reasons. When you don't have enough money (or time, or if you struggle on a daily basis), buying the necessary ingredients to give your kids a lean protein and a vegetable for dinner might not be your top priority.

    I think that's why your blog is so good, and why it's necessary for the people in charge of school lunches to really get a reality check. These meals are sometimes the only ones that kids get during the day – and what are we feeding them? You have a great point – that the kids aren't going to complain about what they're eating, either because they don't get anything else or they don't know any type of other food. But it's sad that we continue to serve them food that is not nutritious, that doesn't not help them learn, etc., etc., but then we pat ourselves on the back for providing them meals.

  14. Thanks for all your comments. I think that nutrition, meal planning, and cooking should be part of a formal education.

    Julie – A lot of poor people are fat. From what little I know I believe that when you don't eat enough, your body stores fat. Not to mention the cheapest fast foods are the most fattening.

    Terra – Taste education sounds like fun!

  15. This has been my favorite post yet. I think it's great that you keep an open mind about this and you aren't like many others who automatically condemn school lunches without thinking outside the box. You're absolutely right– definitely not laudable food by any means, but for some children it's a blessing.

    Keep up the good work.

  16. Every year during ISATs our PTA sponsors a healthy breakfast for the kids taking the test each day. You would not believe how grateful most of the kids that eat it are. Most of them have breakfast at school on a daily basis, through the free and reduced meal program, but even they feel like the food isn't that great and are so excited to have bagels (which I realize are not the best options but are still better than the stuff they normally serve) and fresh fruit. One of the kids last year told his teacher that he wished they could have the tests everyday so he could have that for breakfast more often

  17. Julie, I'm concerned about your post. I'm just popping in because your post has had me thinking. Without the flowery, "I don't want to offend you"s, I softly and kindly suggest you begin an education in poverty and privilege. I think if you begin to dig you'll find the answers readily enough.

  18. Wow, what a condescending and haughty tone, anonymous! I'm just popping in to suggest you get an education in the fact that these children have two parents who are solely responsible for their well-being. To my understanding, Julie was simply underscoring the fact that some families do not spend their food stamps wisely.

    I'm sure if I had food stamps, I wouldn't trade them in for drugs. That being said, I still might have a hard time feeding my family of eight on a food stamp allotment week, particularly because I must accomodate one child with a milk and egg allergy. That doesn't mean it's impossible with a little research and willingness to eat food that isn't your favourite.

    Here's a link to a mom with a FAMILY OF TEN who was able to feed her family for less than the food stamp allotment. And not only that, she homeschools and does not send her children to public school to eat lunches.

  19. This is such a heartfelt post that hits any person, especially a teacher/parent where it hurts. I'm in college to be an Elementary School teacher at the ripe old age of 39. This concerns me greatly. Not only are we asking our children to do good work, sit still, pay attention, and all the things that they need to do to do well in school. We are fueling them with refined sugar and empty calories and carbs. How are they supposed to function when we are feeding them this food. I'm not even talking about the ones that you already mentioned, the ones that might only get their one meal from school for the day. We have to bridge the gap and it has to happen in a healthful way. I'm not necessarily talking about going all organic because we know that is costly. Growing gardens, demanding better food at the federal level for our children is what needs to be done. Just because a child is poor doesn't make it right to serve them food that is not going to support their health throughout the day. There needs to be changes made across the board. Thanks for what you are doing here.

  20. I liked this Post. I grew up poor & to the poster above who thinks it's easy for poor people to (1) pay rent in high cost areas, (2) pay utilities; (3) pay transportation costs; and (4) clothe and feed your kids is not in touch with reality. My mother worked up to 2 jobs & we lived in public housing but there were times when the food buget WAS tight – and there were only 2 children in my family.

    I also appreciate the recognition that if you grow up without experiencing "middle-class" variety in your diet, it's hard as an adult to do it. For example, I didn't know there were different types of lettuce besides iceberg, never heard of sundried tomatoes until I was 20, and there are many common fruit & vegetables I'd never heard of until I was in my early 20's.

    I qualified for free lunches as a kid – and you're right – it may be the very best (or only substantive) meal a kid eats that day. I used to think school-lunches were exotic because you usually got to choose your vegetable…

    All kids deserve healthy food in school – but they've been feeding kids starchy stuff since at least the 1980's (when I was eating it) and there were never more than a handful of fat kids at school with 500 students. Better food is part of the solution, but I think the rise of video games & computer games are a big contributor to kids packing excess weight. Kids don't go outside & play anymore. Even in the mid/late eighties kids were still playing outside…and we had a lot fewer overweight children.

