Part One: What have I learned? (so far)

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.

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39 thoughts on “Part One: What have I learned? (so far)

  1. not only that but the kids need more time for lunch. That way easily handled foods are not necessary just so the kids can gulp it down quickly and get back to class.
    I think when I was in school we had 55 minutes.

  2. Although I didn't purchase school lunches very often–we were allowed to buy only a couple times a year–lunches were brought from home, I do remembers some of the lunch menus and recall grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, pizza (as you described), fish on Fridays, fresh fruit, etc., AND metal silverware — spoons, forks, and non-serrated knives. I recall a carrot and raisin mixture . . . carrots that had been julienne cut and mixed with raisins, fresh cole slaw. The "lunch ladies" were at the school early in the morning chopping, dicing, prepping, and COOKING — not merely reheating processed foods. I can remember sitting in a classroom and being able to smell the food . . . a clue that lunch time was near!! Yes, the National School Lunch Program needs to be re-engineered and some common sense approaches incorporated.

  3. Two comments: children need more time to eat as the first comment explained. It's hard to eat good food in 20 minutes.

    Second,my memories were good too. Fresh cornbread, red beans and rice, shrimp stew, baked chicken… can you tell I am from South Louisiana. We had quality food that was cooked on site. It changed as I got older. Soybean burgers and milk shakes in junior high. Frozen pizza in high school.

    Using local produce just made sense back in the day. Beans, fish, shellfish, local corn products were used. We ate well and on a budget that wasn't hard to keep b/c these were ordinary items found everyday in my culture.

  4. My small grade school (70's) didn't have a lunch program so we all brought stuff from home. The big difference though was that we got a lot more time to eat and then play afterward. I agree with Maggie that this is a big problem. If you only have 20 minutes to get the food, eat and clean up, it doesn't matter how many healthy items are on the tray, you won't have time to eat them all. Shoving food down isn't exactly good for you either.

  5. Questions for those who want a longer lunch period.

    1. What part of the school day would you reduce/eliminate in order to accommodate this extra time?

    2. Are you willing to pay more school taxes to compensate the teachers if the school day needs to be lengthened to accommodate this extra lunch time?

  6. I work for an A/E firm that designs schools. Most of the elementary schools we design do not have the necessary equipment to do the type of cooking everyone is talking about. It's all mostly warming ovens and no dishwasher. It costs around $175 – $200 per square foot to build a school. If you're a school board, are you willing to add tens of thousands of dollars (maybe even over $100k) to provide a full service kitchen in an elementary school? It is more realistic to try and modify the current system and get the food service companies to provide healthier lunches. The same holds true for schools that cook at a central location such as a high school. Getting real cooking in an elementary school is a non-starter.

  7. I've been reading your blog for awhile without commenting before cause I don't have kids. But I do remember my own cafeteria days (over forty years ago) and I remember the food being actually cooked by our lunch ladies and served on plates, with metal forks and spoons on our trays. Most days I brought lunch from home though (tuna sandwiches – my favorite and I would eat it for days on end). I think they should make the school day longer so that kids can have an hour to eat lunch and maybe some recess time right afterwards so they can socialize before going back to classes.

  8. The insanely starchy meals are due to the fact that the nutrition standards allow only 30% fat (10% of which can come from saturated fat). Though the national Dietary Guidelines now have a higher allowance for fat (indirectly correlated to protein), the National School Lunch standards are frozen in time in 1994 and can't be changed without a literal Act of Congress.

    Current research shows overwhelmingly that the 'enemy' is sugar rather than fat.

    The current standards can be found here:

    In the face of a national obesity epidemic, it's also crazy to have a mandated calorie requirement. A range would be more sensible.

    Small changes in the nutrition standards: allowing the fat to increase to 35%, setting a target for fiber, and allowing some flexibility on calories would really help the quality of school meals.

    Labor costs make a lot of scratch cooking economically unfeasible for most school lunch programs, however in many cases, more of it could be done. It takes a very creative Director. Presentation, i.e. how food looks on the plate is So Important as well.

  9. I'm 30 years old and when I was in elementary school would eat school lunches a few times a week. It wasn't healthy fare…mostly pizza squares, corn dogs and hamburgers, but I was still skinny because I wouldn't eat (too much:) junk food before and after lunch and large portions of food. That's because of my home life where we'd eat fairly healthy and stay active, much like the blogger does. I'm still not sure how and why kids are suddenly overweight when they're eating the same junk I did…is it because of television? The Internet?

  10. (by the way…different Maggie than the first commenter)

    Wow, I live and work in a time warp! *Smile* Every one of the items mentioned in item 1 are on our menus. And I even know how to cook.

    Still, there are also chicken nuggets, and hot dogs. There's fresh fruit every day, but not exclusively – we offer several fruit choices and there are canned choices along with the fresh. We do offer potatoes about 2/3 of the days, the others 1/3 would include tossed salad. Another vegetable is also offered daily, such as green beans, California blend.(but again, fresh if we can, but often canned or frozen). And they are not local, and they are not organic. *sigh*

    For me, the hardest part is mostly the main dish items. I think we could "fix" most of the other issues, although, it would mean cutting back on some choices in this case. Local could take awhile too, but if we started buying, maybe more people would start growing. Yeah, like Mrs. Q says, hard work ahead.

    I hope Part 2 will be what Mrs. Q would like to see and how to do it.

  11. It's illegal in my state for schools to cook food for lunch… all of the food is shipped out frozen to all of the schools, and they heat it up. Bleugh.

  12. It's sad that lunches in schools are so terrible, that the USDA regulations are so skewed. But what makes me more sad than that is parents who don't make the time to put together a lunch for their kids, or have their children make their lunches. Until high school (in the early 90's), I brought lunch to school every day. Now as an adult I take my lunch to work. I was given a firm foundation for healthy eating by my parents and the example they set for me when I was younger.

