Random header image... Refresh for more!

Today’s Menu: School Lunch

Last year was our first experience with school lunches in the twenty years since Josh and I left high school.  I have to admit, I pretty much never bought a school lunch as a child because I was (1) a vegetarian, (2) picky, and (3) had enormous food phobias.  Plus, once I was allowed to not each lunch in the lunch room, I never ate lunch in the lunch room again.  I mean, I literally didn’t step foot in the cafeteria for social reasons throughout most of middle school and high school.  My friends and I ate lunch in the hallway or outside.  Or more accurately — I ate my lunch throughout the morning in small bites sneaked during class so there was pretty much nothing left when it was actually lunch time.

So it was pretty much with a lot of preconceived notions and a touch of horror with which I allowed the twins to purchase lunch for the first time.  Since that time, they both have purchased lunch a handful of times.  It happens about once or twice a month, and it is only when there is pizza or grilled cheese.  Actually, as of late, only the Wolvog buys and only when it is grilled cheese because pizza made by anyone other than me and one restaurant have been bumped off his list of six foods he eats.  As far as I can tell, the ChickieNob spends lunch time mostly daydreaming or mentally recording everything around her which leaves very little time to eat.  That child will write fantastic tomes one day, thick books with characters invented from various parts of all her classmates from these days when she seems to exist solely on air, noticing and remembering every small detail around her.

Once upon a time, I had this vision of myself joining them for lunch in the cafeteria, perhaps on pizza day, after I finished my volunteer work at the school.  That vision fizzled from my mind once I stepped foot again in a lunch room after being absent for more than twenty years.  When I have to swing through for whatever reason, I stand by their long table internally retching, trying to avert my eyes from the macaroni and cheese (cheese still being one of my food phobias) and mouth breathe.  School lunches look awfully one-colour, and that one colour is sort of a reddish brown.  It’s sort of a tannish brown.  It’s brown.

The USDA announced this week their new standards, and I got to sit in on a phone call with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and television chef Rachael Ray to talk about them.  As a side note, I absolutely loved that Rachael Ray mentioned the fact that she doesn’t have children, but she is still involved in this fight for healthier school lunches because as she says, “I don’t have kids but I feel socially responsible.”  As an infertile woman, that spoke volumes to me on the ways we parent — the ways we mother — society as a whole even before or after the loss of our children.

But school lunches.

The USDA have set new standards that will be tweaked at the local level.  In other words, there will be a base standard that will ensure better nutrition to all kids, and then local school boards can make decisions that reflect the financial realities of their school district: do they want to use organic produce, buy locally, or grow their own food.  Schools will increase the fruits and vegetables on the lunch tray every day, including a lot more leafy greens.  Only low-fat or fat-free milk will be offered.  School chefs will utilize more whole grains.  They’re all good steps in the right direction, and all of these changes are being put in place so children can be well-fed and more able to learn.  It actually sounds like the tray may contain more than just beige.

Though the question remains: you can get it on the tray, but it’s up to the child on whether it goes in their body.  Some will eat it because it’s in front of them, and some will decide that it tastes good, and others will end up dumping those leafy greens in the rubbish bin right after they polish off their pizza.  Vilsack spoke about even the snacks in the vending machines sending a consistent message about nutrition to the kids, but if those messages aren’t reinforced at home, I don’t think there is any way for the school to make them loud enough that they drown out the inadvertent messages from parents, friends, commercials, billboards, happy meals, etc.  By which I mean, we all need to shout louder at home with our actions in order to support the work the USDA is doing to try to get good food into children’s bodies.

What were school lunches like for you as a child? Did you buy them and like them? Or did you avoid them like the plague (or wish you could)?


1 Queenie { 01.29.12 at 8:07 am }

I never bought the actual lunch, but used to eat ice cream sandwiches that they sold for lunch (25 cents each). Super healthy!

2 Her Royal Fabulousness { 01.29.12 at 8:09 am }

I remember occasionally buying school lunch and thinking it wasn’t great. But, I wanted to be with my friends. Mostly I brought lunch in elemetary school and middle school. But, in high school, there were more options. There was a school cafeteria (never set foot in it) but there were also snack/lunch “carts” out on the quad. There, they sold subway subs and pizza hut individual pizzas, along with a bunch of other stuff. I used to buy from there pretty often. But I agree – nutrition was never a priority for schools when I was in them. It’s good to move in that direction. But, as a teacher, I know kids will always be picky and throw away food they don’t like – as you said.

