Cafeteria Chronicles: An Update On School Lunches

This is a guest post by Joy Paley. I asked her to write the post because it’s a subject that I think is extremely important but not one that I know much about.

Remember lunches from your school days? You had to brave the week of mystery meat chili and goopy mac and cheese with only-pizza Fridays to make it all worthwhile. These days, the food might be more appetizing, but it’s certainly not healthier: fried chicken, hamburgers, french fries, and chips have become a staple of many cafeterias.

With childhood obesity rates continuing to rise, some parents, school workers, and law makers have finally taken notice of the excuse for food that kids across the nation eat in the cafeteria every day. The battle cry for healthier, more wholesome lunches is growing louder, and schools are getting creative in an attempt to not only get better food into the cafeteria, but to convince kids that they want to eat it.

After all, school is supposed to be a place to teach kids life skills. In today’s processed-food world, wholesome, healthy meals should be part of the curriculum if we expect kids to eat better.

Some Background
So how did it get to the point that kids are basically eating the equivalent of a fast food meal in the school cafeteria?

In a word, money, but time constraints and infrastructure issues have also played into it. Schools have to feed kids on an incredibly tight budget, at less than $1 per kid. If you’ve been to the grocery store lately, you know that it’s not easy to assemble a balanced meal with fresh produce for that amount.

This money problem leads cafeterias to buy a lot of their produce and meat from the USDA’s commodities program, a program that was started to buy up excess food during the Great Depression to keep prices steady. USDA commodities aren’t exactly the freshest, most nutritious food; a lot of it consists of processed meat products.

Combine the need to make meals cheaply with the sheer number of kids that need to be fed, and it’s obvious why many cafeterias switched to re-heatable convenience items like hamburgers and french fries. Unbelievably, many cafeterias don’t even have the ability to actually cook anything. Over the years, the necessary cookware has aged and become unusable, and it hasn’t been replaced because of the reliance on these ready-to-eat staples.

Positive Changes
With these tough constraints, the school lunch situation might seem impossible to solve. However, parents and some innovative cafeteria chefs aren’t taking no for an answer. All parts of the old-school cafeteria menu are getting scrutinized. Those that don’t make the cut are either getting modified or getting the boot all together.

Take something as simple as chocolate milk. You thought it was healthy, right? Full of calcium and vitamin D? That might be true, but it also has almost as much sugar as soda or juice, and educators and parents argue it’s got no place on a child’s lunch tray. Some school districts have taken to banning this age-old staple of cafeteria lunches. You won’t find any chocolate milk in District of Columbia and Berkeley, California schools, and Florida schools are considering banning it as well.

While cutting out the bad stuff is good, you’ve got to give the kids something better to eat in its place. In this vein, many schools are jumping on the local/organic bandwagon and pairing up with local farms to bring wholesome, fresh produce into their lunchrooms.

The program is called Farm to Schools, and recently, it’s spread like wildfire nationwide. According to the organization’s website, the number of programs has doubled since 2007. Nearly 10,000 schools have joined the local food buying initiative.

You can put an apple on a tray next to a hamburger and french fries and regular milk, and you’ve still got a pretty unhealthy meal, though. Some have taken to revamping the entire cafeteria meal altogether, insisting that it is possible to develop healthy meals on a tiny budget.

Chef Ann Cooper, the “renegade lunch lady” has brought gourmet, healthy menus to Boulder, Colorado schools. In her lunch room, garlic lemon chicken, fish tacos, and hummus take the place of the usually greasy fare. A recent survey by the School Nutrition Association showed that overall schools have been following this food-bettering trend and have increased the whole grains and fresh produce in their meals.

An Example to Follow
So what does a complete and successful school lunch program look like?

Kids have gotten used to eating what tastes good, and any parent will tell you that it’s not easy to introduce kids to new foods and get a positive reaction, much less change their personal habits. A few schools in Berkeley, California, however, have introduced a truly integrated food program that seems to be getting to the heart of the matter.

Does your kid know what chard is? How about kale? At Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, they do. The school actually has its own acre garden, called The Edible Schoolyard. Students attend sessions in the garden and learn about the food that’s grown and served to them at lunch. They also have classes in the kitchen, where they learn about nutrition and how to prepare meals. All processed food have been banned from the lunch table, and all food served is made from scratch. The idea behind the program is that getting kids invested in all aspects of food will lead to better eating habits.

New research is showing that this integrated approach, which addresses the entire food cycle, is actually paying off. Students in the program make healthier food choices on their own than kids not in the program; they ate 1.5 more servings of fruit and veggies per day and scored higher on nutrition tests than their counterparts.

What Can You Do?
Maybe you can’t plant the garden at your local school, but there are still a few things you can do if you feel that all kids deserve a shot at loving food as much as you do.

If you’ve got a kid in school, check out their lunch menu, even if you pack their lunch. Not all kids have the luxury of a bag lunch (and, when your kid gets to high school, they’ll most likely still have the option to buy their own tasty chicken fingers, even if you’re still dutifully packing their food). If the food at their school is not up to snuff, consider contacting an administrator to voice your concern.

You can also contact your senator and urge them to pass the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act. The multi-billion dollar act would set new nutritional guidelines for meals, expand nutrition education, and make more kids eligible for reduced-price lunches. While the Senate has already passed a version, the House has passed a more inclusive one, and now the two have to be rectified.

