As a kid I ate the same kind of lunches that Mrs. Q posts on the blog, albeit on styrofoam trays. As an adult, I worked for a state university food service program for 3+ years until we were downsized. After being let go, I found work at a local convenience store as the night clerk. Between working in the food service program and the convenience store I see a clear picture of what our college kids are eating. Here’s a hint… it’s not pretty.
In the food service program, I started at the same time as a new executive chef, who was, in fact, an awesome guy. He was very interested in increasing the quality of the food, i.e. fresh(er) ingredients, making food from scratch, etc. In the three years he worked with us the food was actually pretty decent. The kids still went nuts for the nachos and chicken nuggets, but at least we were making salsas from scratch (mmm, fresh cilantro!), serving steamed veggies and spanakopita and the like. The chef, regrettably, moved on, and when our new chef was hired he was the “balance the budget” guy.
I was the “grab and go” cook, and when the new chef came in, we eliminated half of the fresh stuff I was making right away. Freshly prepared lasagna was replaced by frozen “lasagna rolls” and freshly steam-baked chicken breasts for sandwiches were replaced by frozen, pre-cooked, pre-seasoned breasts (complete with fake grill marks!) Since we weren’t making so much food from scratch, he was able to cut 5 full-time jobs (of which mine was one) and replace us with a few part-time students.
It was a win for the company, in eliminating the additional overhead of more workers plus benefits for the full time folks. But for folks like my boyfriend (a non-traditional student at the U) it was a loss. I recently met one of my former co-workers, a guy who had worked his way up from dishwasher to cook under the previous chef. Apparently they didn’t need him as a cook, either, so he’s been demoted down to a server at the cafeteria building. I can only imagine what they’re serving these days that requires 3 less full-time cooks (plus the other employees that lost their jobs) than it took a year ago to prepare decent food. My former coworker said that everyone wished the old chef would come back.
Anyway, I currently work at a convenience store located across the street from the dorms and right next to a mobile home park and an apartment complex which in sum house hundreds of students during the school year, in addition to the full-time residents of our little town. The kids pop in all the time during the school year, and the food they eat makes me cringe. I took some pictures but here’s my summary:
For drinkables we have the “cappuchino” mixes that are served from the machine… I hate cleaning this machine because the sugary instant coffee mixes get everywhere and everything gets gross and sticky. We also have flavored sugar waters, Gatorades, energy drinks, soda, slushees, sugared milk and beer, beer, beer. For slightly healthy beverages we have the plain coffee that’s actually ground from beans and brewed, unflavored (but expensive!) bottled water, a few types of tea (with plenty of sugar) and the lone row of V8 drinks. We also have plain milk, but it’s one of the more expensive items in the store.
I make a ton of fried food and a bit of baked. I work the night shift so my focus is making edibles that drunks leaving the bars will enjoy. I make cheese balls, mini tacos, potato wedges, waffle fries, and onion petals, all deep-fried. For baked goods we serve chicken patty burgers, beef patty burgers, breaded beef burgers (it’s called a “pizza burger”), the same square pizza slices I used to eat in school, pre-fried egg rolls, and TWO varieties of corn dogs. It’s pretty similar to what Mrs. Q and her students ate all year.
We have the pre-packaged cereal cups (and don’t forget your strawberry or chocolate milk, mmm…), a nacho machine complete with liquid cheese dispenser, chips, candy galore, frozen pizzas, Little Debbie cakes, giant cheesy prepackaged burritos, and prepackaged sandwiches of all varieties. We have breakfast pizzas and burritos that I make around five in the morning, and a pre-fried breakfast taquito called a “Tornado.” I looked at one of the completely white, sugar coated “Honey Buns” the other day; it has 610 calories in one bun.
After the college kids eat their chicken nuggets and french fries in the college cafeteria, they come here and buy all the crap I’ve listed above. “Eating healthy” isn’t just about providing healthy food, it’s about changing attitudes and teaching people to CARE about what they feed their bodies.
When Junior heads off to college and is on his own for the first time, he’s going to choose the same stuff he ate in the school cafeterias as a kid. He’s going to choose the same food that’s served at McRestaurants around the country. He’s going to choose the same food that his parents eat: the high-fat, high-sugar, deliciously deadly junk that infests this country as a whole.
I have a next door neighbor that is a single mom with three kids, all under the age of 10. When I worked at a different gas station during the day, her kids would come in every day with her food stamp card and buy candy and soda. I can just picture her handing them her card and saying, “Go get a snack and get out of my hair.” This is the reality we live in, and unfortunately it’s a whole lot bigger than just the school lunches.
Just putting a salad bar in the cafeteria doesn’t help (although for those already inclined to eat well, it’s a somewhat welcome refuge, despite the bacon bits, ranch dressing, oreo pudding, and peaches in syrup that regularly grace our university’s salad bar).
My boss at the gas station is a health nut that doesn’t eat anything we serve here. But she has to answer to the bottom line, which means we sell what the kids and locals want to buy. Our store has five full-time workers and four part-timers whose lives all depend on our store doing well. And in order for us to do well, we sell beer, cigarettes, and junk. If we put in a salad bar, we’d end up throwing out a lot of produce and the waste and cost would drive us out of business.
I guess in the end it’s not about simply changing what food we provide but really about changing attitudes. It’s about educating kids to care about food, to be enthusiastic about cooking and eating natural, healthy foods.
Bonus for the adults: I couldn’t get a good picture of the cappucino mix labels, but here’s the ingredient list for the “Red Line French Vanilla Cappucino” (the extra caffeine version):
Ingredients: Sugar, nondairy creamer [corn syrup solids, partially hydrogenated coconut oil, sodium caseinate (a milk derivative), dipotassium phosphate, sodium tripolyphosphate, monoglycerides, datem, sodium silicoaluminate, artificial flavor]. Dairy product solids, maltodextrin, instant coffee
, carboxymethyl cellulose gum, salt, artificial flavor, silicon dioxide (an anticaking agent), cocoa (processed with alkali), caffeine.
Bleh. All that garbage for instant coffee, and below the ingredient list they have the nerve to say “Directions: By the cup- place 2 tablespoons of Connoisseur’s Choice Premium cappucino in a cup or mug. Add hot water and stir. Enjoy!”
As if you could read the ingredient list and then go on to blithely enjoy your corn syrup solids, sodium silicoaluminate and instant coffee.