My parents did a really good job of exposing us to lots of foods. Neither my sister or I are picky eaters as a result. Hoping I can do the same for my kids.

How on earth did you get to be on that conference call?!

3 Rebecca { 01.29.12 at 8:29 am }

I too am curious to see where these school lunch reforms will take us. They’ve tried these before and things seem to fizzle out or never actually make it to the local school level. I was appalled when my (adorable chubby but overweight enough to be worried about him) stepson and I were talking about his lunches at school and he told me two had a salad bar. I thought “Great!” He loves to eat salads when he is at our home. I banged my head against the wall when he told me the only time he visited said salad bar was to get pickles on double (!) cheeseburger day or to get jalapeños for his nachos. He is ten. In fifth grade. I think it’s disgustingly wrong in an elementary school to have nacho bars and double cheeseburger days!!! My husband and I try our best to influence him in healthful ways when he is with us, but sadly that’s only about 12-24 hours per week. His mother stocks her freezer with pizza rolls and frozen pizzas and her cabinets with Pop-Tarts and Ramen noodles. And he has a lunch account at school, and there is no guideline that says what he is required or limited to purchase with it. Sadly, the young junk food loving boy in him makes poor choices, but what can we expect when he hasn’t been taught any better?
Wow…sorry to hijack! I’m a little more passionate about this than I thought.
Anyway, purchasing school lunch for me and my sister was a very rare treat when we were growing up, and it was usually only on chili and peanut butter sandwich day, or sloppy Joe day. 🙂 My mom (we were lucky enough to have a work at home mom our whole lives) packed us a nutritionally balanced lunch every. single. day. of our school careers.
It wasn’t until I got to high school that there was any “choice” in school lunch. In elementary and middle school, there was the “meat” and “vegetarian” option of one meal. That was it. In high school, we were thrown into the world of salad/nacho bars, the pizza line with five different kinds of pizza, the regular hot lunch line, the sandwich line, and the DESSERT line, not to mention sever strategically placed soda and snack machines. It’s sad now that I look back at it.
I am definitely going to keep tabs on this reform. I hope they follow through and are able to make some real change in the nutritional options our kids are exposed to on a daily basis.

4 Rebecca { 01.29.12 at 8:33 am }

And I do agree it is our responsibility to be the first and biggest influence so our kids will make good choices when they are out in the world. It make me sad about my stepson to know that his mother is the one sending the unhealthiest messages. 🙁

5 Blanche { 01.29.12 at 9:27 am }

I pretty much always took lunch throughout school – even the lunches at the private elementary school never appealed to me (maybe because the room always smelled of overcooked broccoli and funky dishcloths). What I do remember looking forward to getting was the veggie beef soup at the middle school. That was made in house by the lunch lady (whose family also owned the farm where we cut our Christmas trees) and contained everything and the kitchen sink. Looking back, it was probably the prior weeks leftovers all tossed together, but it sure was good at the time!

But once I hit HS, and didn’t have to eat in the cafeteria, I rarely ventured beyond the bordering hallways which served as passages to the different wings of the school. Lunches from home were faster than waiting in line anyway!

6 Becky { 01.29.12 at 9:39 am }

My (single, working) mom made by brother and I healthy lunches elementary-high school. I can count on 1 hand the number of times I ever ate a school lunch. It was always pizza (and I still adore school pizza – I make my teacher husband bring it home once in a blue moon 🙂 ).

As a social worker, I have been in many schools. And I have been disgusted by the food in all of them. Mac-n-cheese counting as a vegetable. Nothing green anywhere to be seen. No salad bars here because it’s too hard for the lunch ladies (verbatium from the lunch ladies at hubby’s school). Fruit cups, but only in syrup. And I agree, everything is brown.

When many kids are relying on schools for not just 1 but 2 of their meals a day, this scares me. Oh yeah, did I mention breakfast regularly consists of pop tarts? And that somehow meets the standards set by the feds.

