09/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Small Good News: No Double-Standard Dining In School Cafeterias

It's not for nothing that companies sign up high-profile celebrities to sell their goods: the customer's drawn as much to borrowed élan as to a product. Surely, Gwyneth Paltrow's scent of choice and the timepiece that adorns Roger Federer's wrist must smell and tell time better, respectively, than any other brand.

If the product you're selling is a healthy school lunch, quick: Who are the most famous school-lunch-eaters in the land? Those of you who guessed Malia and Sasha Obama win a week's worth of tofu scramble, a wink and a nod from Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, and the passing frustration of the President and First Lady, who took issue with posters planted in D.C.'s Union Station, near pol-heavy Capitol Hill. Alongside a photograph of another school luncher, eight-year-old Jasmine Messiah, ran the copy, "President Obama's daughters get healthy lunches. Why don't I?" The First Parents considered that an invasion of their daughters' privacy.

The slogan and the accompanying flapette got the issue more attention than it otherwise would have received - which is, of course, what good advertising is all about. But now that Dr. Barnard has proven himself a smart ad man, what about the message?

The Obama girls go to a private school, where parents pay tens of thousands of dollars for all the things public schools can no longer afford, whether it's a computer lab, a swimming pool, elective classes in the arts, or decent grub in the cafeteria. Jasmine goes to a public school, where priorities include teaching students to read, write and dabble in math at something approaching grade level; banishing French fries is way down on the to-do list. A big reason for the menu discrepancy is simply the relative availability of dollars: As anyone who's ever cooked a dinner for four knows, you can't serve wild-caught fresh fish on a Hamburger Helper budget.

A smaller and more insidious element of the good lunch/bad lunch equation, however, is the Department of Agriculture practice of dumping surplus agricultural goods into public school lunch programs, which may be why they're tipping toward the high-fat and high-cholesterol. Forget about what the Obama girls eat for lunch; that was just a ploy to get you to listen up. Instead, visit the PCRM web site and look at its nutritional Report Cards for school districts around the country.

Talk about a two-tiered health care system. It starts in first grade, every time public-school cafeterias dish up too much fat, too many processed foods, too much dairy, and not enough vegetarian options. We put our children on the path to obesity, to diabetes and its threatened cascade of health problems down the line, to heart disease and high blood pressure. Ironically, given our current obsession with health care reform, we engineer a next generation of adults that will end up taxing the system even further.

Did I hear someone whisper the word "prevention"?

And yet, as the Report Cards show, there are alternatives if educators and parents decide to opt out of the bad-lunch curriculum. All a school needs is a little imagination, some initiative, and a determination to strike alliances with local growers and suppliers instead of corporate food suppliers.

To borrow a popular phrase, "Yes, we can." We can educate our children about food; we can make fresh fruit as ubiquitous as French fries, and we can start building habits that might finally alter what the Centers for Disease Control calls our "obesogenic" culture.

Seems to me that this is a cool cause to be associated with, even if the docs failed to ask for Malia's and Sasha's endorsement first. This is not a tasteless attempt to cash in on the First Daughters' sudden celebrity, as Ty Inc. did last January with its "Sweet Sasha" and "Marvelous Malia" dolls. It's a wake-up call, and mentioning Malia and Sasha made sure that more of us heard it in time for lawmakers' review of the Child Nutrition Act, which the PCRM wants amended to require more low-fat dishes and fresh produce in school lunches.

Michelle Obama has shown herself to be admirably serious about nutrition and about spreading opportunity to children who have not known enough of it in their young lives. Those two issues intersect at public-school lunch - so why not embrace the issue? Jasmine wrote a letter to the Obama girls asking them to sign a petition at What a great way for them to leverage their unwanted celebrity.

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