published Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Kennedy: How peas changed my life

Growing up, my nemesis was Mrs. R.

Back in the 1960s, Mrs. R. was the cafeteria manager at my elementary school. Dressed in a full-length apron and white, gum-soled shoes, she would stand menacingly at the tray-return window and inspect every plate.

If your plate was not sufficiently clean, she would frown and motion you back to your seat to finish eating. Waste was not just discouraged, it was forbidden. (For context: Children’s rights had not been invented in 1965.)

This presented a problem. I was a good kid, an A and B student who didn’t get into much trouble. But I had a pathological fear of green peas. To me, green peas were shockingly sweet and pasty with the texture of encapsulated mush. Just smelling them could make my stomach convulse.

Perhaps because they were cheap and plentiful, the cafeteria ladies would pile them up on my plate like stacks of Civil War cannonballs. While I might have been able to eat one pea while holding my nose, the thought of eating an entire Great Pyramid of them was unthinkable.

I resorted to stuffing the peas into napkins and wedging them into the corner brackets under the cafeteria tables. One day, while trying to hide my pea pile, I hit my mouth on the edge of a table, knocking off an Idaho-shaped piece of my front tooth. As it happens, my broken front tooth turned me into a shy, awkward kid and stunted my social growth well into my 20s. So, in a way, you could say green peas ruined part of my life. (Kidding.)

This might explain why I have so little sympathy for federal government’s efforts to dictate healthier school lunches — forcing a child to eat his or her peas, you see, is rife with unintended consequences. I fully expect my life story to be the focus of future congressional hearings.

My own children, two boys ages 12 and 7, opted out of the school lunch program early on: one because of a severe food allergy and the other because of severe bullheadedness. I made a decision early in parenthood to be a noncombatant in the food wars. I’ve seen too many parents force-feed kids beyond all reason. Our boys are trim and athletic, so I don’t worry much about how they get their calories. I pack their lunches every school day. (Kids who have weight issues, obviously, may need help moderating their diets; that’s why God made parents.)

Meanwhile, I have clear memory of my younger sister sitting at the kitchen table for what seems like hours, staring at a pile of green beans that my former Army sergeant Dad had ordered her to eat. She survived childhood on a diet of cheese sandwiches, Minute Rice and pickle juice without any lingering character flaws.

A couple of years ago, the federal government, with input from first lady Michelle Obama, decided that school lunches should be healthier. According to the New York Times, the 2012 regulations said school meals must have more fruits and green vegetables and fewer servings of salt and fat. These are laudable goals, assuming kids will actually eat what you put in front of them.

Kids everywhere, naturally, exercised their constitutional right to boycott some of the healthier choices. In the meantime, last month the U.S. House Appropriations Committee passed a agriculture budget bill that allows schools to seek a one-year waiver from the new school-lunch nutrition regulations. This has sent some pundits, who sense an agribusiness conspiracy at work, into orbit.

Writes the Baltimore Sun editorial board: “It should come as no surprise that some in the food industry — particularly those who make such questionable menu items as mini-pizzas loaded with high-fat cheese or deep-fried chicken nuggets that no longer make the nutritional cut — are balking at the (school lunch) standards.”

Questionable menu items? Do these people have kids? If you removed pizza and chicken nuggets from the diet of all American children, obesity might be mitigated, yes, but then we’d be talking about mass starvation.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Ms. Obama fretted about a move afoot in Congress to add white potatoes to a nutritional program for poor women and children. The first lady noted that nutritionists have decided that Americans already get enough potatoes.

So chicken nuggets, pizza and white potatoes are officially out of favor at the White House. I will take that under advisement.

In the meantime, I’d like your opinion on a more important subject: Green peas, friend or foe?

With apologies to the Green Giant, I’m sticking with “foe.”

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfree or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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