All of these are reasons why we send lunch with the kid every day. He’ll eat anything, fortunately, so often he gets leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. While I agree that it is parents’ responsibility to introduce kids to healthy foods, what I know to be true is that here is a huge part of the population who can’t do that for some/several valid reason(s) – they don’t know how anything about nutrition, they don’t know how to prepare/cook healthy foods, they don’t have access to them, etc…

I think it’s a complicated issue. But an immensely important one. I’m glad you’re writing about it 🙂

7 Samantha W { 01.29.12 at 10:02 am }

From my personal experience, I ate school lunch everyday. Why? Because it was provided free and packed lunches were expensive in comparison. A lot of low income families rely on free school lunch to be the only real meal provided to a child. I think it would be great to make the choices healthier and offer more whole grains and leafy vegetables but are these changes coming with a stipend? So many school lunch programs struggle to provide healthy foods to so many kids on a limited budget.

8 electriclady { 01.29.12 at 10:13 am }

My working parents were thrilled to send me to public school where I could buy lunch. (The first 6 years of my educational career I went to a small private school that didn’t offer school lunch.) I remember a lot of sloppy joes. I still have a weird soft spot for institutional food.

There was a period in high school where I bought for lunch every day: Pepsi, nachos, and Ding Dongs. Healthy!

9 loribeth { 01.29.12 at 10:15 am }

School lunch programs are (still) very hit & miss here in Canada. I believe they are mostly local based, possibly influenced by provincial governments, but definitely nothing national (education being a provincial matter).

When I was growing up, we almost always lived close enough that we could (& did) go home for lunch. We only ever ate lunch at school on the rare days that my mother wasn’t home, or if there was some activity at school during noon hour, & there was no such thing as a cafeteria. Everyone who stayed for lunch (mostly the farm kids who rode the bus every day) brought a packed lunch from home. When I was in elementary school, we ate in our classrooms; later, they bought folding picnic-type tables & would set them up in the auditorim/gym & we’d eat there, & then everyone would pitch in & fold up & put the tables away before returning to class.

In high school, we were more involved in lunchtime activities & would bring our lunches more often. My mom was fairly nutrition conscious & our lunches were always the subject of fascination among our friends — there would always be a sandwich, an apple or orange or a miniature box of raisins, and a treat, like a pop-top can of pudding.

When I was in grade 11, they fixed up the school basement — previously known as “The Dungeon,” & primarily a place where you could spend your spares. A talented arts student painted murals & the walls, new round tables & chairs (in our school colours) were purchased, & they set up a canteen, where you could purchase basic sandwiches, milk, etc. They would occasionaly serve hot dogs & tacos, & my mom would send money for us on those days. I think there was a lady who worked there part-time, assisted by student volunteers.

I am hoping the menu has improved today… but I’m not entirely confident. ; )

10 missohkay { 01.29.12 at 10:16 am }

I ate school lunches about half the time, but they were generally pretty disgusting. My high school staple was pizza and fries. Taco salad (no lettuce was involved in the making of this salad) was another favorite.

11 Valery { 01.29.12 at 11:24 am }

So it’s true then, school lunches? Not just an invention in the movies? Can’t believe schools would serve fries or pizza?!
Then again, I grew up in a country where lunch is never warm and people have sandwiches with jam or cheese. We had school milk though.

12 Esperanza { 01.29.12 at 11:38 am }

It’s funny, I can’t remember what I ate in middle school and high school. There was definitely the option to buy food but I never did, except for It’s-Its which cost a mere $.75 at the time (and, if I remember correctly had 23 grams of fat).

In high school I must have brought my lunch until I could drive. Then we left school and at the surrounding Wendy’s, McDs or Jack in the Crack (as it was so affectionately called). Definitely not good food but I swam year round so I could get away with it.

As a middle school teacher I see my district trying to offer healthy options and see many of them thrown in the trash or left on tables for others to pick over or just throw in the trash. The reality is, most kids don’t eat even the fruit that is offered. I can’t imagine they’d eat leafy greens.

13 Daryl { 01.29.12 at 1:03 pm }

I ate cafeteria lunches all through my school career. Growing up, my family qualified for free or reduced lunches, and with up to 4 school-aged kids in our house (there were 7 of us), my parents couldn’t afford to send all of us with healthy lunches from home. For so many kids today, school lunch might be the only “balanced” meal they get all day. It’s a shame most schools don’t offer healthier options (or offer them alongside fries and pizza–I wonder which ones the kids will choose?).

