This past week I participated in my older daughter’s sixth-grade camping trip, the anticipation of which inspired my last Hamlet-esque post on the subject of the quintessential camping dessert. (“To S’more? Or- not to S’more? That is the question.”) As it turns out, (spoiler alert!) dessert was fa-a-a-a-ar from being the only sugared item on this overnight excursion.
Shocker, right? You’re just stunned, I know.
Now, could I have brought my own food? Certainly after everything we’ve learned this year I could’ve anticipated this upcoming sugar a mile away and packed a separate set of meals to bring. However, beside the not-insignificant issue of the bonding and group camaraderie (which, after all, was pretty much the point of the trip) there was a much more dire factor in my decision not to bring any food with me on the overnight: two of the girls in Greta’s sixth grade class have life-threatening allergies to nuts. If I were to bring any food at all, I could have unwittingly posed a threat to these girls, way out in the Vermont wilderness. It was a non-issue; as far as I can tell, Deathly Allergies trump No-Sugar experiments every time.
But that didn’t mean we had to have dessert. Regarding the S’more conundrum, the answer I ultimately came to at long last was: embrace the S’more! I’m awfully glad I did- despite being ridiculously sweet, they are still one of the most delicious things I can possibly imagine. The thing is, it only, only works if you are tired and sweaty, muddy and smoky, and sitting around a campfire in the dusk in the middle of nowhere. (Anywhere else? Not, repeat, NOT the same. My next bumper sticker will read: Ban the Microwave S’more!) Greta, for her part, was so giddy to enjoy the forbidden treat that she was dancing.
But it was… more than that- more than just what our taste buds were telling us. We all partook together of the same foods that night- capped off by the sensory fireworks display of the S’more- and there is some strange, ineffable bonding power in the sharing of food- even if it’s just hamburgers and chips on plastic plates. I was glad of my decision to participate in the meals fully for reasons on many levels.
Interestingly enough, every item on the dinner menu that night had a sugar and non-sugar option: green salad (great!) with dressing? (sugar!) Hamburger or hot dog? (fine-) with ketchup? (sugar!!) Potato chips? (okay…) with BBQ flavor? (Sugar!!!) If you picked and chose carefully, you could either avoid sugar almost entirely, or enjoy a meal overflowing with that non-essential ingredient we love so well. Amazing how easy it is to go from one extreme to another- how similar two plates could look even while one is loaded down with that familiar toxin and the other abstains. We got through dinner relatively unscathed.
Breakfast the next morning, however, made dinner look monastic by comparison. Breakfast was sugar with sugar and would you like some sugar on that? My head was reeling: hot cocoa (sugar) was followed by Nutrigrain bars (sugar), graham crackers (sugar) and white bread (sugar) with jam (sugar). There was also a choice of banana or apple, which were the only sources of fructose (sugar) still at least wedded to their original fiber. All that was missing from this meal was whipped cream on top and a cherry.
I had no choice but to have dessert for breakfast and hope that somehow I would magically be able to create enough energy out of it to power me through the hour-long hike back out of the forest that was to follow. How do they expect these kids to function on a breakfast like this? I wondered, wide-eyed. I was horrified to recall that this is not all that different from what so many kids are served everyday for the school breakfast.
Now, let me reiterate once more, for those who might have missed it previously, that I LOVE our school. I love our teachers and I think they are incredible and amazing people for daring to lead this excursion of pre-teenagers into the woods every year- they certainly don’t have to. They do it, I imagine, because they know it will be an incredible bonding experience for their students, that it will stay with them as a powerful memory not only throughout the school year, but- and I’m not overstating the matter here- throughout their entire lives. Small childhood events can have magical power like that.
Many of the kids on this trip had never been camping before. A significant number had never even been to the forest and farmland where it was held, despite the fact that we all live within a few miles of it and that its walking trails are free and open to the public. The kids were wildly excited about small things: telling scary stories around the campfire, getting to sleep sardine-style in the lean-to, playing “Manhunt” with flashlights in the dark. Having S’mores.
So far be it from me to rain on the parade. The problem, as far as I can tell, isn’t the teachers, or really even the school, as much as it is the culture that has grown accustomed to eating sugar not only with every meal, but, frequently, in every item on our plates. This is what we have come to consider normal. How do you undo “normal”? That’s the $64,000 question.
I got to know the kids in my daughter’s grade better than ever before on the course of this overnight, and I have to tell you- they’re fascinating. I’m endlessly impressed by their humor and creativity and leadership and resilience and energy. But I’m deeply worried about them, and what the future holds in store for them, if we can’t fix our food culture in time.