Guest blogger: Denver area school lunch experience

I ended up volunteering at an elementary school on a day almost two weeks ago, and while I was there, I decided to eat lunch just to see what was available to kids in the Denver metro area, as opposed to wherever Mrs. Q is located. I love that I probably wouldn’t have thought of eating at the school cafeteria except Mrs. Q totally inspired me to be on the lookout for what kids are eating these days!
The choices were chicken nuggets or a turkey and cheese sandwich. I chose to order the chicken nuggets because that’s what most of the kids in my class were ordering. The chicken nuggets came with about a cup of (what I think was canned) corn and green beans, a whole grain roll, tater tots, and milk. Then, you can get whatever you want off of the “salad bar” (which isn’t really a salad bar at all, but just where all the fruits and veggies reside). The “salad bar” offered up canned peaches, whole raw apples, raw carrot sticks, and pasta salad (which looked to be little more than cooked pasta in vinaigrette, no extra veggies). 
The chicken nuggets were a little bland in my opinion, and the corn/green beans were downright gross – they tasted like the inside of an aluminum can… very salty. And even the apple was extremely under-ripe, almost bitter. While it was clear that the right intentions were there (good intentions being to feed children more nutritious food), I think the execution left something to be desired. I can imagine that the kids wouldn’t want to eat much more than the nuggets, which is what I saw a lot of them doing. 
The placement of the salad bar as compared to what the kids get on their plate had me wondering, too. Why would you give kids all the starchy stuff, and then let them choose to eat vegetables or not? Of course they’re going to bypass the salad bar, if given the choice. I feel like you should give the kids a protein and then a bunch of fruits and veggies, then let them choose to add tater tots or rolls to their meal. I guess, however, that I see how they might add a ton of tater tots instead of eating only the 10 they are given on their plate. But I know there must be an answer to that problem!
Also something to note – the lunch I ate was $2.80 for kids to buy, but most of the kids at the school I was at are on 80% subsidized or free lunch programs. 
Just thought I would share!
The Kitchenette
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18 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Denver area school lunch experience

  1. Why, to me, does that seem like an excessive amount of chicken nuggets? I don't think my eight year old could even eat everything in that whole meal! I guess we can now see that some school lunches are definitely not helping the childhood obesity epidemic now, are they?

  2. Anon: How about the obese 6-month olds Dr. Robert Lustig reports? School lunches aren't what's making them fat. Obviously, they MUST be eating too much and not moving enough!

    (and it's sad that I have to debate with myself whether to add a /sarcasm closing tag there…)

  3. This looks like pretty standard fare for school lunches I have seen. As to the "salad bar" this is what I was afraid of when I heard about schools having salad bars, that the offerings would be substandard and that they would go uneaten. It cannot be THAT difficult to provide decent quality produce, I just refuse to believe it is. Sigh!

  4. Silly as it is, the first thing I noticed was the amount of tater tots- twice as many as Mrs Q ever got! All along I have thought the 6-tot serving was ridiculously small. Coupled with Anon's comment on the number of nuggets, and looking at that huge serving of veggies, now I wonder if this was an "adult" size serving rather than the amount all the kids get?

  5. It does look like a lot of Nuggets, but in most school environments that I have been in, Adults (teachers etc) get larger portions than the students do.

  6. As a school kitchen manager, I find myself so weary of the battle to survive. We find ourselves caught in the middle between parents who want what is best, school business managers who only allow us 2.5 hours to prepare enough food for 240, state restrictions that force us to serve 12 servings of bread a week to small children (that is why so many breaded items are used)and kids that cry out NO BROCCOLI! NO CARROTS! NO LETTUCE! I have had children burst into tears because a raw cucumber was place on their tray after their protest. It is so much more than what you see on the tray and I wish someone would come up with a real solution. By the way, if I had a dollar for every lunch box from home filled with chips, cookies and soda I've seen in my elementary cafeteria, I'd be a wealthy lunch lady; and I'd be able to pay my employees the hours needed to offer better choices.

  7. I am counting 9 nuggets and you said 10 tater tots! I watch elementary school students eat all the time – this is a very large portion for that age group.

