One of the few aspects of child-rearing that hasn’t required much discussion between Kyle and me concerns education. His parents were public school teachers, my mother and maternal grandparents were public school teachers, and he and I each attended public school, kindergarten through graduation, in our respective districts in Oregon and Ohio. When we lived in New Jersey, I meticulously researched school districts and would have bought a shack in Millburn to get my kids into that district. When we moved to Colorado, we narrowed our home search based on public school performance. Our commitment to good public education for our own kids has been a consistently high priority.

This week, the levy in my hometown school district failed. Here in Colorado, our own ballot issues have failed, and there’s been continuous tussling between the board/the superintendent and teachers/parents since the power shift on the board in 2009 and the hiring of our new superintendent in 2010.

None of this is surprising. When I fundraised in middle school and high school, I routinely fielded questions about why weren’t property taxes enough, why did I have to ring doorbells and beg? (This is one reason I donate my time and pay fees without griping; my own kids don’t need to be sounding boards for disgruntled adults.)

In some cases, I went without participating in activities for which I hadn’t raised enough on my own, like our drill team trips to perform at Disneyworld and the Orange Bowl. Sure, I was disappointed to have to stay home, but even then I understood that tax dollars (and my own parents’ money) were better spent elsewhere.

The struggle to fund education in a way that satisfies everyone isn’t new, and it isn’t going away. Technology evolves, the economy shifts, priorities differ, and demands escalate. The world is changing and expanding, and education in any format must follow suit in order to remain both viable and valuable. If we want education to do more and deliver more, it will take more time, money, and energy from teachers, taxpayers, and parents.

Think of teachers as the wait staff at a busy and highly-acclaimed restaurant, while we parents and our kids play very much the same role that we do as diners, complete with broken crayons on the floor. We selected this particular restaurant (school or district) because of its reputation, and the wait staff (teachers) may be the only faces we see, unless the manager (principal) makes the rounds, asking about our experience. Do we ever interact with the owner (superintendent) or board of directors (board of education)? Unlikely. Yet they are often what makes a difference in the service we perceive that the wait staff (teachers) are rendering alone.

In short, teachers get more blame and less credit than they deserve, along with often minimal cooperation from those they serve, just like the wait staff.

But unlike the restaurant analogy, we parents have to take an active role in shaping and realizing those services. We’re not back in a restaurant kitchen, carrying trays of food or shouting “Medium rare, I said!” at the chef, but we’re helping out in classrooms, chaperoning field trips, creating yearbooks, overseeing fundraisers, and working with our kids at home to ensure they get to school ready to learn.

Public education doesn’t mean outsourcing your kids’ development; it’s an ongoing team effort where cooperation is essential. Funding, whether it’s deemed adequate or not, doesn’t absolve parents of our role as facilitators. Let’s work on being good education customers.

In March, I read Dr. Robert Lustig’s recent book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. It’s a comprehensive discussion of the science behind obesity, and the relationship between obesity and what we eat (not simply how much we eat). Dr. Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist who shares patient anecdotes to illustrate his discussion points, but the vast majority of the material is hard science, presented in an accessible and compelling manner.

Over the weekend, I watched the documentary “A Place at the Table” by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. It tells the stories of two children — one in Colorado, one in Mississippi — and one mother in Philadelphia who struggle with hunger. Hunger activists Jeff Bridges and Tom Colicchio — an actor and a chef, respectively — appear in the film, along with an economist (Raj Patel), a sociologist (Janet Poppendieck), and a US Representative (McGovern, D-MA), among many others. “A Place at the Table” thoroughly covers the issue of hunger from political, economic, and social perspectives.

Reading Lustig’s book before watching this film made both sources of information that much more compelling to me. While I love a riveting personal story (I’m a writer, after all), it’s science that I find most convincing.

For example, in light of the science presented by Lustig, a correlation noted in the film makes perfect sense: Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity in the country. It also has the highest rate of obesity.

If you don’t know when you’ll eat next, you aren’t going to choose foods that may spoil, like fruits, vegetables, milk or other perishables. You’ll choose foods that are cheap, that can sit on a shelf for days or weeks, that require minimal preparation (if any), and that your kids will eat.

what 3 bucks buys

The foods that are cheapest and last longest are those which are unhealthiest. Worse, they are high in calories, low in fiber, and contain sweeteners that act as preservatives. Yep, I’m talking about HFCS.

HFCS is cheap due to corn subsidies — cheaper (and sweeter) than sugar. It’s in stuff that’s not even meant to be sweet. I took a quick look through my own austere pantry and fridge, and I still found HFCS. I’m a careful shopper, which is why you won’t find it in the canned tomatoes or jarred pizza sauce in my pantry, but it’s insidious.┬áThere’s a smidgen of it in my bread, and it’s the second ingredient in my bottled steak marinade, and the first ingredient in my bottled barbecue sauce. (Note to self: Pitch those and shop even more carefully.)

Fat Chance explains why sugar in any form is detrimental to our health. “A Place at the Table” shows the results of increasing use of HFCS in foods that aren’t even meant to be sweet. In short, sugar alters neural and metabolic pathways such that our bodies can no longer handle it appropriately. (If you want the science, read the book.)

As I read, I was struck by the similarities (which Lustig touches on) between the body’s response to sugar overuse and alcohol overuse. I had to stop drinking because I “broke” my body’s mechanism for handling alcohol. Fortunately, I stopped before I developed health problems as a result.

The sugar-obesity-disease cycle is not so easily stopped, as I learned from both the book and the film. One, we have to eat. Two, poverty and the resulting food insecurity (and that most of what’s donated to food banks are nonperishable goods) lead people to continue eating those foods that are the source of the problem. Three, like alcoholism, it’s a downward spiral for those who don’t make a change, due to the neural and metabolic pathway alterations. And finally, making a change — more fresh ingredients and more cooking of actual meals, less packaged nonperishables and less fast food — requires a change in circumstances: Sufficient regular income drives food security.

That said, food security does not necessarily translate to smart food choices. It’s not only the poor who eat at McDonald’s seven days a week, and it’s not only the poor who have pantries and refrigerators stocked with sugar. Those who can afford to eat properly and have the time to prepare meals often don’t do so. In fact, many vehemently resist the suggestion that they ought to change their eating habits.

subsidy pie chart

So while I agree that policy changes are necessary to begin solving the problems of both hunger and obesity (e.g., repealing agribusiness subsidies that apply to ingredients in processed foods), I’m concerned that the repercussions of obesity across the income spectrum will require much broader policy changes to address the resulting health issues. Our collective eating habits are going to cost us all.

Want to learn more about the film? Check out the “A Place at the Table” page on TakePart.

Want to let your US Representative and Senators know you’re concerned? Here’s everything you need to get started.


{Thank you to The Mission List for comping my rental of the film on I was not paid to read Dr. Lustig’s book, watch “A Place at the Table,” or write this post.}