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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.