I make a lot of school lunches for my daughters because they refuse to eat what their schools offer. Over the years there was one exception to this lunch mandate where my daughter was considered “one of the kids who buy” but it didn’t really count because she happened to have a bagged lunch that day too. The reason she didn’t eat it you ask? Because her lunch contained a chocolate coin, a very special chocolate coin from the North Pole, given to her by her Christmas Elf. When she unwrapped the chocolate, worms that turn into pantry moths fell onto her lap. I learned of this incident not because she told me, she was far to traumatized, but because I got a call from the teacher. That’s right. A CALL FROM THE TEACHER who told me my daughter would be considered a “kid who buys” that day. Of course I was mortified but that was the day I found out what it would take for my daughter to eat a school lunch; a worm infested piece of chocolate.
The thing is my daughter doesn’t realize how good she’s got it with her school cafeteria but she’s so jaded by what she hears of her sister’s lunch room offerings that she flat out refuses to buy. She goes to a charter school that is not a part of a big District whose main source of funding for the lunch program is the Federal Government. Her school has more control of what they serve and the local produce truck brings fresh fruits and vegetables in on a regular basis. They have a light filled cafeteria with small tables where the kids can gather with their friends in a communal style. They have a person they call “chef” as opposed to “the lunch lady” who makes appealing sounding items like souvlaki: Greek salad with tomatoes, feta, lentils, and whole wheat pita wedges, and vegetarian stir fry with brown rice, roasted carrots, yogurt and fresh fruit. Compare this to our District’s offerings: chicken patty on a bun, potato, mashed fresh vegetable blend, assorted fresh or chilled fruit. The alternative “Fun Lunch” is a peanut butter and jelly on white bread.
I can distinctly envision what the lunch tray would look like with these items and it’s hardly appealing. I’m assuming it’s a typo but “mashed fresh vegetable blend” instead of “mashed potatoes” doesn’t sound too good either. What about the “Fun Lunch”, a peanut butter and jelly offered as the alternative choice every single day. I guess because it’s called a “fun lunch” it’s supposed to bring a certain amount of happiness to the kids who eat it, but if I were to walk into a school cafeteria I doubt that I’d find too many students having a knee slappin’ good time with their monotonous “fun lunch”. Regardless, this is what the kids have grown accustomed to and the meals are free or reduced cost for many so who’s to complain?
The move towards a free or low cost school lunch program began during the Depression Era as a means of feeding hungry kids whose families lacked resources. It was also an opportunity for the Government to help farmers with their surplus foods. In the 1940’s it gained further momentum when it became evident that young draftees to the war were being rejected for service because they had poor nutrition. All of this led to the adoption of the National School Lunch Act by Congress.
Since that time the NSLP has fed millions of children and it continues to do so but those numbers are declining. The program currently finds itself in turmoil because of an overreaching Federal Government with severely restrictive nutritional guidelines, and a growing interest in fresh, local foods as opposed to processed, prepackaged options.
Healthy! Hunger Free!
In 2010 the Healthy Hunger-Free Act was passed as a means of reducing burgeoning obesity rates by reducing calories and incorporating more fruits, vegetables, and grains. As you can imagine these new requirements were not well received and they also had seemingly ridiculous implications. Schools that had salad bars were forced to remove them because there was no way to control portion size, kids walked around hungry because the caloric intake for 5th graders and 8th graders were considered equal, tomato paste became a vegetable so for profit companies could continue to sell their pizza, and ketchup on a cracker was deemed acceptable as a serving of grains and vegetable. Additionally, Districts faced high costs for implementation, low participation rates and lots of waste.
In one study of the Boston Public Schools it was “estimated that $432,349.05 worth of food is wasted monthly”. The study went further to estimate that on an annual basis, that number would be about $1,238,846,000 annually. Not only is the waste due to the fact that kids aren’t familiar with the new healthier foods and therefore not willing to try them, but there is also a requirement that kids must take all components of the healthy lunch for the District to be reimbursed. If a student doesn’t want everything on the tray the other items go into the garbage.
Although the acceptance of healthier foods in students’ diets has been a challenge, what’s come out of it has been a growing movement in school communities towards farm fresh foods prepared by scratch. Kids are becoming educated about healthy foods and are learning more and more about what local means. With school gardens popping up and farm to school initiatives taking hold in our communities, kids are learning about what real apples straight from a local farm taste and look like as opposed to the prepackaged apple slices trucked in from other parts of the country. They’re starting to understand that if the “fresh mixed vegetables” that their cafeterias feed them come from a can and not a farm or the local produce market they probably shouldn’t be called fresh.
This speaks to the need for a complete overhaul of school food service, as we know it. Kids need to be educated as to what local, farm fresh food is and they need to have more access to it. Meals should take place in cafeteria environments that are bright and inviting and conducive to a positive experience. Lunch ladies should be treated more as chefs and be given the proper culinary training and tools such as fully functioning kitchens to make them successful in their work environments. Kids should also be allowed to contribute to the lunchroom experience by acting as chefs for the week, creating recipes, or partaking in behind the line taste testing. Additionally we need to be thinking outside the box when it comes to the Federal Government subsidies. If school Districts opt out of the NSLP could we look to different partners for private funding or grants to subsidize the program instead so we’d have more control over what our cafeterias offer?
It seems evident that what is needed is new collaborations and an increase in the stakeholder base to achieve the common goal of appealing, fresh, healthy food for all kids. Something as important as proper nutrition for healthy kids needs to be considered a necessity and a basic right, and it should not be deemed unattainable because of government regulations and big for profit corporations.