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Friday 5: 5 Things I Learned From A Grade School Cafeteria

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Welcome to The Friday Five!

Early September, my daughter started school for the first time. I dreaded this moment – I mean, we’re talking full throttle tears, sniffling nose, heaving and kicking things cry… maybe not really… um, let’s not talk about it – but I knew it had to come.

So, to make life easier on myself, I’ve become [way too] involved in Mini-me’s school. PTA, volunteer teacher, parental representation on the school’s leadership board, you name it… I’m doing it. They need it, anyway, and I have the time… when I’m not blogging, of course.

We’ve written about cooking for little ones, feeding little ones, school lunch programs, and all of that here on this very blog. We’ve talked about the inadequacies of the USDA and how badly we want them to fix it. We’ve talked about “why does the government need to feed kids at all?” here. We’ve even talked about Jamie Oliver and the shortcomings of his self-proclaimed Food Revolution, which basically could be summed up in one word:


Now, when I was an adolescent, my grandmother was my babysitter… and in her housing project community was a “free lunch” room where we could go to get something to eat for free. (Bologna, two pieces of white bread, “American cheese,” and a half-pint of milk.) And as a youngster in Cleveland, I attended a school that had no cafeteria and, therefore, very little in the way of a lunch program. When I moved to my lovely little suburb in Indiana, not only did we have a full on cafeteria, but we had fast food. We had vending machines with ice cream, soda, candy, whatever we wanted. Where there was money, there was the opportunity to spend it. Needless to say, even though there was a fair share of fried junk, the quality of food was very much different.

As an adult who makes very different choices in food and as a blogger who writes about how people can make lots of little changes in their eating habits, spending time in the school environment has been immensely valuable in teaching me why, in fact, some things are the way they are. We may not like them, but they are, in fact, realities we have to face about our school systems and if we want to change the food, we have to change the entire chain that leads up to that link that affects our children’s food intake.

Five things I’ve learned from this experience?

Your children will not eat what you pack for them if they think the school is serving something… “better.” The average sandwich and a banana won’t cut it, baby. Those kids aren’t simply swapping out their lunches for something better. They’re full on refusing to eat their lunches or hiding their lunches altogether so that the teachers will take pity on them and give them a school lunch. The little buggers are “smart.” You’ve got to get that school lunch calendar… and then out-cook them. Every. Day. Otherwise, they’ll be getting their “vegetable servings” from… a pizza. Or pasta. With tomato sauce. Because a tomato, apparently, is now a vegetable.

Your school is tied all-the-way-up into a network much larger than itself; tied up in a web of contracts amongst friends, meant to put money in their pockets while they offer your child subpar food. Want a prime example of this? Take it all the way to the White House: While your school is given something like $2.91 per child per day by the federal government to provide for the school lunch program, less than half actually goes to the food. The rest goes to labor. Meanwhile, lobbyists for big processed food manufacturers managed to slip in a second round of excessive subsidies and payments to themselves within the updated version of policies like the debt reduction bill and the updated farm bill. You could just as easily bypass those subsidies and drop that money into the schools themselves so that they could potentially afford the new regulations, but no. Your friends gotta eat first.

This also, for the record, also ties into why – if Congress has its way – there will no longer be any limitation on potatoes (read: french fries) and why tomato paste could be considered a vegetable. This is pandering to large corporations to help them get the exposure they want.

“If schools change their standards to stuff my business doesn’t offer, I’ll go out of business!”

Well, you could just as easily change your offerings..

“Change? Who said anything about change? We’re not changing!”

Oh, okay.

To make a very long story short, there is money to fix these things… it’s just going to the largest corporations first. The rest of us are still waiting for it to “trickle-down.”

There are children coming to school with the sorriest excuses for a lunch that you’ve ever seen. And no, this isn’t a critique of the money a family has available to spend on a lunch. This is a critique of the contents of that lunch. I literally witnessed a little boy who, upon being told he needed to go grab his lunch, pulled a BIG bag of cheetos and a can of mountain dew (I didn’t even know they still made that stuff) to go get in line. And – consider this a bonus – teachers are paying, out of pocket, for kids like him to get a school lunch because it is a more nutritious option for him. Hug your child’s teacher. Shoot, hug A teacher.

There are children coming to school with NO lunch at all, and have eaten no breakfast either. They come in cranky, unable to focus, lethargic, whiney and difficult to teach. There’s a reason why carbs can be valuable in the morning. They help stimulate brain function. Sending your child to school with no food in their belly is pretty much a recipe for struggle. Yes. Struggle.

Your child’s school receives “donations” in the way of potato chips from giant brand names because of something called “brand loyalty.” You know how we talked about advertisers marketing to children? It’s not just commercials, and it’s not just environments where there needs to be money exchanged for their product. Processed food manufacturers donate their goods to the school as a “snack,” or a “treat.” This is an investment. If a child receives a bag of Tostitos chips as a “treat” regularly, they can and do develop loyalty to that brand. Any other brand might not afford to offer up their goods for free, and no other brand would or could stand a chance against that.

No parent, either. Let’s face it – how do you fight “free?” By paying for a cup of pineapples and bringing it to your child upon hearing of the descend of Team Doritos on your child’s school? Good luck. (In all fairness, we’ve seen apples and oranges, too…but I’d personally prefer it if we only saw apples and oranges, so to speak.)

