This morning, as the kids were filling their mouths with cereal the way I fill the emotional hole in my psyche with booze, I read the school lunch offering from the menu on the refrigerator door. “Today’s hot lunch is pizza. Your choice of pepperoni or cheese.”
“What else?” asked Speaker.
“I’m in,” said Rusty, through a dripping mouthful of Crunch Berries. I ate Crunch Berries when I was a kid, too. Hell, I knew Cap’n Crunch when he was just an Ensign.
“Salad,” I continued. “Pineapple chunks, green beans, and a dirt cup. That must be a misprint. That’s pretty funny, though—a cup of dirt. Yummy.”
“Dirt cup!! Dirt cup!!” they chanted. “Yeah!!”
That sealed the deal, although Rusty, who thinks there’s no such thing as bad pizza, was sold on the first item. I quizzed them about the dirt cup. Seems it’s different than the one I had to ingest when I joined that fraternity in college.
“It’s awesome,” said Rusty, eyes wide with excitement and surging glucose levels. “They grind up Oreo cookies and put a gummy worm in it and top it with whip cream.”
I’m so relieved that the kids are receiving good nutrition during their school day, I think sarcastically, returning the boxes of Crunch Berries and Chocolate Lucky Charms to the cupboard. That’s all they need, more sugar.
I am the self-appointed Candy Sheriff at the Wire compound, fighting mightily to keep my kids from growing up fat and stupid with the attention span of a fruit fly. I try to be stingy with the sweet stuff at home, but I know they’re still getting it on the outside. How do I know this? Simple. I do the laundry. When you do the laundry, you know things.
I always find the wrapper from a Jolly Rancher or Starburst in Rusty’s jeans pocket. I mean, like, every frickin’ pair. Last year when he was in middle school, I confronted him. “Hey, buddy, where’d this come from?” I showed him a handful of baby Tootsie Roll wrappers.
“I don’t know,” he said, jamming his hands deep in his pockets and cutting his eyes from side to side.
“Rusty, I’m just trying to help you eat healthy, buddy, but you keep sabotaging me with this crap. Look at this! I mean, where do you learn habits like this?”
“From YOU, okay?” he yelled. “I learned it from watching you!”
I flushed all the chocolate in the house down the toilet and checked into the Hershey Clinic that night.
So the main meal where I can have the biggest impact, I’ve found, is their school lunch. Back when they were in elementary school, I occasionally joined them for lunch in the cafeteria. (I quit doing that when they hit middle school. Those kids are scary as hell.) I was surprised—yet strangely comforted—that the school lunches have not changed since I was a kid. Salisbury Steak. Spaghetti. They even use the same prison-grade rice I ate in the third grade. I don’t mean just the same kind of rice, I mean the very same rice. It hasn’t aged well.
I still remember the first time I packed their lunches. I was papa bear proud, having provided for my brood. They came home from school hungry, though, and pissed off at papa bear. They hadn’t eaten their lunches. I asked what the problem was.
“Dad,” whined Speaker, “you made me a beef jerky sandwich. I couldn’t even bite it!”
“Well, there was some other stuff in the bag,” I countered. “Why didn’t you eat that?”
“You mean the can of tomato paste and the bag of marshmallows?” she asked, hands on her hips.
“Yeah,” said Rusty. “Thanks a lot for the smoked clams. And what am I supposed to do with this jar of green olives?”
I tried to tell him that pimientos are loaded with vitamin C, but it was clear that my approach to the brown bag lunch wasn’t going to cut it. So now, several years into the School Lunch Era, I send them off every day with more food than they can eat, and it’s all healthy stuff they like. I just have to keep up with their ever-evolving tastes.
Of course, they always request more sweets, and I try to compromise by giving them each a packet of fruit snacks on Fridays. Fruit snacks, my ass. I know a gummy bear when I see one.
A few years ago, Rusty would come home after school and I’d open his lunchbox to find nothing but Ziploc bags of crumbs and powder, a lumpy wad that used to be a sandwich, and an unused napkin.
“Hey, man, what happened to your lunch? It’s completely pulverized.”
Rusty shrugged, seemingly as mystified as I was, until I dropped him off one morning at the school yard. As soon as he saw someone he knew, they dropped their backpacks and started swinging their lunchboxes over their heads like maces, and battering each other mercilessly until the first bell rang. Powdered lunch. There you go.
It’s still a challenge trying to provide these kids with a healthy lunch that they’ll like, when they’re bombarded with commercials for all this processed crap in brightly colored boxes that are supposed to be fun to eat. I mean, shit, man—candy canes are fun to eat, too, but I’m not going to put a bunch of them in my kids’ lunchboxes.
Well, not any more.