1) The quality of school lunches has declined. I moved around a lot as a kid and was able to sample cafeteria fare from all over the country. I don’t remember a lot of those meals, but I always attended schools with functional kitchens. Some of my favorite school lunches were grilled cheese with tomato soup and turkey with mashed potatoes. And the school pizza from my childhood came off of large sheets and served by lunch ladies.
Of the food delivered to school cafeterias 95% is frozen to be reheated on site. School food corporations provide school lunches to hundreds of thousands of kids per day including the food I eat at my school. Cafeteria staff? There to pass out containers but not actually cook. The grilled cheese I enjoyed so much before? Now it’s encased and re-heated in plastic. It’s a processed cheese sandwich, which is no longer “grilled.” Tomato soup is a thing of the past.
2) The USDA guidelines are warped. Even after eating *almost* 100 school lunches, I still have a hard time understanding the strange regulations governing school lunches. For example, fries and tater tots count as vegetables (contrary to what you might have heard in the 1980’s, ketchup does not qualify as a vegetable). I realize that they do come from potatoes, but something seems to be wrong there. Because of rules like this, 46% of kids’ vegetable servings come from fries (Lunch Lessons, p. 74, Ann Cooper).
And what about fruit? The USDA thinks that a frozen juice bar (“icee”), a fruit cup, fruit jello cup, or a fruit juice cup equal a serving of fruit. Sorry to say but none of those options equal a piece of fresh fruit. When the kids see the fruit icees being served, they get excited. And with less than 20 minutes to eat (including lining up, getting your meal, sitting down and unwrapping packaging), kids have enough time to eat an “icee” and drink their milk. It’s no wonder that an hour after lunch the kids’ attention spans decline and they glaze over.
Additionally, the USDA requires more than five grains per week to be offered to students. That means that every week an extra package of pretzels, a cookie, or even an extra slice of bread is sitting on a lunch tray looking out of place. Because of this rule I eat odd combinations like yesterday’s rice with bread or a package of pretzels with a cheese sandwich. It doesn’t make sense.
3) Packaging and plastic are the norm. My school may use hard plastic trays, but that’s the only thing going through the dishwasher. Paper containers covered by plastic film, plastic sporks, and the occasional Styrofoam tray are used once and then thrown out to the order of hundreds of thousands every single day.
The project has taught me that our nation’s school lunch program is broken. I believe that it’s not a matter of increasing the funds: the National School Lunch Program needs to be re-engineered. We need a renewed emphasis on fresh food. We must invest in our “lunch ladies” and teach them how to cook properly. The current USDA guidelines need to change so that they make sense. Finally school cafeterias have to “go green” by returning to metal spoons, forks and real plates.
Hey, this is a big problem and the solution isn’t pretty. It’s going to be hard work. But the longer we wait, the higher the cost, the more barriers to change. We need to act now.