Why I Dropped Out of the School Food Reform Movement and What We Need to Do Now

I was assigned to lunch duty to fill in for someone a few weeks ago. I didn’t know exactly what to expect. There was no training.

The lunch room was loud and full of kids moving and yelling and jumping. That’s what I normally hear and see when I walk by the cafeteria to get my lunch. But this time I got glimpses of the food.There was french bread pizza with whole apples for hot lunch. Kids scraped the cheese off and gobbled it down. Then they raked the soggy bread with their sporks.

Packed lunches contained some sandwiches and the occasional piece of fruit, but mostly it was packages of cookies, boxes of juice, and crinkly bags of chips.

Rounding up, I’d say in the entire lunchroom a total of three kids ate optimal nutrition for learning.

***

I avoid the school lunch and the cafeteria these days. Since resigning my post with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) eighteen months ago and moving to the burbs, I’ve worked at two different school districts. The school where I was last year had a salad bar and much of the food was made onsite, even though it was managed by a company. Where I’m at now there is no salad bar. The setup is similar to what I witnessed and experienced in CPS: prepackaged food heated up.

I’m not ready to launch another campaign to expose the problems with school lunch. It’s untenable for me to attack my employer. I mean, it’s stupid and risky when my family depends on my earnings. If I worked somewhere else, I could do something without putting myself in jeopardy.

When my son starts kindergarten next year, I’ll have a player in the game. Until then, I’m going to stand in the back and watch from the sidelines.

***

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School food reform will fail if children’s food environments don’t change radically. From a child’s point of view, it’s impossible for most healthy school cafeteria offerings to compete with other kids’ crappy bagged lunches. Here’s how we make change for all:

1) Competitive Foods OUT — Kids should be unable to buy packaged cookies and snacks in their school cafeterias. Thankfully, that’s not an option where I’m at.

2) Nutrition Education, at Home and at School — At school kids get virtually no education about food. It’s going to have to change if we want to reverse the childhood obesity trend. At home parents like us need to keep offering healthy foods, even if they are rejected over and over.

3) Overcome Biases — I dislike tomatoes and because of that I don’t offer them to my children as much as I should. Recently I was eating a pasta dish that had stewed tomatoes in it. I kept offering the meat and the pasta to my 13 month old son, but I didn’t think to give him a tomato. He reached over and plucked tomato after tomato out of my bowl and put them right in his mouth.

4) Fight Advertising Aimed at Kids — My five-year-old wants everything he sees in TV commercials. The ads are easily digestible for little minds who don’t know that they are being sold to. In addition to telling him “no” to things that are inappropriate and that we can’t afford, I explain each commercial to him, e.g. “They’re selling cars,” and “They are selling phones.” I know that advertising to kids is banned in other countries. I would like to know of any organizations you are aware of that fight advertising to kids. Please comment — I can’t find even one with a simple Google search!

5) Buy the Best You Can Afford — Continue to buy the best food that you can with the money you have. I know it’s hard, but don’t settle for crap.

6) Avoid Eating in Your Car — One fifth of all meals are consumed in cars. If possible, please don’t go through a drive-thru one less time per week. It will make a difference in your family’s food culture.

7) Salad Bars in Schools — Probably the most important in this list. Most kids aren’t getting exposed to vegetables at home. A salad bar is a fantastic way to help kids learn in a non-threatening way.

My new website is up and running, but I’m not ready to send you guys there just yet. I’ll be notifying you in a separate post. Thanks for your patience — it’s really worth waiting for!

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17 Responses to Why I Dropped Out of the School Food Reform Movement and What We Need to Do Now

  1. Karen January 1, 2014 at 6:52 am #

    It is awfully difficult to fight against terrible food in the school cafeterias when the bagged lunches are worse.

  2. Kameshwari kate January 1, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    I like the idea that you suggest about waiting until your child becomes a player in the game of eating at school. The best way to make a change is to come into the game by coming from the inside, rather than the non-working approach where the attack is from the outside.

  3. Jude January 1, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    Valid suggestions in regard to the meals in schools. I’d like to comment on two aspects that can be a hurdle in some cases.

    Like it or not, some improvements will require additional financial support. Financial support could allow for longer meal periods, upgraded food supplies, staffing & equipment for the food prep and staffing for additional supervision & education to put the suggested projects into place.

    Also, financial support might be needed to cover the expenses of the meal programs (most are expected to be self supporting) in cases where the participation might decrease during improvements before the education components take effect and customers (students and parents and families) understand the importance of the improved meals.

