Compare and contrast

Of nanny nutritionists and our collective disdain for generation next

One of the "most e-mailed" stories in today's New York Times is an examination of the tension parents and nannies must navigate over the provenance and nutritional sanctity of the little loveys' breakfast bowls and snack packs. The story feints at edginess, making cursory nods at the inevitable class elements and the fact that as cultural currency the topic is firmly wedged between right-thinking and hand-wringing.

Just a few years ago, giving lunch to a 1-year-old was a simple matter of popping open a jar of the Gerber mush du jour. But many parents now feed their children with the precision of chemists and the passion of Alice Waters, and expect sitters to do the same. Fruit juice, once a childhood mainstay, is now considered a sweet slosh of empty calories, and soft drinks are a potential firing offense....

The issue is a trying one even for those gifted in the delicate art of parent-nanny diplomacy. The conflicts are partly a result of the educational and economic divide that leaves many nannies less knowledgeable (or neurotic, take your pick) about nutrition than their employers. But it is also partly a struggle over the emotional issues involved in leaving a child in another person's care.

How precious.

It's been said that an outsider can tell ours is a polarized society simply by taking note of our embrace of the extreme. You know, Hummers and Mini Coopers, anorexic chic and Anna Nicole Smith, the "Left Behind" novels and "Deadwood." And the of-the-moment genre of family issues reportage of which this Times piece seems to be an outgrowth: Concern over the effect that trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup are having on the underclass and how we might wean them from their Sunny D and microwave-ready egg sandwiches.

If you ask me, The Great Juice Box Conundrum, with its preoccupation with controlling every morsel consumed by one's singular, irreplaceable individual child, is a top-notch distraction from our wholesale inability to invest in children--plural and frequently unwashed. Today's not-so-frequently e-mailed news: The Economic Policy Institute says the number of children who have no health insurance last year grew for the first time in seven years.

Just in case my point's still unmade, let me take one more swing: These are children who cannot go to the doctor today for a chronic, life-threatening condition such as asthma or diabetes, children whose parents probably can only dream of making a forward-thinking nutritional investment in reducing their lifetime chances of suffering cancer. EPI says we can blame the profit-motive for this:

The rate of uninsured children in the United States has increased for the first time in seven years, from 10.8% in 2004 to 11.2% in 2005. From 2004 to 2005, the number of uninsured children grew by 361,000 to a total of 8.3 million uninsured children....

Children experienced declines in employer-provided health insurance coverage of 5.1 percentage points in the last five years. In 2000, 65.6% of children had employer-provided coverage, whereas in 2005 only 60.5% did. While the number of children insured by Medicaid or SCHIP increased from 2000 to 2004, 184,000 fewer children (nearly 1%) had Medicaid or SCHIP in 2005 than in 2004.

I have two kids who have become experts at thwarting virtually every anxiety-fueled food edict I've ever laid down. They get Capri Sun from grandpa, breakfast-hour candy from kids on the school bus, slimy, cheap goody bags from other daycare parents, and macaroni and cheese from me on those nights when Mom is worn down from a long day of keeping the health insurance card in her wallet active. And--and--this despite the fact that my older son goes to a school with one of those "evolved" food programs that eschews the processed and doctored. I'm here to tell you that children gravitate toward salt, sugar, and fat, their parents' ideologies notwithstanding.

I'll tell you what's popped up as much bigger problems than the methods used to farm their apples. The kids in my son's second-grade class who are still learning to tell time. The rumor floating around among us remaining tighty-whitey parents at his public school that the withdrawal of our even more uptight kin concentrated so many kids with behavioral diagnoses and learning disabilities in last year's class that more than 40 percent had special needs. The fact that our nearly wholesale retreat from public childcare assistance means my preschooler's cohorts cycle through the Starfish Room too quickly to acquire school readiness skills.

But hey, as a screen onto which to project our end-of-empire anxiety, nannies, who may be persuaded or coerced into making the switch to organic, certainly outweigh the conundrums of the nanny state.

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