I’m pretty confident in saying that the school lunch program is pretty corrupt, but it has good intentions. At the same time, we know what the road to bad habits and health problems is paved with.

The question then becomes… what do we do?

Photo: Flickr

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Tachae November 18, 2011 - 11:57 AM

It would be awesome if parents could donate one item that is healthy, and organic for them month to maybe create them lunches desired in them school. Unfortunately, a lot of them parents themselves must be educated about food. It’s a horrible, greed driven cycle that ends in a myraid of health problems, that propell other issues.

Like, it’s might sound crazy but maybe that ‘ bullying problem’ wouldn’t be as prevalent if those kids ate REAL FOOD. LOL, that’s a big maybe though.

Tachae November 18, 2011 - 12:02 PM

The * darn swype keyboad.

Natasha November 18, 2011 - 2:04 PM

I agree. In order to compete with the processed junk at school, you have have to send your child to school with lunches that rock. I personally can’t afford $6/day for my children to eat at school anyway, so I generally combat school lunch jealousy by allowing my kids to make their own lunches from choices I provide weekly. At the beginning of the week I make available 5 main dishes (leftovers, sandwiches with homemade bread, salad, quesadillas, etc); cut up celery and carrots, apples, oranges, plums; and 2 or 3 different snacks (granola, cookies, popcorn, muffins). They make their own lunches every day by choosing one item from each category. Im happy cause I make everything from scratch using whole grains and fresh, clean foods. They never complain since they get to pick the lunch themselves. I do have to throw in turkey burgers and homemade chips every once in a while though.

milaxx November 18, 2011 - 7:36 PM

It’s sad really. I recall years ago when I did community based social work, taking a child I was working with on a field trip. He was diagnosed with ADHD. When I looked at the lunch his mother had packed, it was literally nothing but sugar. A lunchable, a fried and sugar coated pie with sugary “fruit” filing, and a hug. I cringed at the thought of feeding this already hyperactive child a lunch with that much sugar. I now know a few parents who have gotten into making kids bento boxes, but it takes a time and patience to assemble those in and eye appealing way.

I feel for any parent today.

Starry November 19, 2011 - 5:43 AM

My mother is a teacher in an inner city primary school in the UK. You know, the sort that newspapers usually pick up on: over 90% of children starting school not knowing any English; very, very poor but seriously hard-working families etc. Well, quite a few years back, that school started changing things including the school dinners. Local mothers (who could cook) of some of the school children were hired as dinner ladies and they were responsible for cooking *ALL* the food from scratch every single day.

Part of the motivation was knowing that their own kids and their kids friends would be eating this food – and it made a heck of a difference.

All the food was freshly cooked in the new school kitchens every single day and it was the sort of food that the children were used to eating at home: vegetable curries, dal, rice, chappatis… very, very healthy and tasty.

This took a considerable investment – they needed equipped kitchens, for example, which weren’t there before. (The school used to have kitchens years and years ago, but then things were centralised and processed food was sent to all schools, so all they had were ovens and microwaves to reheat food – nice, eh?).

And, more recently, they have started a healthy breakfast club for kids too.

None of this was easy or cheap, but the school managed to do it over time and the children and teachers and quality of education is reaping the benefits.

Elle December 30, 2013 - 2:23 PM

That’s so awesome. Omg, what I wouldn’t give to have had some vegetable curries and lentils in school. This makes me think about trying to figure out how to change the system in order to have communities get together in this way more often. Great post.

crystal April 16, 2012 - 2:58 AM

My old high school took out all pop machines for juice and water, and no more unhealthy snacks in the vending machines, as well the cafeteria had to sell healthier lunch items! I am thankful to live where I do, Ive read so much about the USA and their poor excuses for cutting school costs and all that..how are the kids suppose to get anywhere in life if the country does not care about them at all..makes you wonder who the real “terrorist is” Thank you for the post!

Sabrina von Zurich August 3, 2013 - 9:44 PM

Its sad when the food in the prisons are better and more HEALTHY then in the schools.

I feel for the parents!

Elle December 30, 2013 - 2:20 PM

This article really makes me think back to my time in school. I had the $1.25 lunch back in the day and I would definitely eat it, unless it was just really gross. But on top of that, you mentioned the vending machines, I think back to my time in middle school. Get this — I went to a private school that still did the federal lunch program, but after we had our $1.25 lunch we had recess where the school administration would sell us junk food outright! I was a fat kid too and I always think back to that time in my life because I would eat lunch and instead of playing around after lunch I would eat nachos (substitute the tortilla chips w/ cheetos was a real option), cookies, ice-cream or sometimes they would even sell pizza for $1 a slice. So I had double lunch a lot. Crappy food followed by more crappy food. Not to mention that there were at least 4 vending machines on campus that sold sodas (which I would definitely have at least one after school)… And I was in middle school which is the thing that really bugs me now. I had no choice in what I ate and I was saturated with junk food all around. I think that really set me up for some failures going forward. (Also, the whole soda and a big bag of chips lunch – I did that a bit in high school and in college when there was no time. And that didn’t do me any favors.)

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