On being a chicken

If you lined up all the teachers and staff in my school in a search for who might possibly write a blog like this, I would be one of the last chosen.

In my professional life, I don’t make waves. I avoid conflict. I’m a “yes” man. I do what I’m told, but I love my job so it’s not hard.

In my personal life, I’m more opinionated and although I’m a deeply private person, I tell my friends and family exactly how I feel.

Few coworkers have crossed over into the actual “real life friend” category. So it’s very easy for me to compartmentalize.

Before this project happened.

Now I’m feeling majorly exposed. I could absolutely lose my job over this. In just the first ten days of school lunches I’ve gotten a bigger response than I expected. It makes me nervous.

Most teachers do feel the same way that I do about the lunches served in the building. So that’s reassuring. We’ve all discussed the lunches and how bad they are in passing. Then we go back to teaching. No one has done much.

I’m not a hero, but I am a whistleblower. But instead of calling a “tip line,” I’ve shouted it to thousands of people. Oops.

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57 thoughts on “On being a chicken

  1. "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -Edmund Burke

    More people should be outraged that this is the crap we feed our children today.

    And that pizza! I had -that- pizza in Jr. High, 20 years ago. Thanks (?!) for the trip down memory lane.

  2. Please, please, please continue… Change is necessary. Immediate change is necessary. Your whistleblowing will help thousands of children and, hopefully, the environment as well….

  3. For better or for worse, you've taken a big step. Good for you! As we all observe injustices and things that we believe are just truly not right, we should all be so noble and brave to speak out. It is funny to think where we would all be today if there were more people going against the grain, standing ground, and asking the tough questions. Unfortunately, for most of us it has become a way of life to do as we're told and go with the flow for fear of standing out, or worse losing your job. For goodness' sake, you're a teacher..! What better way to be a leader and set an example by doing what you believe is right? You are, as far as I can see, not slandering or otherwise badmouthing any one person or administration. Though at the same time I can see where some slack, insecure, complacent individual in your association might shake in their boots a bit and grasp at whatever they can to halt you from upsetting the system that they deem is 'good enough'.

  4. Please keep it up. I am appalled by these "lunches". I have my middle schooler here with me reading your blog and I'm like "does your lunch look like this?" Luckily her answer was no. She has real looking food that was prepared on a metal pan and served with a big spoon on a reusable plastic tray and eaten with real metal silverware. I think yours is a very important message to get out to the world. People should know what their kids are eating at school.

  5. This blog is a great idea – I hope it will help changes happen. Not every school district is in line with Berkeley. Here is a link in case you are interested

    I remember when my high school decided to offer a 'healthy alternative' back in the day. It was a bowl of iceberg lettuce with grainy tomatoes, corn syrupy dressing, and cheap ham chunks.

  6. I just came across a link to your blog via twitter. I have to say, I could likely be one of your biggest fans. I've always been disturbed by the poor choices of low quality crap that is served in public schools. Thanks for doing something to raise awareness about this – you're amazing! I'll definitely be following your blog and supporting you along the way in any way that I can!


  7. Please don't give up! Nutrition is a major problem in our country, and schools should be providing it and helping children learn to make good choices on their own. Serving tasteless, laughably "balanced" meals is not the answer!

  8. I just took a minimester course about nutrition for urban families and we learned a lot about school lunches and what they do(n't) provide for kids who REALLY need them. We need someone like you to keep posting these lunches and let the public know that our children are not being given the adequate nutrition that so many of them only receive at school.

  9. simply put, wow. what an awesome idea…and to blog about it (with pictures) is absolutely eye-opening. i'm in education, have taught in LA,FL,NC&WA, and only would eat the food in one of the districts I taught in. i, too, am appalled by the pre-packed "food" and would be curious to know the pricing of it (and how it compares to other food options for schools).

    will be reading&watching with interest,

  10. And I thought our school lunches are bad. I refuse to eat them. The 3 times I did, I have gotten sick to my stomach every time. I also teach at an urban school district where kids don't pay for their lunches and have basically no say in what they eat.

    Please keep speaking out. We need more people like you and maybe you will inspire others (including me) to do the same.

  11. I, too, am hooked. I followed a story at SeriousEats to you, and will be keeping up with you as well. As you've read, a lot of people respect what you are bringing to light. You Go!

  12. So proud of what you are doing! I've heard school lunches were bad, but I had no idea they were this bad. What's up with everything being wrapped in plastic? Yikes…

    One request. Is there anyway you can get set-up with an RSS feeder? I find it so much easier to keep up with my blogs that way.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!

  13. When I was in school, I regularly brown bagged it but occasionally would eat the hot lunch. Even back then, before the increased focus on nutrition, the lunches were far and away better than what I am seeing you post here. I wonder if it has something to do with the financial situation of the school district?