What I remember most about my elementary school cafeteria is that I was always the last one in it. I ate so slowly and methodically that I usually missed most of recess because I was still eating!

14 Katie { 01.29.12 at 1:39 pm }

My mom packed me my lunch every single day until I got to high school (and even then, I packed my own). Buying lunch out wasn’t something we could afford, so sadly I missed out on all of the fun cafeteria lunch stories. 🙂 Once I was a sophomore in high school and had a job, I did buy the cookies sold in the cafeteria. They were 50 cents each and they were the most delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies. You’d have to get in line immediately to buy them or they would sell out. They still sell them in my high school today.

15 Sushigirl { 01.29.12 at 1:57 pm }

Where Istay, there’s lots and lots of regulation about what is and isn’t okay to go in school lunches. In primary schools (about age 5-12) the takeup of meals is really good. In secondaries, when the pupils are usually allowed to leave the school grounds at lunchtime, school meal takeup plummets because the kids want to eat unhealthy stuff. It’s a bit depressing, particularly in an area where families tend to get free school meals on welfare – but they choose to spend on deep fried pizza or whatever instead.

16 Sushigirl { 01.29.12 at 1:59 pm }

Sorry, I meantthat a relatively high proportion of families are on benefits and get free school meals, not that all families are!

17 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.29.12 at 3:42 pm }

So very cool that you sat in on that meeting.

Sniffing the air in a school cafeteria still gives me the skeevies. I, like the ChickieNob, spent those years observing others and living on air.

18 Eggsinarow { 01.29.12 at 3:57 pm }

Cafeteria lunch inspires a panic attack in me. Just the smell alone in the room…

19 Hapa Hopes { 01.29.12 at 5:41 pm }

I went to catholic school and we didn’t have a school lunch program. I guess I was lucky having my mom pack my lunch. Beige food? Yuck!

For a quarter, you could buy a milk token and get a carton of milk. My mom never gave me milk money and I was jealous of kids who did get milk money. 🙁

The teachers would watch us throw our scraps away and lecture us on the children starving in Africa. That always confused me. W as I supposed to send them my PBJ crusts?

20 Cristy { 01.29.12 at 6:03 pm }

In grade school, I alternated between buying lunch and bringing a bagged lunch. Buying lunch was always easier for my parents, as our lunch tickets were prepaid and waiting for us. To insure that students ate their lunches (bought or not), we actually had lunchroom monitors, with adults going around and making sure that each kid had finished most if not all of their lunch. The punishment for a picky eater was the whole table was not excused, resulting in us not being able to go to recess. Chronic picky eaters were forced to sit separate from the rest of the children where they could be monitored. Quite Draconian, but for some kids it was the only way to get them to eat.

When I hit Jr. High and High School, all of that went out the window. I still bought a lunch or bagged it, but I was never monitored. It was assumed that we would eat if we needed to and if we didn’t then that was our problem. That said, the school nurse was well stocked with lunch tickets and an kid that went to the office complaining about being sick was usually sent to get food as a first round of treatment.

School lunch wasn’t a horrible option, but I never considered it outstanding cuisine. Still don’t, but if the option is eating vs. suffering from low blood sugar, I’ll stomach it.

I think the biggest fight right now, outside of getting kids to eat, is getting them to eat right. There’s been a big push to remove vending machines from the schools and focusing more on proper nutrition. It’s a huge struggle, as many kids come from households where good eating habits are not established and the parents usually are clueless as to the consequences of a poor diet. I think a big hurdle in this fight is also the fact that most of the food isn’t as appetizing. I guess it’s a matter of baby steps.

21 Magpie { 01.29.12 at 9:46 pm }

I almost never bought lunch at school, save milk. Always a brown bag, never a lunch box. PBJ for years running.
Nowadays, we let the girl buy lunch once a week. I figure it’s a reasonable compromise. They do try; I know they serve whole wheat pasta, and decent quality chicken nuggets. But home is better. Interestingly, she won’t drink the milk at schoo;, doesn’t like it from a box. We get milk in glass bottles at home.