    Additionally, cooperation needs to come from all departments associated with the schools. Meals need to be seen as a priority, not an inconvenience. In order to allow longer meal periods, will a longer school day be acceptable? Will the transportation company cooperate? If there isn’t enough space for students in the cafeteria, will custodial services allow students to eat elsewhere or not? These are real world situations that may sometimes need to be considered and solved.

  4. Andrew January 1, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    Happy new year, Sarah! Glad to see you posting again!

    Regarding advertising to children, check out the Campaign for a Commercial-Free childhood… I think they may be exactly what you’re looking for (they fight against food ads, and much more).

    And regarding the “buy the best you can afford” — the difference between an unhealthy diet and a healthy one can be as little as $1.50 a day.

  5. Hannah January 2, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    Hi Sarah, great list! There are lots of organizations working on fighting junk-food advertising aimed at kids. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Berkeley Media Studies Group coordinate a coalition called the Food Marketing Workgroup that is dedicated to eliminating harmful food marketing. See http://www.foodmarketing.org for more info and a full list of members.

    Hope you continue to advocate for healthy school foods in the future. We need more strong advocates like you!

  6. Gregory E. Woods January 2, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

    I have followed your blog on and off with interest. This piece you wrote is important.

    If you look at your suggestions some of them come from the habit of giving power to someone else over your children. Television, for example; shut if off during the formative years, and then, if so inclined, monitor it in the later years of elementary school. But, television is not fundamental to child rearing.

    In respect to food you can only exhibit or not exhibit a relationship with the Earth, our Mother. You, and other food activists and American parents are strangely separated from the land. Planting food can afford a person a relationship with the sanctity of the ancient process. Instead most people are disconnected from this worldview. In its place is the energies, and paradigms the major corporations create from. Until you are different than the spirit of the people who came here to Turtle Island from Europe you will continue to get the same results, and live in your head disconnected from both the Womb, and the land custom of an ancient way of living with the Earth, our Mother!

    American’s give their children away, and believe in what others can do for their children. The love of fighting I guess is so important that many parents give their children to school’s, and enjoy being engaged in the complaint and leery of the solutions. I’ve seen it many times throughout the years I was raising my children. I don’t know how mine would have fared had not their father been an Indian and an African deeply connected to his roots and our Mother, the Earth.

    I know American history, and its long disdain for the way indigenous people live, but we are all suffering from what the whites brought to this land. Together we can work it out and become powerful and become a new people in the deepest sense of the word. But, the work to get there is tremendous. It begins with unlearning all we know.

    – Gregory E. Woods, Keeper of Stories

  7. Gregory E. Woods January 2, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    There is another suggestion. We can feed our children wholesome meals for breakfast and dinner. Lunch at school can be wonderful juices in a thermos, with a healthy something to munch on. A liquid lunch would be nice. What should coincide with food would be playtime outdoors everyday. But, American administrators are spiteful, and mean towards children. It is in their policies.They have the powers over our children in large part I suspect because what qualifies them are the attributes we tell our children they need in order to succeed. They are culturally certified, and reelected into positions of authority. – Gregory E. Woods, Keeper of Stories

  8. Lisa January 3, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    I picked up your book yesterday and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciate what I’ve read so far. I currently teach at a K -2 school and lunch time is maddening. While the food served in our cafeteria is not individually pre-packaged, it’s still the same fare described in your book. Recently the cafeteria has started offering snacks that can be purchased at an additional price (cookies, Rice Krispie treats, goldfish…you get the idea). I sent a note home to my parents letting them know about the new snacks and asked them to sign a permission form if their child was allowed to buy snacks. I had hoped more parents would decline the offer but to my surprise most sent in extra money for their child to buy these extras…even those who receive free or reduced lunch! So now in addition to the processed food the students are served for lunch, they now get to purchase more processed food…just in case what they had for lunch wasn’t enough. Ironically, the students seldom finish their lunch OR the snack…a 5 year old will only eat so much.

    The most frustrating part is the fact that this is the way most of the students eat outside of school. Processed foods have become the norm (I personally feel this is directly related to the increased health issues many young children are now diagnosed with). Those students who bring their lunch bring Lunchables, sweetened fruit drinks, pre-packaged snacks, etc. Depending on the area of the school district, there may be very few parents who are educated about nutrition. And sometimes those parents who DO know the risks of a continual diet of processed foods claim they are just too busy to do anything but serve up a double helping of chicken nuggets and Mac and cheese or swing by the drive thru for a bit of “nourishment” before their next activity.

    It’s a vicious cycle…and more parents have to get on board but sadly, I don’t see any sense of urgency from the parents in my school district. I see very few people around me who feel like I do…who feel there’s a problem. Your book and blog have made me feel a bit more normal and are making me pose some serious questions about what I can do.

