In the 20-minute lunch period at James Russell Lowell Elementary School in Watertown, Mass., the cafeteria becomes as frenzied as the New York Stock Exchange. Youngsters trade apples for plastic bags of gorp, or handfuls of carrot sticks for homemade Congo Bars, all in a quest for the perfect dessert.
But in this storm of lunchtime trading, second-grader Ben Schickel is a satisfied tower of tradition and restraint.
"Ben's a tuna man," laughs his mother, Kathy Schickel of Watertown, who packs her children's lunches each school night. "Tuna-fish sandwiches are his favorite thing in the whole world."
For the most part, Mrs. Schickel's children eat what they take from home. (Third-grade daughter Elysha likes pita and hummus and kindergartner Hannah would eat an entire backpack of fruits and veggies if given the chance.) But like many parents, Schickel knows that nutrition, like politics, is the art of the possible.
"You can pack whatever you feel is best for your child," she says. "But whether they eat it or not is a different story."
It's a simple fact: Parental influence over what their children eat ends at the cafeteria door. The consequences of youthful whims were underlined last week in a sobering federal survey. Only 1 percent of children are eating the amounts of fruit, grain, meat, vegetables, and dairy products recommended by the US Department of Agriculture.
Many folks would shake their heads at this trend, but a random Monitor survey of parents has found a range of creative solutions for keeping children on the straight and narrow. Some baby boomers are sending vegetarian or funky ethnic foods. Others choose the path of least resistance and send their children's favorite food, five days a week, 180 days a year.
And most are finding that their strongest weapon against fast-food fads is something we can call the "Eeeuuu Factor," when kids are unwilling to try new things.
Take Nathaniel Stalberg of Belmont, Mass. As a vegetarian, he wouldn't touch most of the food his classmates eat.
"Everyone else's food is usually stuff they brought from home, which is not vegetarian," says Nathaniel, who will enter the sixth grade on Wednesday. So what does he bring? Peanut butter and jelly.
"For years at a time, they're happy with PB and J," says Catherine Stalberg, mother of Nathaniel and second-grader Gabriel. "Occasionally, the kids will eat bagels with cream cheese, and very occasionally Gabriel will eat hummus with cucumber sandwiches." For dessert, she packs supermarket cookies. "That's where we're not purists," she chuckles.
But while Nathaniel doesn't trade entrees, his cookies are like currency. "I might give 1-1/2 store-bought cookies for a homemade cookie," he admits, "or a cookie for a bag of chips."
Down in Miami, Cole Crockwell is also devoted to lunches from home.
"Mom makes the best lunch," says the sixth-grader, who prefers bologna sandwiches, cool-ranch tortilla chips, and juice. Sometimes he will trade food with a friend, but only out of compassion. "I keep my lunch, but if I can help out a friend who has a bad lunch, I'll trade."
His sister Lea, a second-grader this year, also prefers her mom's lunches, which usually include "a salty thing, a sweet thing, a drink, and an alcohol napkin to wipe my hands with." Her classmates have started bringing more ethnic foods to school - her friend Su-Jin brings Korean food - but she says the weirdest thing she has seen to date is a "bagel with cream cheese."
Most kids can spot a bad lunch a mile away. "There's no popcorn and no cookie. Just a sandwich and an apple," says sixth-grader Nate Merrill of Hingham, Mass. And parents should beware of giving too much of a good thing. "You don't want to overload on the cookies," he warns. "They can get all smashed."
Smashed food may be one of the drawbacks of the standard-issue daypacks that most American youths carry and toss. "Most backpacks look like they've been drop-tested from an airplane after a day of school," says Nate's mother, Maggie Merrill. It's not the best treatment for fragile fruits or salads that parents might prefer to send. "I don't think a salad would make it to school," she says.
For their part, school cafeterias can be a parent's friend or foe. Some, like Russell Elementary in Brownsville, Texas, are working with nutritionists to provide better alternatives to the standard enchiladas or macaroni and cheese. But others have seen the limits of good intentions. McCullough Elementary School in Newcastle, Del., for instance, closed its salad bar last year for lack of student interest.
But while some parents have trouble keeping their children from eating the wrong kinds of foods, Colleen Reveill of Kansas City, Kan., has trouble getting her 11th-grade son Matthew to eat at all. Like his friends, Matt refuses to carry a bag lunch, so if the cafeteria lunch doesn't appeal, he just has a soda.
"He would rather starve than carry a brown paper bag," huffs Mrs. Reveill. By contrast, her daughter Anne, a freshman, packs cheese or turkey sandwiches. "It might be a girl-boy thing."
Even so, Reveill admits tossing out the girlhood green-bread sandwiches that came from her father's Irish bakery on St. Patrick's Day. "There was no way we were going to eat green sandwiches," she says.