  14. I also came from a link on SeriousEats.com. This is awesome. I don't remember my school lunches being that horrendous then again that was nearly 20 years ago. Wow, those are really bad lunches. You really don't have to eat it everyday do you? A picture is just as revealing.

  15. Also here from SeriousEats.com. You may have already addressed this in a post, but I didn't see it discussed when I scanned the other posts…so here's my question. Exactly how could you get fired for doing this?

  16. You're a brave and great person to risk your job for the health of these kids. I've been involved in these school lunches before (at a university) but have never seen anything this bad. The food is served in pre-packaged plastic containers? Terrible. Please keep it up!

  17. I think what you are doing is VERY VERY VERY important! The stuff they are serving looks disgusting and I can only imagine it tastes worse. When I subbed I ate school lunches but here in Texas they are good as were they in the schools I went to as a child in Tennessee. It is very important for parents and other people in the community to know what they are serving the children in your 'district. As your blog gains popularity I am sure it will harder for you not to be outed but what you are doing is definitely not wrong! Dont be afraid! Be honest!

  18. As a former teacher, I see no reason why you'd get in trouble with this. You are not giving your name or the name of the school nor are you faking the pictures. I don't know how anyone would know it is you until you or if they'd even care as long as you are not using school time/equipment to blog.

  19. Suddenly, lunches from my own childhood don't seem so bad. Those were the days when the lunch ladies actually COOKED the entrees and opened a few canned veggies or provided fruit. I have been sending my kids with bagged lunches, but, honestly, I think we've got it pretty good in our school district. They have a salad bar and other options for the kids. My kids choose to have school lunch on occasion.

    Bravo to you for doing this!

  20. Please keep it up! If all of us readers show your work to our school districts' leaders, it could help a LOT of children. And someone mentioned Berkeley. I wonder if Ann Cooper has seen your blog. She'd be all about it! You'd get some serious national attention that way. (Are you sure your supervisor wouldn't mind, as long as you're not identifying the school district? Where/when are you taking the pictures?)

  21. These lunches look way better than what they serve at the elementary school where I work…..

  22. Some questions — Have you had an open conversation with the school food service director/workers? Is there a School Health Committee? Find others in the school (students, teachers, admin) to push changes.

    "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
    — Margaret Mead

  23. Thanks for all the support! I'm truly shocked!

    Symphony Farm – I'm going to have an informal chat with the lead lunch person and get more information on the sly.

  24. Your voice from the inside is needed more than you realize. You don't have to complain; instead you can just show what you're eating and what didn't taste good, and what did. Just your pictures alone bring about strong passion in me for change.

    Keep it up, just be careful. This is your job and your life. Say intelligent things, do your homework, and report what you experience.

    I'm following your blog now. I am looking forward to reading more.


  25. NOT "oops" – not oops at all!!! I am SO happy you're blogging this experience. I can't wait to read about the upcoming meals.

    I have been very lucky in that my parents made every effort to cook at home for my brother and I (most likely due to the fact they were young & didn't have lots of extra money to take the family out to eat, but I didn't realize that as a kid), my brother and I attended a small school where the lunch ladies actually – gasp – COOKED the LUNCHES (yes, I'm talking huge pans of home made lasagna, a side vegetable, actual salad, break, milk, and a home made cookie), and we were raised with the idea that you try everything at least once, so we were never the type to shy away from new produce.

    Later in life, I had a job in an organization that was initially focused on implementing smoke-free laws, but toward the end of my time there, had expanded into general nutrition, specifically in terms of what is available to school children. It's shocking how greatly school lunches today differ from what I remember as a kid.

    I REALLY hope you continue with this project – I think it is key in exposing this trend to many people, and the more people understand what kids are being fed, the more likely it is that change will happen.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you – I can't say that enough!

  26. I would like to thank you for creating this blog. At my school we tried to change school lunches. We even got Nancy Pelosi to agree to come to our school to try the lunch, however, due to her scheduling it didn't happen before I graduated. =/

    I have to say that the school district you're in looks like the food is a little better…

    Here are some pictures of my old school's district's food. They're from Facebook, but I hope you can still view them.

    Cheeseburger with the cheese on the very bottom…

    Rock hard chicken nuggets. Maybe for small children five nuggets is enough, but high schoolers cannot be filled on this.

    We also have that pizza in a carton where the paper gets stuck tot he pizza. =/

    Surprisingly, the lunch has gotten "better" in the district. I found out that what makes it to the lunch table depends on the cost.

    Here's an article on how much the state spends on each student for food.


    Ugh, and if you don't have free lunch here, you have to pay $3 to get the nasty food or go somewhere else.

