School Lunch Reforms I Could Get Behind

I’ve been out of school for about a week now, so my brain has finally decompressed enough to write this.

It’s about school lunches. It’s not about obesity. It is about health.

During the school year, I eat school lunch just about every day. One of the reasons I do this is because the cafeteria at my school is already doing a lot of things right. Honestly, given their budget constraints, they are nothing short of miracle workers in hairnets. Still, I’ve had the real privilege of visiting other schools and the dubious experience of eating other school lunches.

Some of what I’ve seen is scary.

School Lunch

Less for what it contains (I’m not trying to vilify particular types of foods) and more for what it lacks (I’m fine vilifying lack of choice). If we lived in a perfect world — you know, the one where everyone just does things my way — these are the school lunch reforms I would love to see:

  1. Call food what it is. — That chicken fried steak? Simply calling the meat portion “chicken” is not being forthcoming about what’s actually in it. I realize that Breaded, Preserved, Artificially Colored, Pressed Poultry Patty is sort of a mouthful, but it’s probably useful for the times when we’re comparing that to whole pieces of chicken. I promise, there are times when I need some Pressed Patty for my lunch because there are days when I need to know that my food is going to taste exactly the same as it always has. But I think I — and, more importantly, students — need to be given all the information in order to properly evaluate food choices.
  2. Not every menu option has to revolve around meat and/or cheese. — I know, I know. I’m just picky and unreasonable because I have an IBD and mammal products are big trigger foods. But in a school of 2000 people, I am probably not the only one with dietary restrictions and concerns. When my two protein options are hot dogs or cheese enchiladas, it has a substantial impact on the rest of my day. And yes, I probably could just suck it up and bring my own lunch, but the same is not true for a lot of my students, the vast majority of whom qualify for free school lunch. Additionally, I suspect a lot of students would be open to trying the occasional veganesque option if it were presented to them regularly. It’s good to teach people new things, you know? This is school and all.
  3. Prioritize produce. — Lots of produce. Green lettuce. Juicy tomatoes. A variety of crisp, colorful produce that — at least sometimes, to some people — looks like the most tempting thing in the lunch line. I love corn, but canned corn as the Vegetable of the Week is not good enough. I love lettuce, but wilted iceberg as the salad staple is not good enough. I love fruit, but browning, squishy bananas as the highlighted “healthy option” are not good enough. I’m not against the inclusion of corn, iceberg, or bananas in lunches — not at all. But when those are the epitome of the freshest fruits and vegetables we offer students, that is not good enough.
  4. Water. — At the end of my lunch line, I have a choice of two types of drinks that come with my meal price: a carton of milk or a cup for a fountain beverage. For students, this includes Kool-Aid-type drinks, juice cocktails, and sports drinks. For faculty, it includes soda. I can purchase a bottle of water for an extra dollar if I want, but there is no easy (or free) way to just put water into my soda cup. Those pull-down water tabs they have on fountain drink dispensers? I WANT ONE. I’m all for letting people choose what they want to drink, but when they can’t choose water without paying extra — something is a little effed up there.

In sum, I don’t think we should ban things like sugared drinks, white potatoes, processed meats, or cheeses from school cafeterias. But right now, at least from what I’ve seen, it looks like we’re prioritizing those foods over things like beans, unprocessed meats, fruits, vegetables, and water. That’s not equal access, and it’s not cool.

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I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

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10 comments on “School Lunch Reforms I Could Get Behind
  1. Having to pay extra to get water instead of a soft drink is just plain weird. And I wonder if they risk students frequently being not-quite-dehydrated.

    • Tori says:

      Given that it’s Arizona, I suspect that’s quite close to the truth.

      Technically, there is a drinking fountain, so there is free water available. But the construction of the fountain makes filling something like a cup or a water bottle all but impossible. It is impossible to fill a standard 8oz. cup more than about a third of the way.

      • G says:

        I can’t believe they don’t give you guys a useful water fountain! Can you ask them for a small water cooler, or take up a collection among the teachers for one?

        • Tori says:

          I’d actually like to ask them to modify the soda fountain so that one of the tabs dispenses water. There’s already an ice dispenser in the same machine, so I know it’s hooked up to both carbonated and non-carbonated water sources. It seems like it would only be a change they needed to make one time instead of something like a water cooler that would need to be refilled.

  2. C.D. says:

    Yes. Exactly.
    My younger brother is currently in middle school, and the eating options are a catastrophe (not that they were any better when I was in high school a few years ago). It’s all pizza and fries and hot dogs and potatoes – there’s really no variety. And it’s not that those foods are inherently bad… but when there’s no choice, it’s really not great.
    The other thing that bothers me is the amount of time given for school lunches. At my brother’s middle school, they have 20 minutes for lunch+recess. And the teachers have started pushing them out to recess at the ten minute mark. So the kids have ten minutes to eat, unless they also had to wait in the hot lunch line… in which case they would have even less time.

    • Tori says:

      Yeah.

      I’m way fortunate that we do have salad available every day. However, when some of us are depending on that salad as a main meal and not a side dish, wilty iceberg and ranch dressing do not cut it. To be fair, our salads are often much better than that — but I can’t count on it in the same way that, say, someone counting on a pizza or a hamburger could guarantee that it will be there. And I’m well aware that even this makes my school toward the awesomer end of the bell curve.

      That lunch time business sounds a lot like it did when I was in middle school. Where I teach now — a high school, so no recess factored in (which could be its own separate post) — we at least get 35 minutes. (It is technically 40, but that includes the final passing period, where everyone is supposed to be en route to class.)

  3. Sunatic says:

    Growing up I got to enjoy the pretty decent school meals my socialist nordic country gives its children. Every time I see pictures of what the USA kids are fed I find it hard to believe anyone would actually eat that rather than make their own lunch. We had a variety of salads (take as much as you want), water fountains, healthy (if occasionally bland) home-cooking type dishes, etc.

  4. MH says:

    Have you looked at the http://smarterlunchrooms.org/ by Cornell University? In essence, it’s about prioritizing healthier foods over less healthy ones. I really believe in this particular system, and there’s good research around it.

    One of the problems with prioritizing produce is that it’s more expensive (for schools) and there’s more waste (even before it gets to the lunch line.) Our schools recently got “fruit and vegetable carts” which do, indeed, encourage kids to eat more produce – but our food services coordinator is in a panic because she doesn’t know how she’s going to pay for a produce-based lunch.

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