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Fresh salads, one of the a la carte options at Madison middle and high schools, are prepared by an employee at the district’s food preparation center. The district has offered healthier a la carte choices since 2006, but sales have dropped 35 percent.

Mom's admonishment still rings true today, with only minor adjustment: "Starving children in North Korea would be happy to have that beef and bean burrito."

Or, as it's known in the Madison School District, the least popular lunch among students this past October and a poster child for the dilemma faced by lunch ladies across this land of plenty: How to get children to eat things that are good for their bodies, not just pleasing to their tongues.

The irony in trying to solve this problem — also known as a "blessing" in food-deprived parts of the world — is so old as to be left unmentioned. I mention it here only as a reminder that in our free-flowing-capital-and-consumer-products global economy, we still can't manage to keep kids from starving to death. 

In any case, my first reaction to the healthy choices conundrum was simple: Let them go hungry.

Why should school districts waste time trying to steer kids toward apples and away from Apple Jacks and inventing a healthy beef and been burrito that actually tastes like a beef and bean burrito when they could just dispense with the arm-twisting and the subterfuge and bring out the broccoli and grilled chicken?

If the kids don't eat, fine; it's not like they're going to starve themselves. And even if they eat less, would that be such a bad thing in a state where more than a quarter of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are considered overweight or obese, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report?

But then around the time I was admiring my brilliant solution, my 2-year-old spit out a mouthful of carrots and started eating the mini candy cane I stupidly gave her on condition she eat her carrots first.

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Ergo, children may be too resourceful (and sneaky) for simple solutions.

"You seem to be saying, 'Let them eat whole-grain bread or no bread at all!'?" Susan Nitzke, a professor of nutritional sciences at UW-Madison, told me. But if the bread's not eaten "the advantages of the whole grains are lost" if the children simply throw the bread in the trash.

Because apparently, kids will choose hunger over, say, lima beans. That is, if they haven't already traded away their lima beans, spit out their partially masticated mouthfuls of lima beans or skipped off to the local minimart.

"But you can't force them to eat it," said Donna Weihofen, a senior clinical nutritionist at UW Hospital and Clinics.

Nitzke and Weihofen said eating is the result of many social, emotional and physical factors, including the familiarity of the foods being offered. Weihofen said she observed that Latino students in south central Los Angeles schools, for instance, were more likely to eat healthy Latino foods.

By that measure, Wisconsin schools are best off serving turkey brats and low-fat cheese curds fried in trans fat-free oil. Throw in some honeycrisp apples and call it lunch.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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