    Anonymous @ 10:18am : I feel your pain and struggle. It is a push and pull battle btw parents, administrators, kids, time and money. This is why I SO adamantly believe in FUN, empowering nutrition education. School communities need to get on board together to realize change. Teachers, Parents, Food Staff and Administrators working together for the children they care about.

  8. Anonymous, I salute you! We know (most of us here do, anyway) that it's definitely not the faults of the school's kitchen staff that kids aren't being fed what kids should be fed. I applaud you for handing them the cucumbers anyway (it's what any decent parent would do!), and for fantasizing about the changes you would make if the keys were handed over to you.

    I used to work with kids all the time, and found that my trump card for getting kids to eat broccoli was by telling them to pretend they're dinosaurs. A brontosaurus would eat all of his trees (as would a triceratops, a stegosaurus, etc.), and in response to the smartie pants kids, a brontosaurus who eats his veggies is bigger and stronger than a meat-eating T-Rex.

    It quickly became a contest to see who could fit an entire piece of broccoli into their mouth while saying "RAWR!"

    Hey Mrs Q! There's a lesson plan idea for you! Have a dinosaur unit and bring in dinosaur food (broccoli "trees," lettuce "leaves," green bean "sticks," etc) for the kids to sample. 🙂

  9. Again, as a kitchen manager, I do my best to encourage them to take the fresh fruits and vegetables (offered everyday). I really like the dinosaur theme and will use it. We spotlight all healthy foods not just the fruits and vegetables. We promote the healthy National Food Holidays on our menu when they come up, such as National Eat a Peach Day. I have teamed up with the P.E. teacher to promote healthy eating and exercise. I do what I can. Sadly, I have wonderful recipes such as a mac n cheese that has pureed sweet potato and carrots that my granddaughters devour without hesitation that I can't implement in the school because of lack of time to prepare it and the money to purchase the food processor. I will keep on! It's not just a job to me. I know the name of every student that walks through my serving line here in central Illinois and I want everyone of them to grow up to be a healthy adult.

  10. Hi guys – just to clarify, I think you guys are right, I got an adult-sized version of the lunch which translated to a greater amount of nuggets. However, I think the intention was clear; the kids are given a set amount of nuggets but allowed to choose whether they want to eat vegetables or not.

  11. Lisa (or anyone!), why do you think it is difficult to get the cooperation/buy-in of others in regard to school meals? Is there a lack of support for the meal programs because they are “bad” or are the programs “bad” due to lack of support?

    Honestly, I believe there are a great number of folks working in the school meal programs who could do a lot more, with just a little more support. Example – I can easily envision chatting with students about broccoli and dinosaurs and other such ideas…if the lunch serving time periods allowed time to chat, and if volume of noise in the cafeteria allowed reasonable conversation.

    I don’t mean to be a downer about any ideas and I have no wish for those reading to feel that I’m putting out the “it’ll never work” attitude, but, in some cases, putting the great ideas to work in current situations can be daunting. (Anonymous kitchen manager, I think that “weary” is an excellent description!)

    To comment about foods being placed on the plate vs. self served – I would guess that could be a staffing issue? How many people/hands are available to serve? Having students self-serve hot foods could be a liability, whereas serving themselves from a cold foods bar is not an issue in that same way. Schools may vary, we serve most everything, only fruit choices and some bread items are self-served. Even that depends on grade level. However, this does point out that while some wish for a salad bar at every school, even that doesn’t sound like it is the perfect answer either.

  12. Dear Fed Up With School Lunch,

    I feel your pain! Your blog is amazing. Keep informing me about school lunch. I'm going to school right now and I can tell you all about TERRIBLE LUNCH. Check out my blog at where I post reviews [I may review your blog!] recipes, and my personal thoughts.