    Thanks for your blog – it's really neat.

  21. I've been following this blog with interest, and I was surprised to see a link to my blog in the comments! LOL

    I agree that good food is more complicated than just a monetary issue. For example, if one has only eaten processed foods, then real food (with much less sodium) will taste bland. Many families don't have two parents. Some families don't even have one parent who cares. Other families have one (or two) parents who work full time and are just doing their best. Some don't realize that "pasteurized cheese food product" isn't actual cheese. Confusing labels and health claims on labels make many "non-foods" seem like healthy options.

    Another thing I see rarely addressed as part of "why poor people are fat" is access to foods. If you don't have a car, it's difficult to shop twice a week for fresh produce. If the only place within walking distance to buy food is a convenience store, no wonder Fritos look like a great base for a meal (When I was in school, our lunch ladies served "haystacks" – fritos with canned chili on top!) And in my city, Houston, the third largest city in America, farmer's markets don't accept food stamps.

    Schools do need to set the example. I've followed this blog for a little bit, so if you've covered this please forgive me. What do you think of Alice Water's programs?

    and similar programs:

    I'd love to see what the teachers think of integrating such a program into the curriculum.

  22. Me again. Sorry to hijack the thread. One of the reasons I homeschool is because one of my children has special dietary needs. He cannot eat artificial sweeteners or food colors. He was in public school (special education, self contained classroom) for two years. I had a doctor's note AND it was written into his IEP – NO FOOD COLORS. He also was on the free lunch program.

    The school would not, could not comply. Even when I dropped free lunch and packed his food, the school still was unable to NOT feed him food colors, in part because food-based incentives were so pervasive, in addition to the lunches (they had PURPLE milk! Grape flavored.) It became such a problem that I ended up taking him out.

  23. Thanks for this blog, I just found it. I will be catching up today…this line in particular is SO important for grown-up people to remember:

    "So when these students are given food, they just say "thank you." "

  24. I just found your blog and love it! I had a middle class upbringing and my parents stressed healthy, natural foods. I've got to admit, I was a food snob at a young age. I had the opportunity to visit farmers markets and ethnic restaurants.

    I went to an elementary school that had >70% of kids on free or reduced lunches. I was spoiled and ungrateful for the school lunches. I never thought of myself as a picky eater, because I loved broccoli and duck, but I was considered the pickiest eater in the school. I bought my lunch daily, but there were only a handful of things I'd eat other than fresh vegetables. I now know that I was lucky and a lot of the other kids were hungry, happy, and weren't in a position to complain about the quality of the food.

  25. 1 – I just discovered your blog, as I am sure many have, via Yahoo news (so unbiased, lol). I am riveted. This is of course timely, as you have noted, it is also relevant to pretty much anyone reading it. I am a 34 year old single woman. I am very overwieght and have been all my life. I, like most of our society, have noted the increase of obesity in our world. WALL-E IS just a movie, right? yet… we are starting to look like a society of penguin shaped bodies. Obviously starting this education and nutrition at a yong age is imperitive. Its so plain its amazing. yet… here we are.
    2- As a nearly unrelated note – when the kids say it is 'good', I would imagine a portion of that is social pressure. However, elementary kids are, as a people, rather blunt in verbage. I have to wonder – to them is 'bland' tasty? I remember hating most flavor filled foods as a kid. I didnt like anything with spice to it, pepper, etc. A hotdog, a plain hamburger, a handful of carrots, etc. As I get older I find I like 'brighter' flavors. I enjoy spice more, including thai, 'hot' foods, and more variety. I want to say there have been studies about taste buds comparing kids to adults? Maybe bland… isnt when you are in 5th grade?
    3- that being said… whats wrong with the occasional salad? What happened to fresh fruits? casseroles with like, real foods?

    I look forward to many more posts.

  26. The reason that bacon and sausage are not good food choices are many. Nitrates and Nitrites are two of the reasons. These are also found in hot dogs and processed lunch meats and are one of the leading contributors to strokes and heart disease. We can’t address school lunches until we address the diets of most Americans and what they call healthy. We don’t question all the additives and chemicals in our foods because we don’t think to do so. They are quietly killing all of us – not just our children.

    And actually catfish is a good choice depending on how it is cooked. If it is breaded with good, wholegrain breading, and then pan-fried in Canola or Olive oil it can actually be a good addition to a meal.

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