    • Mrs Q January 4, 2014 at 10:59 pm #

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I really appreciate it!

  9. Judy Workman January 5, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    Our middle school had a salad bar. Primarily our kids avoided it, but the teachers enjoyed it. Because it was used so little (overall, population wise) that area has now become a sandwich area. The only bread served is a wheat(ish) hoagie style bun. The kids choose from five sliced meats, turkey, ham, salami, roast beef and something I forget at the moment. Then they choose toppings: cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, peppers, several other veggies. It is wildly popular with kids and frequented by staff as well.

    Kids can also get yogurt with granola, fruits and veggies for sides. there is a hot lunch served daily and the kids can get ala carte pizza, hamburger, cheeseburgers. It isn’t a perfect system but I am so thankful our school does it better than most.

    I am a substitute teacher and miss the salad bars but try to bring my lunch everyday anyway. I love the fresh sandwich bar. At the high school, it is more ala carte and more fast food(ish) friendly with less healthy choices.

  10. Tyler January 6, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    I was looking through articles on school lunches, in order to give my mind some material and perspective, which in turn would allow me to write an informed scholarship essay on problems in schools and solutions. To me, the biggest objective I can remember about my school experience is the lack of lunch.

    What I mean by lack of lunch is not that the school didn’t offer lunch, but rather what little they offered or even had to offer. I regretfully think back that I had the mind to notice, but never really stood up and packed a lunch consistently.

    Servings consisted of appropriate calories (for the average) and for me as a kid who had a larger frame than most kids I never really had enough to eat. I had already finished growing, but with a normal body weight of around 200 lbs, an active metabolism, and plenty of activity, I was never really satisfied by the lunches.

    I was never the kid to stuff myself, either. But that is another thing most kids don’t learn, is you don’t eat until you are stuffed, you just eat until you are not hungry, a big difference in caloric consumption. But that is only part of a process, you have to wait to tell if you had enough, which I believe most kids are all about stuff your mouth until your stomach is stuffed. Which stems from the pleasure of eating. If it tastes so good that you just keep eating, that you are just eating for the pleasure of eating.

    For a full-grown guy, where an average lunch consisted of 4 french toast sticks about the size of a toasting bread slice, 2 small sausage links, and whatever misc. dessert happened to be there was rarely enough to not cause me to go home starving. I know my school was watching obesity, but clearly it didn’t cut the cake very well when it came down to solving anything. The amount and quality were very poor.

    And the other part of the school lunches was that everything was prepackaged, which pretty much says it all for about 90% of all prepackaged foods. Junk. It was all junk. So if the quality was a problem, I doubt the amounts would solve much, as eating more junk creates more problems.

    To me, the biggest problem is education, my parents taught me a lot, but it was essentially up to me when it came to choosing what I ate at school.

  11. KT January 20, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    It’s frustrating to see school district employees bashing the lunch program for the schools that they work for. School lunch is a very important part of the school day for many of your students. Most lunch programs have to sustain themselves, meaning that the program must either break even or turn a profit for the year. If the lunch program ends the year with negative funds, that leaves less money for curriculum, sports and other activities in the school’s overall budgets. Also, students on free and reduced meals depend on this food. We all know that scientific research shows that kids do better in school when they’re not starving.

    Unfortunately, school food service directors are ultimately at the mercy of what is provided by the state as local USDA (or commodity) foods. These foods are provided at little or no cost to the district, allowing for a better chance at breaking even at the end of the fiscal year. Many of these foods are what you describe above; processed chicken nuggets, pizza, corn dogs, french fries, etc. The healthy foods – such as the fresh fruits and vegetables – must come out of the school food service budget. Due to the (welcomed) increase in the amount of fruits and vegetables that the schools are required to offer, food costs for most districts have gone up. Then there is the (welcomed) reduced portion size of the main entree bringing meal participation down. If you’re taking in less money and having to spend more on food, what do you think the outcome will be? This results in less work time available for food prep… and may be why a lot of schools turn toward packaged foods. They don’t have the hours available to make things from scratch because participation is down & food costs are up.

    Keep in mind that many school districts are hiring registered dietitians to plan menus and provide healthy meals for the students. These dietitians aren’t trying to be hypocritical, but are also at the mercy of the tax payers and school boards to keep food costs down.

    School meals provide whole grains, lean meats and proteins, and fresh/frozen/canned fruits and vegetables, and districts participating in the National School Lunch Program are required to offer these things. The meals are well rounded, have whole grains, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals.