22 a { 01.29.12 at 10:43 pm }

I distinctly remember going home for lunch when I was a kid, but once they did away with that, I couldn’t tell you anything about my lunches…other than the fact that I mostly brought my lunch, but occasionally bought a lunch. The pizza was like soggy bread. In high school, I started having Coke and M&Ms for lunch.

Now I have to pack a lunch for a child who is not a picky eater but will not eat sandwiches (unless it is of the peanut butter variety). Her earlier daycare provided breakfast and lunch. I could tell whether she liked the food based on how much she ate when she got home. But they did frequently have salad for lunch, and I actually watched the kids eat the salad more than once. Now, the little one gets upset because the ladies at her current daycare make the kids eat their protein option first, and that makes my omnivore irritated. I keep telling her that not all kids like to eat meat and will generally avoid it, so the ladies are trying to make sure they get a balanced diet. Then I tell her that she has to go along, even though she is not so picky.

I hope that the schools can come up with more healthy options – it’s just kind of difficult when you have to cook in bulk for kids (who are not so easy to please).

23 Emily { 01.30.12 at 3:49 am }

I bought school lunch every once in a while. I didn’t like most of what they offered, but they usually had something I would eat. I never really ate any of their meat products because they were all just gross! There was a time when we were living week to week so I got free lunch at school. My mom obviously hopped on that when she could. I always preferred bringing lunch from home.

I am glad they are trying to make lunches healthier!

24 Manapan { 01.30.12 at 7:39 am }

I adored school lunch with a passion. I just like institutional food in general. Plus, balanced meal! For a kid who was breaking into apartments to steal food stamps, free school lunch was a big thing.

25 smiling scar { 01.30.12 at 8:04 am }

I was expected to sometimes pack my own lunch by the age of 7, and always do it by the age of 12. I too ate my lunch through the morning but was SO SO happy for hot lunch at lunch time. I can’t stand sandwiches and really like HOT food, so until high school when teachers let me sneak into their room to heat my food, the school lunches were really really important to me. Basically my packed lunch was a salad, fruit, nuts, etc that I supplemented with hot greasy cheesy things so I actually didn’t starve on my very healthy but not so filling packed lunch. I was never good at the ‘balanced’ idea. I would have 2 grapefruits and a pomegranate in my lunch box. The next day, nuts crackers and more nuts. Or lots of yogurt and string cheese. Once I tried to bring my Christmas coconut and a wine cork, straw, and hammer to eat it with – my mom said no. She taught me to love lots of foods, but you know what, you are hungry and grumpy of you only eat one TYPE of food all morning. I know this now, but still can’t get my act together when it comes to feeding myself!
I got to eat at one of the Google lunch rooms this year, and access to something like that would dramatically change my life. I can make good choices, but can’t seem to figure out how to have that food available through my insane days. If I love good food and know how to shop for it, cook it and eat, but can’t organize it for myself, how do we expect our kids to fare any better?!?! I really hope we solve to school lunch problem soon. No matter how great our teachers are, we all struggle to learn when we have no fuel. It’s hard enough as adults to remember to do all the stuff necessary to make sure we are well-fed and not just not-hungry (even when money isn’t a issue its hard, add money to the equation at its even more complex…)

26 Gail { 01.30.12 at 9:28 am }

While I agree that school lunches need to be healthier and I enjoyed the http://fedupwithlunch.com/ blog that a teacher wrote in secrecy about how horrible the lunches were at her school after she ate them every day for a year, I have a HUGE problem with taking away some of the best parts of school lunches: desserts. I remember being able to buy a cookie or a nutty buddy ice-cream cone at the end of lunch when I had finished my meal. And, even when I used to teach middle school, I would enjoy an occasional cookie or ice-cream on certain days. However, according to my friends and family who either have kids in the school system or are teachers, the cookies and ice-cream are no longer available at the school. And, this just makes me sad. As a little kid, I was dangerously thin and had a high metabolism. In fact, you could see my ribs well into high school. So, eating a cookie or ice-cream was probably a good thing for me. And, I know that there are plenty of kids at the other end of the spectrum who would eat nothing but ice-cream, but why should the normal and under-weight kids get punished?