    Love & Rockets,

  13. Most public schools participate in a free and reduced lunch program, because of this each student must have at least 3 of the main components that make up the "state set" requirements for a meal. For example, we give them the nuggets(protein) and they must choose at least two more from fruit, vegetable, milk and whole grain bread. All components must equal a certain amount. We have 1 staff member that serves up to 230 students in 1 hour. I, the manager, run the computer lunch system and we have 1 staff member in the dish room. Time restraints and money restraints make the system what it is. The district took an hour away from our kitchen last year. To accomplish what we do, we take no breaks and no lunch. My paperwork usually comes home with me. I have daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly paperwork. Now our business manager has decided our district should go green, that means we'll have to add the washing of silverware and bowls to the student trays we already wash. If the administration does not see the need for healthier meals, it will never happen. On the other side,you also need parents that want it to happen. I've been pushing to enroll our school in the Healthier School Challenge, the wall I keep running into is the PTO refuses to stop selling candy as a fundraiser. It is a vicious circle with everyone complaining and nobody going anywhere.

  14. If you feed a child vegetables and fruit from the very beginning they never learn that they have a choice when it comes to eating those things. My parents made their own baby food. Whatever vegetable or fruit they were eating went into the food processor for me. When I got bigger vegetables and fruit were cut up and sent along to daycare for snack time. My parents like to tell the story of the day they sent me kohlrabi. The daycare provider had no idea how to serve it to me (hot or cold) so they called my mother at work. She told them to just give it to me cold, and I apparently attracted an audience of all the care providers as I ate it because they were so amazed that a child would eat a vegetable they had never heard of.

    If you teach you child early on to eat what you eat (providing you eat healthy) without giving them a choice it might not occur to them to refuse healthy foods and later on they will know if they like those foods or not and why they should eat those foods.

  15. Crying at the sight of a cucumber? What is WRONG with kids these days?

    When I was a kid, the only vegetables I didn't like were Brussels sprouts and asparagus, and I learned to like them when I got older.

    I'm going to have to find out what my mom did right so I didn't end up a spoiled brat who threw a fit at the sight of anything green on her plate.

  16. This looks a lot like what I got as a kid in Howard County, MD in the 90’s aside from the trays usually having fewer nuggets for a kid’s serving (possibly less cooked veggies per serving as well). We would pick a hot veggie in elementary school; the options were usually something from a frozen bag or a can that had been cooked mushy, or a potato-based option (mashed, fries, tots). Kids usually took the potatoes; I’m a big veggie fan and I have to say… the other option was almost always inedible. Except for the corn. The corn was so-so enough to eat most of the time. Tasteless, but… you could manage it if you wanted to. A lot of the kids often put it on their tacos.

    We had the same salad bar type set-up for fruits/veggies (and the little plastic cups of cheese and lettuce for the tacos lived here too, usually as one unit). The logic, as far as I understand it, was that these were the more expensive add-ons, and it was cheaper for them to provide less of them, and have the kids who didn’t want to eat them just not take them, then it was to force everyone to take them, and have it thrown away. If the kids who wouldn’t eat it regardless don’t take it, then they don’t waste food/money on them throwing it out. The irritation, at least to me as a kid, was that it was stressful to try to serve yourself from that bar and keep up with the line of kids who might not want anything from it. There were days I missed getting my lettuce and cheese for my tacos and had to munch on meat-only tacos quite sadly. (tacos, pizza and grilled cheese were the only school meals I liked.)

    the offerings in that salad bar hood were usually pretty bad. Carrot sticks were rubbery and dried out, same with the celery. Bagged salad mix was offered… but with no dressing until high school, and even then, it was a translucent community squeeze bottle of mystery flavor.) Sometimes we would get canned fruit, or fresh fruit (but they never had GOOD fresh fruit. It always seemed lack-luster and over-ripe or bruised.) or even frozen fruit (mostly blue berries, which we all loved to eat frozen, go figure) or jello.

    Now, this is coming from the kid who would shun meat and bread for fresh veggies, and fruit at home, and thought the best party food ever was broccoli off the raw veggie platter, and I would barely touch the veggies at school. I was a little scared of them; my mom didn’t give me veggies that were that old that they had dried out like that, so I thought that they were spoiled, or… like, not as good quality? My little brain told my little mouth not to eat them, that’s all I know.

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