    The problem starts at home with parents allowing their children to eat unhealthy foods. In many instances, schools provide some of these unhealthy foods not only because of the ease of preparation, but also because it draws more students in.

    If you want to see a positive change, teach it in your classroom and at home, because school food service departments are trying. But also remember that if you’re bashing your school meals, that rubs off on the students. In the long run, there may be less funding available to education. And if you take a look at the nutrition facts for the foods served in the lunch line, I’m sure you’ll find them much healthier than what most kids bring from home.

    • Frugal Hausfrau May 7, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

      There is a big difference between “bashing” and bringing forward attention to a huge problem. Bashing is attacking with intention to harm, and you’ve used the word more than once, while at the same time, you’ve done a bit of “bashing,” yourself.

      As a parent who was concerned about the nutrition my child was getting at home, I still remember when I joined my first grader for our first school lunch together. I was absolutely shocked at the crap being served.

      I immediately pulled him from the school program and started sending lunches, and faced all kinds of problems doing so. No refrigeration, for one. And while lunch attendants made sure that the schools trays, plates, etc. were taken care of, never did they direct my child to make sure that his items from home were.

      My child sometimes went to the playground first, then the kids went into lunch. That meant that he had to go back to his classroom to retrieve his lunch, something the school complained to me about. The next year was worse – he went to lunch from the classroom and then to recess. Frankly, there wasn’t much incentive for a 7 year old to cut into his recess time to bag up his containers and return them to classroom as his friends ran out. Right into the trash they would go – very expensive. Each lunch was costing me a LOT.

      Even worse is expecting a kid to eat a healthy lunch from home as his friends scarfed down pastries, pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, fake juice and chocolate milk.

      You might not realize that your sweeping statements come of as defensive, patronizing and, frankly, bashing. I think you vastly over estimate the “health” of the lunches served by the schools. i haven’t evaluated since 2012, so perhaps it is time for me to take a look at the nutritional value of my district’s lunch since the law was changed, but I did a thorough evaluation of one day’s breakfast and lunch and it was not good at all. It’s no wonder so many kids are fat.

      • Mrs Q May 14, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

        Thank you for your reply!

  12. hello i am a salty pancake February 20, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    i am a salty pancake i should be on the lunch menu

  13. SueAnn March 17, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    Hi, I second checking out Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

    I also agree that educating kids about nutrition will help. But, so many parents feel that there are kid foods and also cater to their children’s picky whims. I have found so many people who are so afraid of their child being hungry that they feed them whatever the child wants. I once ran into a family at a Mexican restaurant. One I appreciated for it’s reasonable kids menu (cheese quesadilla, bean burrito etc.) The parents had bought McDonald’s for the kids as the kids would not eat the Mexican food! Even my kids were surprised by this. They had 2 reactions, 1) You can do that? (my answer is, “No YOU can’t. That family makes different choices than ours.” 2) Why would you do that? They loved the Mexican food, often ordering things not on the kids menu because it sounded good.

    If you let kids reject healthy foods then of course they will not be int eh habit of eating them. I love that my ds, now 12, is trying to branch out his tastes even more. He is often trying something he’s never had just to see what it’s like.

    I agree to about offering foods, even if you are not fond of them. Kids can develop their own tastes for things. Along with this, I find my kids get more interested in a food because I am eating and enjoying it. So eat with your kids.

    Mind you, to most people my kids are weird. They don’t like hot dogs, ds does not like fried food. They end up sounding picky to many, but what they like is healthy, real food vs processed food facsimiles.

  14. Katelyn Brady June 25, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    I wonder if schools should add a meal to the schedule.

    I would rarely get to the cafeteria in time to even get food (my school typically ran out of food every day, so if you were last in line you were out of luck!) and I when I did it just wasn’t enough to satisfy a growing teenager. I would often nod off and sleep through sixth and seventh periods, and then had over an hour long commute by bus back home. Since lunch was served at 11:20 am, that’s over four hours without any food. For kids in rural areas or who have to take subways or public transportation home they have long waits until they have access to food. Kids that walk home need the energy to do so, and may otherwise take the opportunity to pick up junk food en route.

    I think schools should have a snack time. It would take place 15 or 20 minutes into 7th period, and would simply be a healthful snack, like an apple and a milk carton, that is brought up and distributed in each classroom. Schools could hammer out how long the students are allowed to eat or otherwise streamline the process so that learning would not be unduly interrupted, but I think that would seriously help cravings that otherwise hit a lot of teenagers and children once school lets out -cravings that lead them to drive to or ask parents picking them up to swing them by McDonalds or the gas station for a soda.

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