    Although you don't work in the district and this might be irrelevent, I hope you don't mind me expressing my opinion a bit.

    Again, thank you so much for writing this blog. With the economy nowaday, no one really cares about what students eat at school.

    Keep it up! =)

  27. Well done!

    I was in your situation in England and did exactly the same as you.I taught at a primary school and was appalled at the school meals. Many parents had no idea how dreadful the food was. I ate a school dinner every day and took a picture of it. I encouraged other staff and parents to do the same. It wasn't just my school – but all 40 schools in our local area. We posted the pics on our website. The press went crazy and we made the front pages of national newspapers. The good news is there were dramatic improvements. we changed caterers, brought in new menus and sorted out a complaints system. I now eat a school dinner once a week and take a picture of it to show parents.

    Please how a look at our website http://www.mertonparents.co.uk and at my blog http://jackiesschoolfoodblog.blogspot.com/

    The very best of luck!I didn't suffer any discrimination – although I wasn't very popular initially and now the local authority are grateful for our help in exposing a deeply shameful episode of history

  28. I understand, but keep a low profile and keep it up. Perhaps enlist others throughout the country to do guest spots. This is an important issue and it can't be ignored.

  29. I suspect I know what district you are in but I understand the weight and severity of your undertaking and applaud you for going through with your project. I wish you success and hope that this yields some much needed attention.


  30. This is something I have wanted to bring to light for years! The food we feed children at schools is disgusting and of little quality. I was shocked to see your pictures. I have to say our lunches actually look a bit more appetizing and nutritional if you can find that in an American school lunch. This needs to be a national movement. I am ready to participate!

  31. I am so interested to read this, never having worked in a USA public school. Please keep it up! Use the media and attention to work for you (but stay anonymous, obviously). I feel very lucky to have the great, cooked from scratch food I do at my school here in Brasil.

  32. I understand your trepidation about not wanting to make waves – but admire you deeply for undertaking such an important project! I taught 3rd grade in an inner-city school in Houston several years ago and saw many of the same lunches. These sugary, carb-heavy meals, added to our school's unoffical "no recess in the two months before standardized tests" policy meant that the classroom turned into a crazy and frustrating place in the afternoons.
    No parent would ever consider pizza, mashed potatoes, corn, and fruit "juice" a decent lunch to be served at home – I sincerely hope your blog provokes the outrage this situation deserves! Best of luck to you!

  33. You're doing a good thing! There's no reason you should lose your job over this and I sincerely hope it doesn't come to that.

  34. Whoa. I saw your link from Serious Eats, too (and maybe 'thekitchn' as well, can't recall) – but so far the photos you've posted are CRAZY!(what's with the hermetically sealed food in the lined paper bowls?) I have a 9 year old in public school and I swear I thought someone actually MADE the food and scooped it out onto a plate for him. They do that at my other son's daycare… I am SO REVOLTED at the "choices" you've had for lunch (and it's only been a couple of weeks). I imagine everything is just unpacked from a huge shipment, frozen and then reheated in huge ovens & doled out to the students/staff. No expertise required.

    I'm shaking my head in disbelief… and communities are worried about the vending machines?? This is huge.

  35. I'm so glad you're doing this! I remember the poor food quality from my school days in the 80's-90's. It makes me shudder to think that my kids might have to eat that "food" some day.

    I have a question for you: is it true that in the state of Illinois DCFS regulations prevent kids from packing lunches? I live in central Illinois and recently found out that this is true for daycares in my area which I find appalling. Parents should at least have the option to pack a lunch for their kids if they choose. I had bad food allergies as a young child and wouldn't have been able to survive if I had had to rely on the allergy-free foods available at my daycare.

    Also, I want to thank you for not demonizing the cafeteria staff at your school. I have a recently retired Illinois lunch lady in my family. She got to witness the lunch evolve from homecooked to prepackaged – not by her choice. As funding gets lower and lower school districts have to take money from somewhere. Prepackaged food is subsidized so it's cheaper. It's also easier to prepare so they can cut the number of staff people in the cafeteria and save even more money. I bet if you asked your lunch ladies they'd be happy to make healthy lunches cooked from fresh ingredients – assuming they had enough hands in the kitchen.

  36. I thought our school lunches looked bad but after seeing what your school is serving, I'd have to say I appreciate that our students don't have it as bad as your students. I am so sorry for you all. Good Luck on your project.

  37. Please don't give up; I absolutely love your blog and your project. You are doing a very admirable thing. The typical school lunch needs to be exposed.

