Thursday, August 23, 2007

This Education Brought To You By...

Every year it seems the educational system is forced to sit on pins and needles -- which the parents have to buy because schools cannot afford them anymore -- and wait for budget allocations to come down from on high. This puts schools at a horrible disadvantage, because how does one plan? For the worst? For the best? For a 40-60 split? Will there be time to hire qualified teachers if the money comes through in a last minute deal, or will it be the pink-slip polka?

It's no secret that the State of Michigan is in some serious financial trouble. Finger pointing aside -- and frankly, we'd all be out of fingers -- the end result is The Great Lakes State is faced with balancing a budget that is redder than a baboon's butt.

It may be presumptuous to speak for the universe, but I'll go out on a limb here and say I think everyone agrees that its best to spend within your means and that excessive, long-term debt is bad. And while the topic of fiscal responsibility isn't as exciting as poring over todays list of Who's-Who in Rehab, it's an important part of life and one that shouldn't be ignored. It comes down to being an adult.

Despite all those things we agree on, the devil is in the details and we-the-government spend an inordinate amount of time dancing with the devil. It seems so simple: Recognize and identify the problem, propose solutions and take action. The problem seems to be the constant bickering over who is going to lead, and will it be Tango or Rumba? The next you know, somebody has stepped on somebody else's toes, backs are turned, harsh words are spoken, long gloves are slapped across faces and it's pistols at 40 paces.

Well...maybe it's not quite that dramatic, but looking at all parties involved, all I can say is, "so much for being an adult."

Out of sheer desperation, school districts have had to come up with other sources of revenue. One popular choice was the installation of vending machines in public schools. A 2006 study from the State of Utah concluded

Utah's schools earned an estimated $3.25 to $3.75 million in vending revenues in fiscal year 2005.

Those would be numbers any financially-strapped school district would find hard to ignore. And just think, if Johnny is hungry, he can go to the vending machine and get an apple, which means Johnny has a healthy, nutritious snack and the school district can afford to have running water for another month. It's a real win-win situation, right? Maybe not so much. The Utah study also found

Beverage revenues from Pepsi and Coca-Cola were about 70 percent of schools’ vending revenue. Snack vending and occasionally milk or refrigerated foods (sandwiches, fruit) make up the remaining 30 percent.

Is anyone here surprised? We're sending our kids to school with a pocket full of quarters and expecting them to choose a Cheese sticks instead of Cheese Puffs? This revenue boosting experiment essentially uses kids as both guinea pigs and cash cows, but now, in light of poor dietary habits that are linked to rises in obesity, diabetes and a host of other health-related issues (that will have to be treated and paid for somewhere down the line), even the school districts are backing off. A little. A recent Lansing State Journal Article reported

The Ingham County School District recently announced a deal with Pepsi to bring "healthier" choices into school vending machines ... students are making healthier choices, too, has lessened the district's reliance on soft drink dollars.

"We've become more concerned with empty calories during the school day," Joel Raddatz (Williamston Community Schools' Superintendent) said. "As our kids become better informed and change their habits, they're just naturally not buying as much as they used to. If they're not buying it, the company is not making any money."

Notice they aren't getting rid of the machines. They are making adjustments to make them more profitable. Johnny had better keep those quarters handy.

The latest school district revenue boosting idea is school bus advertising. Not on the outside of the bus. On the inside.

"Every school district is looking at where they can generate new revenue," says Lansing School's director of transportation Nathan Rowen.

"You might see something from the Milk Producers of America telling you to drink milk, you might see something from the Navy or Army or Marines," Rowen says.

How, in this age of
fanatical zero-tolerance enforcement is it acceptable to expose children to advertisements for the Armed Forces while we turn around and suspend kids for pointing a chicken finger and saying bang? Evidently a fistful of dollars helps.

Budget deficits are a horrible problem. The state is suffering. The schools are suffering. But no matter how we-the-government decide to ultimately work things out, it shouldn't be at the expense of the children. We've already emptied all the quarters out of their pockets and filled them with junk food and soda pop. We shouldn't be filling their heads with the advertisements. This is an adult problem. It should be an adult solution.

Pass the waffles.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Turn the Tide of Hate

On Thursday, September 6th, 2007 The Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes and The Michigan Department of Civil Rights are presenting a conference at the MSU Kellogg Center in East Lansing, MI.

This conference is FREE to all registered participants, but space is limited and the registration deadline is August 24, 2007. The opening plenary speaker is Dr. Randy Blazak, Director of the Hate Crimes Research Network. The keynote address will be given by Mark A. Potok, Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project.

According to FBI reports, hate crimes in Michigan are on the rise. In 1995, Michigan reported 405 incidents, which was the 4th largest in the nation. 2004 saw 556 incidents reported in Michigan, and now we currently rank third in the nation. And while we can all pat ourselves on the back and be thankful we aren't California who topped the charts in 1995 and 2004, The Golden State saw an 11% decrease while Michigan reported a nearly 16% increase.

This is one race where no one should want to win, place, or show.