27 Annie { 01.30.12 at 11:54 am }

I agree with Gail – the normal
& underweight kids are being overlooked here. My kids are both so thin you can see their ribs despite all my attempts to fatten them up. Yet the school can’t give them anything but fat-free milk! So I almost always pack them a healthy lunch – with whole milk and sometimes dessert! I try to join them for lunch weekly. I’ve tried a lot of the school’s food. The entree is almost always revolting and many of the kids end up tossing a lot of their food, not just because it’s unappealing but also because they get only ten minutes to eat! Still, quite a few kids seem to like the food.

28 Lollipopgoldstein { 01.30.12 at 11:56 am }

I actually asked that and Vilsack stammered through it. He mentioned that whole milk has been removed from schools, and I pointed out that there are children who need that whole milk, who were told by their doctors to drink whole milk. And that being underweight is just as dangerous as being overweight, even if the problem isn’t as wide-spread. He sort of mumbled a bunch of stuff about school lunch supplementing what is happening at home, but he didn’t really answer what children who are underweight are going to do if they are missing out on calories they were counting on. That was the only place where I really wasn’t impressed.

29 niobe { 01.30.12 at 12:49 pm }

I had too many food phobias (and, in fact, phobias in general) to buy school lunches or to sit with the other kids in the cafeteria or, pretty much, to eat lunch at all.

Except for coffee milk. Which is, as the name implies, milk flavored with sweetened coffee syrup. Kind of like a lukewarm, no foam latte avant la lettre, as it were.

Because caffeine for grade schoolers? Is, like, totally awesome.

30 JustHeather { 01.30.12 at 2:34 pm }

I ate school lunches in elementary school because my family was poor enough that they were free for us. It was hit and miss if the food was good or not (spinach was a slimy pile of green goo). In junior high, I remember there being more choices, but I still ate school lunch, again, it was free. Even in high school, my lunches were free, but I had tons more freedom (on campus and off). When I would eat on campus, it was either the cheese burger, awesome salad bar or tator-tots with cream cheese. I know, a mix of good and not so good. lol

From what I have been told and understand about Finnish lunches, they are quite good and yummy here. It is also free to ALL kids. Plus, kids don’t generally bring lunch from home as there are veggie and meat options.

31 Justine { 01.30.12 at 9:19 pm }

My mom ALWAYS packed lunch. And I know that I underappreciated that effort. But really, warm bologna or other meats that have been sitting in a locker for a morning … ew. And she also packed milk in a thermos that was never cold enough. I think I have a thing about food temperature.

I used to dream about eating the school lunches, even though I knew in my heart of hearts that they weren’t appetizing, either. And I love all of this talk about school lunch reform, but I think about the kids I know, and the six (or less!) things that many of THEM will eat, and I fear that our efforts will not be very effective …

32 Chickenpig { 01.31.12 at 9:04 am }

I buy school lunches for our kids because 1) the food is decent, and includes a fruit and veg at every meal. 2) my kids had started to limit the foods they eat at home to a handful of entrees and fruit and vegetables. Eating in the cafeteria and eating a wider variety of foods is important, especially for Nate who would choose to eat nothing and stay by himself. When he is in the presence of other people than our nuclear family, he tends to eat more and attempt to converse and make more eye contact. For example, he would never eat pizza of any kind before school…no matter how good, or what the toppings. Now he will sit and devour a slice…and ask for more! Some times the power of their peers is greater than the nutritional value of the food.

Sometimes tight nuclear families turn in to ingrown toe nails. Your kids only eat certain things at home, but they are different people at school. What if your children decided that they don’t want to follow a vegetarian diet, for example? Controlling the food they come in contact with outside the home is just a way we try to extend our control over them outside the home. Some parents become so controlling that they don’t let them go out to school at all. It’s just letting go a little bit at a time. And it’s only one meal a day for 5 days of the week.

I am so happy that they are trying to overhaul the lunch system. I grew up poor, and the free lunches allowed my mom to spend that money on healthy breakfast and dinner food for us. I have to admit, most of the food was crap, but it was food and it was free. 1 out of 4 of kids in America is now growing up in poverty. Going gluten free or vegan is not really an option for the poor in most parts of the country.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
The contents of this website are protected by applicable copyright laws. All rights are reserved by the author