Complaining to a colleague, as I am wont to do, about my difficulties hitting upon a subject for this column every week, she asked when I first began to write it. It turns out — and I had to pull out a folder from a crammed old filing cabinet to be sure — that the first “Connections” appeared in The East Hampton Star on April 28, 1977, which means it passed the 37-year mark a few weeks ago. (Even I, a hater of unnecessary exclamation points, want to put an exclamation point at the end of that sentence.)
Looking through the somewhat yellowed clippings, I laughed out loud at something I reported on May 19, 1977. Members of the East Hampton senior citizens nutrition program, which met in the middle school, had recently “set up a table of snacks for sale at lunch time.” The idea was that “some students needed to eat more than the school lunch offered,” while other students — truly picky eaters — needed something to fill their stomachs when their refusal of the regular cafeteria goods had left them hungry. So what snacks did the senior-citizens group offer to the kids? I quote: “The snacks were a collection of forbidden fruits like Yankee Doodles, Ring Dings, and Yodels.”
Can you imagine? In that column, I went on to — also somewhat amusingly, with a few decades’ perspective — muse about how, while we all loved the rural nature of our East End, it had to be admitted that suburban communities had certain advantages we missed. The example I cited was to contrast the Ring Dings and Yodels of the East Hampton Middle School with the good works of an UpIsland organization called CRUNCH (Concerned Residents Upholding Nutrition’s Contribution to Health), which, through a Food Day event at the Smith Haven Mall of all places, was agitating to get schools to stop serving junk food or allowing it in vending machines.
Thirty-seven years later, I am sure a group of concerned volunteers here in East Hampton would offer something quite different if called upon to supplement students’ cafeteria choices. Greek yogurt and organic bananas? Whole-grain flagels? Kale chips?
I don’t actually know what the lunch programs are like at the South Fork’s public schools these days, although I have to hope that the campaign Michelle Obama launched about four years ago to promote healthy eating and more physical activity among children has had some effect. Everywhere I go nowadays, adults are talking about changing their diets, eating more vegetables and fruits, canonizing the notion of farm to table, cutting down on sweets and certain, if not all, carbohydrates.
In April, The Star reported that the Ross School had been ranked at number four among schools throughout the entire United States by a culinary website called the Daily Meal, which cited Ross’s locally sourced and healthy menus. The food director at Ross, Liz Dobbs, even sounded a bit apologetic for serving white rather than brown rice at dinnertime, explaining that it was a comfort food for its many boarding students who are far from home.
Perhaps the Ross School, which years ago brought in the famous food activist Alice Waters from California to help design wholesome meals for its students, has had a good influence on our local discussion, at large. We have come a long way since the days of meatball subs and gallon cans of pudding.
What does it say, though, that the children of 30 and 40 years ago — despite the prehistoric, processed food choices available during the school day — were less inclined to be obese than today’s children, who dine on organic root vegetables and sushi? I’m not concerned about the sophisticated kids who get to eat sushi, but the evidence, reported by the Centers for Disease Control, is that while the increase in childhood obesity crosses economic and social lines, the children of low income families are more likely to be obese than others.