The conference will offer a wide variety of session topics, including examining the role of the media, and identifying community based organizations and advocacy agencies. There are also sessions on how to respond to hate group organizing activities, leafleting and demonstrations.

I'm not a big conference person because all to often conferences are a lot of talk and little action. And when I think about the fact that I live in a multi-cultural, diverse college town, it's all too easy to look at this conference as intellectually interesting, but does-not-apply in our Kum-Ba-Yah singing, highly educated, idyllic rainbow and lollipops kind of community. But in light of the proposition of "Catch an Illegal Immigrant" Day on the MSU Campus, not to mention countless other instances of hate and bias incidents, this conference provides the perfect one-two punch this community needs to turn the tide. It will acknowledge and discuss the problem and then take the all-critical next step: identify community-based solutions so we can work together to turn these numbers around.

Don't wait for the other guy. Read about the conference HERE and register.
Working together we can accomplish much.

Pass the waffles. And lollipops.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Journey Home

Being a card-carrying member of the mom club, "Eat your vegetables" is a phrase we use often. Fortunately, my entire family never met a vegetable it didn't like, and there isn't an evening meal where vegetables aren't present. We simply like them that much.

September, 2006 was a tough time for vegetables. Fresh-bagged spinach took the first hit when the FDA issued a consumer warning linking Popeye's favorite snack to food borne E. Coli O157:H7. Although packages were yanked off the shelf faster than you could say I yam what I yam, there were 205 confirmed illnesses (including four in the state of Michigan) and three deaths. And if you thought you could escape the spinach scourge by running south of the border, in December, 2006, the FDA traced E. Coli O157:H7 infections to Taco Bell Restaurants and began testing every food product that didn't moo.

2007 has seen its own share of food related troubles, including Salmonella in Peanut Butter and the horrific large-scale pet food recall. Aside from that you should be alright. Unless, of course you're playing with one of nine-million lead-laced toys. Or brushing your teeth with poisonous chemicals used in antifreeze.

I have to admit, where food recalls are concerned, I've pretty much been a read the notice, make sure it isn't me, perform a perfunctory "phew!" and return to life as usual. I don't want to feed my family poison, but I've never been what you might call a militant shopper. I go in, grab what I need and get out. Lately, though, I've started to make some changes in my shopping habits. My goal was to reduce the amounts of high-fructose corn syrup and trans fat in my diet. Fortunately, trans fat has gotten a great deal of lousy press lately, and product merchandising has made it fairly easy to spot products that proudly proclaim they are trans fat free. But it ain't necessarily so. According to FDA guidelines:
Food manufacturers are allowed to list amounts of trans fat with less than 0.5 gram (1/2 g) as 0 (zero) on the Nutrition Facts panel. As a result, consumers may see a few products that list 0 gram trans fat on the label, while the ingredient list will have "shortening" or "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" on it. This means the food contains very small amounts (less than 0.5 g) of trans fat per serving.

So guess what? If the potato chip company wants to make sure you believe that no one can eat just one, one serving of potato chips (Six chips. Wahoo!) quickly turns into two or three or ten servings, and all those zero grams of trans fat which are really not zero grams but less than half of gram of trans fat per serving are now a whole pile of trans fats thanking your arteries for the spacious living quarters.

So much for not being militant.

And then there is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), that super-sweetened compound that is added to, well, damn-near everything. Sure, it's easy to eliminate sugar-filled pop and fruit juice. But just try to find a loaf of bread that doesn't contain HFCS. Even the 49 bazillion grain bread that weighs a ton (which means it MUST be good for you) more than likely contains HFCS. And while the FDA position on HFCS is that it is "Generally Regarded as Safe," The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture explains that this means
although food additives that may not meet the usual test criteria for safety these additives have been used extensively and have not demonstrated any harm to consumers.

This must be the "I'm not dead yet" theory.

So, my first discovery in my efforts to combat nasties in my diet was that you really can't do this passively. You have to be a militant pain-in-the-butt aisle-hogging label reader which takes for-freaking-ever. But so it goes. Sorry if I'm blocking the Wonder Bread whose fourth ingredient is -- drum roll please -- High Fructose Corn Syrup.

You might think that the end result of the elimination of the super sweety corny and the lick-your-lips yummy fat would result in a dreary, gruel-filled existence. It doesn't have to be. In fact, we discovered we didn't have to compromise; we were able to make easy substitutions that actually tasted BETTER. The first substitution came from choosing wheat flour over white flour whenever possible. From bread to pasta to ... waffles, our diet got brown. And you know what? Wheat kicks butt. Now we all turn up our noses at "air food" and choose wheat whenever we can. It's denser, heartier and actually has a flavor. The next substitution came from going organic with fresh fruits and veggies. Most general-purpose grocery stores have increased the number of organic items they sell, and let me tell you, an organic carrot kicks the butt of a regular carrot any day of the week. It's a startling difference in taste.

So now that we've dumped the junk and gone organic when we can, the next logical step no farther away than my front door. It's time to become a Localvore.

