NR Digital


The Buffet Rule

by James Lileks

This summer the State of Massachusetts will nix bake sales in school. Zero tolerance for frosting! Down with sprinkles! They want to ban kids’ selling fudge door-to-door to raise money, too, and by the time they’re done adults will have to stand 20 feet from the door to eat a Milky Way.

This is intended to combat the Obesity Epidemic, as it’s called. It’s a curious epidemic. Apparently one guy ate a Twinkie on a subway in New York, and by the end of the week everyone in the car had gained five pounds, and one of them went to Hong Kong and everyone on the plane suddenly had to let their belt out, and when the flight attendant ordered cheesecake from room service that night everyone on her floor discovered that their underwear was too tight the next morning. It spread uncontrollably. The Centers for Disease Control are still tracking down Patient Zero, whom they believe to be a man who ate an entire bag of taco-flavor Doritos in 1982.

I was stricken with a mysterious case of obesity as a child. In elementary school we all walked home for lunch, because Mom was waiting. In retrospect we know this was a horrible burden for mothers everywhere; they were all repressed and unfulfilled, living on Metrecal diet shakes and Lark cigarettes, staring out the kitchen window wishing they were in New York undergoing Freudian analysis, sneaking a read of Betty Friedan when no one was looking, but moms in Fargo seemed to be holding up okay. Happy to see us at noon, too. A grilled-cheese sandwich, a glass of milk, a cookie — then we walked back to the low-slung brick schoolhouse with the name of a murdered president on the side. A few kids were on the chunk-style side, but every class had some beanpoles to average it out.

Then came junior high, and the cafeteria. Hot caramel rolls the size of throw pillows, great greasy pizza squares with the dimensions of linoleum tiles. No more walking home at noon. I gained ten pounds. Suffered the humiliation of getting my trousers in the husky size, as they called fat-boy pants in the Dads & Lads department. Teasing resulted. My dad said I should either go on a diet or get a bra. If only we’d known: It wasn’t my fault. It was the epidemic.

Now I have a child in middle school, and pack the lunch with care: non-sugary juice pouch, protein, dairy, an apple that has been carefully examined to make sure it has no bruises, since they’re apparently poisonous, and so on. It has to be eaten quickly, because sometimes she must spend half her lunch period standing by the recycling bins to ensure everything is put in the proper bin; the rules for ecologically kosher disposition make a glatt kitchen look like an Upton Sinclair–era slaughterhouse. At home there are no sugared sodas, but everything else is permitted, so nothing attains the allure of a forbidden delight. Moderation, portion control. Also, I daub a big “X” in chocolate syrup on the door so the Angel of Obesity passes by.

Her school is PC, as can be expected; last month it observed a day of silence to support gay rights, for example. I can only imagine the look on my mother’s face if I’d kept silent when I came home for grilled cheese and wrote a note saying I was “being quiet for the homosexuals or something,” as my daughter described the event. But the school still permits cupcakes. At an event celebrating the end of the semester, cupcakes were allowed on school grounds, and in some instances the teachers provided them.

Epidemic-wise, this is like a teacher full of bird flu coughing in their faces.

It’ll stop soon enough, probably. Last Christmas — sorry, Red-and-Green Festive Time — the high-school kids came by on a fund-raising drive, offering boxes of chocolates. They weren’t utterly without nutritional merit; if you ate the foil that covered them, you’d probably get some essential minerals. Fruits were represented, but they were mummified in sugar. Delicious. They also sold tins of popcorn, probably made with luscious oils that spackled your arteries and required the clear-cutting of some Burmese jungle for a rare tree, so you knew it was the good stuff.

This will end soon. Pictures of smiling kids selling cookies will look as absurd as old ads where doctors endorsed cigarettes, but we can’t get to that glorious day unless the schools do their part. First, they’ll tell kids not to eat the stuff — but hold on, isn’t that abstinence? We’re told that doesn’t work. Okay, they’ll ban it. Hold on, isn’t that prohibition? We’re told that never works. Well, never mind, it’s bad, okay? Shut up with the analogies. Final step: replacing the lunchroom tables with troughs, so the children can lap up a fortified slop of liquefied tofu. Today’s flavor: Beets!

The first lady has made healthy eating her cause célèbre, and while you can guarantee that her hortatory exhalations about swapping out the chili fries for braised asparagus will change nothing, at least she will have raised our consciousness, and possibly Sparked a National Conversation. You’re surprised she hasn’t proposed her own Buffet Rule: 30 percent of the stuff on your tray has to be leafy.

We had our own conversation at home about school food. My kid hates it. Breaded wads of compacted chum, lukewarm poultry nodules, goopy macaroni, sawdust hamburgers — the free, union-approved food the state doles out is inferior in every way to the meal your parent makes. That’s a good lesson. Easily digested, and quite nutritious.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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