    Back about five years ago when I was a senior in high school, we had to write policy papers about something we would like to change. We had to put minimal amounts of research into this five page paper and write what we would do to change things. Most kids wrote about legalizing marijuana or reducing the drinking age. I wrote about offering more nutritional school lunches. I interviewed the superintendent who thought it was "cute" that I would write about something involving the school district. My project was met with much criticism, saying that there was no way the school lunches were "unhealthy" (despite having a large pretzel and cheese being the most popular daily option) and the school couldn't afford to offer anything better than what they had. My teacher thought the paper was outstanding and I received a 100%, but nothing really changed.

    Had I gone back now to redo it, I would have petitioned parents, sent letters home with my friends with pictures showing what the school lunch was. Maybe I could have got somewhere.

    But you have the chance to do something, and your project will fuel that. I wish you the best of luck.

  38. Don't worry, I'm going to do this for as long as I can. I'll do it until I'm specifically told I can't.

  39. Just want to let you know that public health dietitians are now among your followers! I think the consensus among us RD's is that we all send our children to school with home-made lunches. But a lot of kids are not that fortunate, due to low family income or just plain parental apathy. Keep up the good work!

  40. I'm old enough to remember school lunches that were made with real ingredients and cooked by humans in the school cafeteria. On my second day of substitute teaching 19 years ago, I ate a school lunch. It was in little paper cartons covered in plastic wrap exactly like your photos. Somehow the food service people ruined the corn with some sort of pseudo-butter and an abundance of salt. Sorry, I digress into my own food service horrors….

    This blog is important. In my district there are strict nutritional requirements, but I look at the food my students eat and I am baffled that it can meet those requirements. The food is greasy and, frankly, doesn't even look like it was made with real ingredients. People need to know what our kids are eating. Thanks for stepping up to the grease-filled and sugary plate and getting the word out!

    Keep up the good work!

  41. Stay courageous! Remember, you are not a muckraker trying to slam your school or district. Don't let fear of getting caught deter you – this issue is too important. Since this food is mass-produced, many other schools probably use it, and since you're eating by yourself and being quiet about it, you should be ok. If questioned as to why you take pics, you can say that you are on a diet and you document everything you eat. Make sure to delete the photos from your phone. Besides, any parent could ask to see the lunches, so it's not like you're spilling any secrets. This is a public school funded by public money, after all. But if you are found out, you can use it as an opportunity for dialogue about keeping your students healthy and ready to learn. You do have free speech rights, though they may be limited somewhat as a public employee. I hope it never comes to this, but you also should have no trouble finding an attorney willing to work pro-bono on this juicy issue.

    If your school or district has a Wellness Committee, see if you can join it to get a different perspective. Also, every district is required to have a Wellness Policy, so see what yours says. Board policies are public documents so you should be able to view it where the manual is kept, or request a copy, if it is not available on your district's website.

    Not every school can afford a chef to prepare garden-fresh organic meals, but even poor schools can make improvements.

    Keep up the good work!

  42. I just got linked to this from SeriousEats, and I wanted to add my comment of support. I don't see how you're doing anything wrong. Your posts aren't preachy or anything, just "here's what I ate for lunch," and people can make their own decisions on whether it's acceptable that this food is being served to their children. It's a public school funded by public tax dollars, so why should there be any secrecy on what the food in the cafeteria looks like?

    And yes, we know not all school lunches look like this, and we also should know that a comparison of all the school lunches in the country is beyond the scope of this blog. If someone else's school serves better food, then they can do their own blog about it!

    Anyway, keep it up. If I was a parent, I'd want to know what my kid was eating at school, and I'd be pretty unhappy if it turned out to be junk.

  43. @Angie, don't know if you'll read this follow-up, but I know that DCFS certified daycares in Illinois are governed by fairly strict food-service rules. My son's preschool class couldn't accept homemade snacks for the class. They had to be store-bought in original packaging. Not sure how the guidelines change with regards to religious or medical dietary restrictions.

  44. Thank you for your wonderful comments. They reassure me a lot!

    ElleBee – My son is in daycare and they accept homemade treats for special occasions like birthdays and holidays. I have stayed up late baking just for him and his little bitty buddies. His daycare is exceptional in that they offer a lot of variety on the menu. They do offer chicken nuggets (boo, but I'm told he likes them!), but they also offer soynut butter, fish, eggs, rice, ravioli, etc. Soynut butter is his fav.

  45. I greatly appreciate your blog, in its originality and uniqueness.

    Always remember, there should be nothing negative in the term whistleblower nor is there anything wrong with educating the world.

    Beverly Tran

  46. I'm proud of you. I hope you keep it up. This is amazing. And what would you get in trouble for? Having an opinion about the disgusting plastic wrapped morsels trying to pass as food? I'm glad you are shedding some real light on what is being served in America's schools.

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