Localvore--n. Person who eats locally grown food, as in carnivore, herbivore, localvore

From September 8-15, The Lansing Localvores are extending an invitation for people to eat only locally grown foods for a week, a day, or just a meal. Their website provides lots of online resources, as well as lists of local businesses, vendors and other organizations ready to help you with this challenge. Looking at the calendar, I have a couple weeks to figure out what I'm currently doing and what I'll need to do to accomplish this goal. The compromise may be having to spend a bit more time doing some research, but I'm going to give Lansing, Michigan my best effort, and if all goes as it has, the result will be delicious.

Pass the waffles. Whole wheat, please.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Bully Pulpit

It used to be that a Bully Pulpit was a good thing.

Over the past century, Bully! has morphed into Groovy! Sweet! Awesome! Rad! and a host of other most excellent terms (Dude!). But today, a bully is anything but most excellent. A bully is someone who goes after you for any reason or no reason at all. Because you're one size instead of another. Or one gender instead of another. Or have blue eyes, or black hair. Because you're from a different country. Because you're adopted. Because you're smart. Because you're slow. Because you talk differently. Because you go to church here instead of there, or like this person instead of that person. A bully is a bully because they can and through ridicule, threats, or out and out violence, the act of bullying gives them a sense of power, which they crave.

Looking through the hazy memory of my idyllic childhood, I don't remember any particularly problem with bullies. TeenTuna, however, was an entirely different story. She and several of her friends had a rough couple of years in elementary school. Elementary school. Time and time again I encouraged her to walk away. I encouraged her to ignore the teasing, telling her that all these kids wanted was to see her get upset. I encouraged her to talk to teachers or her principal. I encouraged her to solve her own problems. It took several months and escalating incidents before the Principal felt inclined to get involved. It took every ounce of strength to remain calm and impartial as I told him quite diplomatically, "It is my impression that TeenTuna and her friends are getting picked on." What I really wanted to do was to yell and tell him to get out of his office and open his eyes. Thankfully using tact was a good call, and the teacher backed me up. Once that happened and all players admitted there really was a problem, I was amazed to see how much easier it was to work towards a solution, and disappointed that I didn't jump into the fray earlier.

Over the past several months, the state of Michigan has been dealing with the idea of Anti-Bullying Legislation. Known as "Matt's Safe School Law," it is named for Matt Epling, a young man who killed himself after a hazing incident in 2002. The state House passed its version of the bill in March, 2007. As for the Senate?

Sadly, the bill sits, stalled in the State Education Committee. Why? Lots of reasons. Or no real reasons at all. In other words, because they can. Some complain that bill would have to conform to the State Board of Education models, which includes sexual orientation as a trigger for bullying. Others complain that this is just one more example of more government and more laws and are we really a society that has become so dysfunctional that we are legislating minutiae like bullying?

Well, let's talk about minutiae for just a minute. Can't believe sexual orientation is a legitimate topic for bullying? Please. It gets far more ridiculous than that. Try what clothes you wear. Try what car your parents drive. Try whether you can make a basket or catch a baseball. Minutiae is where it's at, and the more trivial the better. Just pray your sandwich has the right kind of peanut butter.

And yes, I totally agree. Why are we legislating bullying? Why do we need a law that says you can't be mean to other people? Aren't we wasting our time writing DUH laws that tell us DUH things we already DUH know?

Absolutely. But here's the deal:

This particular piece of DUH legislation is important because bullying is running rampant in the schools and nobody is standing up and saying NO. Looking at this both logically and optimistically, it shouldn't be legislated because shouldn't exist. Realistically, though, for many kids, love and trust and respect and tolerance is a foreign concept that has to be both taught and then enforced from 9:00 AM - 3:30 PM Monday-Friday from September through June. Kids should know this drill before they ever get to school, but sadly, should is no guarantee, and then we're back to someone getting beat up because they have a Hello Kitty thermos instead of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles thermos. And then same song, 97th verse: the problem isn't acknowledged, things spiral out of hand and the next thing you know, the bullies are in trouble, the victims are hurt and the parents (who are supposed to know better and teach these kids what is right and wrong) are shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads and pointing their fingers at everybody else because if only someone had done something this wouldn't have happened.

Well, lots of someones can and should do lots of somethings.

School officials can and should be diligent in recognizing, acknowledging and working towards solving the problem.

Parents can and should be diligent in teaching their kids that bullying isn't funny and it doesn't give you power. It's being mean for the sake of being mean, and is not acceptable, ever.

Senators should be diligent and pass the Anti-Bullying Bill. And if it's legislating the obvious, so what? We have laws that tell us not to kill people and laws to tell us not to drive down the wrong side of the road. Those seem to be pretty DUH laws too, but it's pretty clear that we need them because DUH or not, people still do it. Having a law doesn't hurt anything, it simply makes the rules clearer for everybody playing the game.

One hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt used the word bully as an adjective meaning something wonderful. We should all work together as a society to change the way we think and behave, so one hundred years from now future generations will be wondering why we ever needed this law in the first place.

And that, my friends, would be bully indeed.

Pass the waffles.