For the love of food, do your part to help put this cafeteria-lunch change in motion.

From Nick: Leave a comment if you have kids or know about the cafeterias in your area. I’d be interested to hear how you think your school lunches stack up!

Photo by chidorian.

Joy Paley is a blogger for An Apple a Day and a writer specializing in phlebotomist careers for Guide to Healthcare Schools.

8 comments on “Cafeteria Chronicles: An Update On School Lunches

  1. I used to be a chef manager for a multi-billion dollar corporation that serviced Old-Age homes. Due to contractual concerns (even 5 years after the fact!) I am not allowed to disclose the name of the corporation I worked for.
    What it all comes down to is money, and buying power. The school lunches have gotten worse over time due to kickbacks received at the corporation end. The reason you see fries on that menu is that if a certain quota is achieved, the corporation receives a substantial discount. It might even be cheaper to make it yourself at the unit level, but in the big picture, the corp receives way more. I could never figure out why I HAD to purchase ready made mac and cheese when I could make it for a fourth of the cost.
    So, the answer to the problem is to kick out the corporations that are running the lunch programs. As long as they are making money, they will NEVER act in the best interest of our children. The answer is NOT legeslation, it is at the parental and school level.
    When you think about it, the cost of a dollar a kid is not actually that bad. Sure, at the individual level, it sucks, but when you are looking at 700 kids, then you actually have 700$ to play with. The thing is, think about it – they are ONLY allocating 1$ per kid. Where is the rest of the money going? To the big machine – that's right. The coorporation.
    When I was the chef manager, before all was said and done, the corporation charged a premium for the "service". Keep inmind that was before my or my director's wage. It turned out that our combined wages were only HALF of what was charged as the service fee.
    That means that out of the government's grant, the corp received the bulk of the money BEFORE you even looked at the cost of food.
    Scary, huh?
    Sorry for the rant Nick, but this is something that I am pretty passionate about!

  2. No need for apology! I find it all fascinating and sad. It's an area that I know very little about. I figured there would be at least a few passionate comments about the subject.

  3. If I want to represent change then I need to change from the easy answers. This continuing pervasive problem is not just about money.

    There is no real mandate for changing school lunches in the average school district. Instead we have isolated instances like Somerville MA that becomes the post child for changes in school lunch program – http://nutrition.tufts.edu/1174562918285/Nutritio

    We are the problem, the parent that refuses to make their child more acceptable lunches, the cafeteria worker that is unwilling to accept and fights change with every serving, the school administrators refusing to get their hands dirty and lose political ground, the government for dumbing down proper guidelines – for a food pyramid without balls.

    Too many are taking the low road. In this era of malcontent in civil and political unrest — we are a plurality of people suffering from low self esteem due to the obesity epidemic. Wow talk about baggage.

    School is a place where we can begin to tackle the worst health epidemic we've ever faced. We should not just be talking about school lunches — our schools can become a focus of better eating habits all throughout the day. Instead of free Apple Computers for the computer lab — schools should be giving away free eating apples.

    Adderall might be one prescription for some kids, but I'd be willing to bet a nice hot oatmeal in the morning would go along way for the rest.

  4. I tend to feel that if television is part of the problem it can also be part of the solution. 5 years ago I set out to create a kids television show that teaches kids about nutrition. I'm happy to say that show is now on PBS Sprout as part of Noodle and Doodle currently airing on weekends at 9:20am and 11:40. Check out Doggitys on their website as well. I have to say that as a parent I am meeting like minded folks who want to make sure that schools make better choices in terms of nutrition. This problem did not happen overnight and won't be solved overnight but taking the right steps, in my case trying to change television, can make all the difference for future generations.

    J.D. McCoy, Co-creator of Doggitys.

  5. I live in Boise, ID, and I think our schools do a terrific job of providing healthy lunch choices for our kids. They've switched everything to whole grain ( pizza crust, rolls, breads, etc.) They don't serve a ton of fried foods. There are always healthy vegetable and fruit choices. This year the state also implemented a Farm to School program where they're purchasing locally grown produce, meats, and dairy products in an effort to ensure kids are eating the freshest food possible while supporting the local economy. There are several schools in our area that have gardens. My kids' school isn't one of them, but I know the kids are being informed about where their food comes from and what they can do to eat healthier. Kudos to those in charge of nutrition in the Boise School District!!!

  6. My kids go to parochial school and sadly they have neither the budget nor the staff to run a proper cafeteria. They bring in fast food 4 days a week (Mexican, subs, pizza & Chik-fil-a) and on Thurs. some parents volunteer to run the grill: hamburgers, hot dogs & french fries. The only fruit consistently available is pre-packaged applesauce. They do have salads, but they are just bowls of iceberg lettuce mix with some shredded carrots. It is sad, but even at private schools it boils down to money and manpower — even if they had the money to invest in the proper equipment, they couldn't pay to have a full-time cafeteria chef/cook. The principal says that at least the kids are getting what they like to eat. (At least the school's academic program is outstanding!)

    I pack a healthy lunch for both my kids 4 days a week, although I do let them buy pizza on Fridays.

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