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Red? Delicious? More like yucky inside, kids say

March 01, 2004|Bruce Mahler | Special to The Times

This is about apples. And kids. Apparently, the two don't mix.

I say this with authority, because as a member of the Hot Lunch Committee at my son Joseph's elementary school, I'm on the front lines in the Kid-Nutrition Wars. We're losing the battle.

Saint James' School is in the heart of the mid-Wilshire district. Every Wednesday morning I assume a defensive position in the schoolyard, awaiting the onslaught of 309 hungry elementary school kids. My assignment is to hand out hundreds of MREs (meals ready to eat) trucked in by a Culver City catering company. Promptly at 11:45 a.m., the first wave -- kindergartners and first-graders -- pours forth from classrooms like fire ants boiling out of a nest. The lunch table is instantly under siege.

"Last name!" I shout.

"Michael," comes the timid reply.

This isn't starting off well. There will be 308 after Michael.

"Last name," I repeat.

"Uh, Lee?" (not his real last name).

I skim today's kindergarten printout.

Lee, Michael, selection No. 2 -- regular.

I plunk down a medium-size macaroni and cheese.

"There you go. Fork. Bottle of water. Napkin. And an apple."

I place a medium-size Red Delicious in front of him. This isn't a piece of fruit, it's a sculpture. The thing belongs in the Smithsonian. It's perfect. Unblemished. Firm. A scarlet-hued masterpiece, bursting with goodness. Michael considers the ripe Malus pumila before him. I might as well have placed an open tin of anchovies in front of him.

"No thanks."


He's gone. A saucer-eyed girl stands in his place.

"Last name?"

"Brooke Mason?" (Kindergartners often answer a question with a question.)

The 5-year-old struggles to balance her selection, a No. 1 -- large (two slices of pizza, bottled water, napkins). I offer the poisoned apple Michael just rejected.

"I don't eat that."

(It's the second most frequent excuse children offer when declining apples at Saint Jim. The cordial but blunt "No thanks" is No. 1.)

And so it goes. By the time the third wave -- fifth- and sixth-graders -- departs, there's an enormous carton of untouched apples before me.

The upshot of all this? I do my produce shopping at my son's elementary school.

Since the school year began, I've been taking home 80 apples (30 pounds' worth) every Wednesday. That's a lot of pectin.

Pectin? It's a soluble fiber that helps eliminate cholesterol. A study out just last week in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that eating three apples a day (or the equivalent in dietary fiber) can significantly lower your risk of heart disease; earlier studies have reported a similar benefit. Malic acid in apples breaks down fatty foods.

The roughage has other benefits too. (My wife eats five of these rejected apples a day, and she's never been so regular.)

Feeling morally obligated to investigate this appalling disregard for apples, I begin with the school's Mission Statement, which states that Saint James "seeks to offer a program that is committed to the development of the whole child." Fair enough. I read on, but there's nothing about apples in the Mission Statement, so I'm off to visit some teachers.

Caroline Spender is a physical education instructor who devotes considerable class time discussing healthful nutrition. I've barely launched into my impassioned tirade against her juvenile apple-haters when she stops me in my tracks.

"I call it the loose-tooth syndrome," Spender says. "Some of these kids have a hard time chewing."

The following Wednesday, I observe that the refusal rate dips slightly in the older grades, but not enough to save the next generation (the task at hand), so I'm back for research. Judith DeWitt, the school's affable librarian, has 19 books with the word "apple" in the title. I peruse a few, but despair overtakes me.

I turn next to the school's religion teacher, Cathy Gray. (Saint James is an Episcopal elementary school.) I'm working the Garden of Eden angle like a gumshoe. Sure, Eve and that snake are the two perps -- but what about the weapon? The entire human race felled by a piece of fruit! Original sin, served up in the form of ... an apple!

I ask Gray if Episcopalians have an aversion to apples. She assures me they don't. I'm grasping at straws. I'll talk to the kids.

Invited to address Jennifer Russell's second-graders, I immediately launch into Topic A (for apple).

"Why don't children eat apples?" I politely inquire.

Hands shoot up, voices ring out. It's an arraignment. I'm in criminal court, defending apples. Multiple indictments are handed down by 22 tiny prosecutors.

Counts 1-3: The skin. ("You can't eat it.") Hardness. ("Your tooth can get stuck in them.") Holes. ("It's when there's a worm inside." "It might be a caterpillar.")

Objection! Speculation! Overruled!

Counts 4-6: Taste. ("They're too sour.") Seeds. ("They feel funny in your mouth." "You have to spit them out.") Bruises and dents. ("They're brown and yellow and yucky inside.")

It's a property damage claim.

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