Thursday, August 26, 2010

School Lunches

What is school lunch like at your school or your child’s school?

I was inspired by the "Fed Up With School Lunch" to deviate a little from my normal scrapping or cardmaking posts today because this is something I feel passionately about. Illnesses related to how we eat are simply unnecessary, and school lunches can do a lot to prevent these illnesses from happening. As a product of the public school system who went on to become a teacher, I've had plenty of experiences with school lunches.

As a child, I rarely ate any of my lunch other than my dessert or the fruit on the side. The entrees were less than appetizing, to say the least. I remember rubbery ham, too-thick chocolate milk, fried chimichangas that only tasted good because I slathered them in sour cream, and angry lunch room staff who didn't understand why I wasn't eating the food.

Middle school and high school brought slightly more flavorful, though less healthy, lunches. Super nachos were the favorite meal at our school - tortilla chips slathered in taco meat and that awful, processed cheese topping. We also had a lot of pizza that felt like wet cardboard with cheese and pepperoni on top. We made it palatable by dipping it in ranch dressing. We also had an option to order a salad, but only 30 students and staff could order a salad each day. The problem was, it alternated between chef salad and taco salad, and you could never, ever request "no meat" or a meat alternative. This was a problem during Lent, when most of us were Catholics and couldn't eat meat on Fridays.

In college, I was stunned by the choices, especially the salad bar. The food was amazing, and the salad bar made a great addition to every meal. I did gain weight, mostly from the desserts and the Coca-Cola I was drinking in college. Switching to Diet Coke did a lot to help me lose some of that weight, though. I think my college did an excellent job of providing healthy, vegetable-based options for students.

When I student taught, the school lunches were delicious, but terribly unhealthy. There were nearly as many choices as in my college cafeteria, but no salad bar. The lunches were often pasta, pizza, or burgers, and often, we would have several variations upon these themes within a week. The carbs alone would have made me gain weight, but add on the cheese, oils, and everything else, and the weight gain would have been immense had I eaten lunch at school every day that semester. However, I had a huge issue with the beverages. There was a requirement that I drink milk or juice for lunch -- water was not accepted. I had a tough time with that because sugary drinks, even juice, cause weight gain for me, and I'm lactose intolerant. More than once, I threw away my drink once I got through the line. Eventually, I started bringing in my own salads everyday, which were not filling, but were better than the school lunches were.

In my first year of teaching, the school lunches were probably the worst I experienced anywhere. The usual meal was chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce, butter-laden rolls, and a sugary dessert. We also had baked potatoes covered in chicken tortilla stew, and a lot of "lunch in a bag" -- a sandwich, a juice box, a bag of chips, and a piece of candy for dessert! I had planned to bring my own lunches that year, but eventually, I got lazy and a colleague told me it was poor for my work relationship to always eat lunch in my room. I gained 10 pounds between September and May. My wedding dress I bought in August was tight in the spring, and so I ended up being the bride who was obsessing over what she ate for the time leading up to my wedding.

Subbing this past year at a catered, private school disgusted me. Stevi B's Pizza and Chik-fil-a were brought in on alternating Mondays because the caterers were closed on Mondays. The caterer often brought pasta and hot dogs for the children, which were supplemented by bags of chips, processed puddings, and bottled juices from BJ's Wholesale (like Sam's Club, but on the East Coast). To their credit, the juices were organic, but the portions made me sad. I often ordered a child portion, and ended up tossing half my plate anyway. The kids never finished their meals, often digging right into the cupcakes or pudding, just as I did as a child. What goes around comes around...

I know people say that the reason school lunches are what they are is because children want to eat these things. However, I think if we presented healthy, fresh foods in a way that made them appeal to children, they would eat them and maybe even enjoy them. My mother-in-law works for the school lunch program in Apple Valley, Minnesota, where they are integrating locally grown foods into the menu. As part of this program, they educate students on where the vegetables come from. Some even come from a greenhouse nearby that also supplies vegetables to the area Chipotle restaurants. She said the kids actually get a kick out of eating something locally grown, and they will at least try it, even if they don't think they will like it. The district won an award this spring for the changes they've made to their school lunch menus, and it definitely sounds like they deserved it.

1 comment:

Mrs. Q said...

Wow. Your childhood experience with school lunch sounds pretty wretched and even at work you really can't get away from it. Thank you for lending your voice for change! Let's hope we continue to see small changes across the country over the next few years! Thanks for participating!