  13. I remember the smell of fresh baked rolls.

    School lunch is broken.
    This is what Mrs. Q. has helped show us this last 6 months. I don't know that I would have become as concerned as I have with out this blog. Because of Mrs. Q. I have looked for more information, I have read books, and viewed movies like Food, Inc.
    My eyes have been opened and I am now searching for ways to help. We have to find the "tipping point" as Dr. Sue says.
    Parents have to become informed, they have to stop buying into what the big companies and the commercials on TV say about food and make informed decisions about what they allow their children to eat. Food affects their brains and their bodies.
    Do we want smart kids that can think for themselves?
    Hopefully that is what everyone wants..does the government?

  14. At the school where I work we switched from reusable compartmental food trays to styrofoam when budget cuts wiped out staffing to wash the trays. With the budgets so severely impacted recently in CA our district is just trying to stay solvent so every big and little thing has taken major hits. Class sizes are huge, yard duty supervisors to kid ratios at all recesses – including lunch time have increased dramatically. We have pretty good lunches but the breakfasts are atrocious! All sugar everything. Money is not the only answer but it would help. The reimbursable amount from the Free and Reduced lunch money from the Feds doesn't cover the cost of even these crappy foods. There isn't enough money to pay for adults to prepare and serve the meals and sadly it is cheaper in manpower to heat frozen foods than purchase and prepare real vegies etc. with a short shelf life.

  15. Although I haven’t visited your school district, as president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), I have seen how many school lunchrooms across the country have dramatically improved the nutrition and quality of school meals. More schools are purchasing locally sourced foods, are offering salad bars and prepackaged salads and have found ways to make kid favorites healthy choices, like pizza made with whole grain crusts, low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce.

    In Dallas Independent School District, where I serve as Executive Director of Food and Child Nutrition Services, "Fiesta Salad" has been a signature dish for years. We serve it with low-fat ground turkey, whole grain brown rice, and fresh lettuce and tomato. It is topped with some chips to give it the crunch, and the kids love it!

    Your blog has received numerous comments about ways other school nutrition programs are succeeding. Anonymously or in person when your project is complete, I encourage you to bring these successes to your own school district by sharing these stories with your school nutrition director and by getting active on the school district committee tasked with updating the local school wellness policy (Every school district is required by law to have a wellness policy addressing nutrition and physical activity issues).

    Dora Rivas, RD, SNS – SNA President

  16. I dunno, pretzels with a sandwich doesn't seem weird to me. I mean, lots of people eat chips with a sandwich. I personally don't like chips (or Oreos cuz I'm weird that way) but you know Subway has made a whole corporate empire out of that lunch pairing so clearly it's not unusual.

    It's not so much the idea of a bag of pretzels with a sandwich that seems off to me as the idea that pretzels or goldfish crackers or a cookie (short of maybe an oatmeal cookie made w/ whole wheat flour to up the fiber/grain content) would be counted as a grain. I think it's OK to offer that pairing occasionally, but counting as a grain serving is kind of like counting cheese pizza as a veggie serving because, you know, SAUCE! It's just an odd way of looking at the world. An occasional slice of pizza is fine but it shouldn't be a primary source of your vegetables, especially if said pizza is topped only with cheese!

  17. Don't forget about the chemicals that leech out of those containers when the food is reheated in them! Yuck!

  18. Offering fries and tater tots as veggies is just wrong because most of the nutrition in a potato is in the skin/peel. Peel potatoes and they are a starch not a vegetable. If you want to count potatoes as veggies, make potato skins…

  19. It isn't sugar that is the big is HFCS…cheap sugar. Studies show that our bodies don't process it the way they do regular sugar. So we end up with more fat around the middle.
    Unfortunately HFCS is in everything…The commercials that say it is fine in moderation…well what is moderation when it is in EVERYTHING! Including the flavored milk they serve for breakfast in the schools.

  20. Mrs. Q, I have been reading your blog for a while now and you have inspired me to eat and cook better for me and my family. I thought of you today after I came home from work and watched Oprah. She had a guest–Jamie Oliver. I am sure you have heard of him. His view has been rejected by so many, but I am sure you will like what he has done–if you don't know already 🙂

  21. Thus the reasons I pack my child's lunch every single day. I would rather take the time to pack and know he is getting enough food and healthy food rather than skimp and his little tummy be hungry and not healthy.

  22. Angry Beaver, I was educated in the 70's and 80's and even with recess (which Mrs. Q's students don't have) and a long lunch (long enough to eat and then go play in the yard), we still managed to get an education without going into overtime. I don't know what they're doing wrong now since my kids aren't in school but I don't think asking for a decent amount of time to eat (and recess for elementary grade children) is too much.

    I should also note that I looked at my local public elementary school's website and they give the kids 40 minutes for lunch. Twice what Mrs. Q's kids get. Some schools are just better than others in this regard.

  23. All the way from elementary to high school, I was served lunches on styrofoam trays. I thought styrofoam was bad, but having everything packaged AND heated in that plastic is bizarre.

  24. My son gets 30 minutes for lunch, has 30 minutes for recess, and has PE once a week. I wonder if the historical achievement levels of a school affects how much lunchtime is given. With NCLB and standardized testing, schools are under more pressure to achieve. Taking time out of lunch and dedicating it to classroom learning seems to be an easy choice to make.

    Suggestion to Mrs Q – Similar to the post where readers were asked to post their school's menu, let's ask everyone to post how much time they get for lunch, recess, and PE.

  25. A friend of mine went through some serious medical issues and it was easier to let her kids buy the school lunch instead of packing. During a that 2 month period, she reported both of her children gained weight!

    I have read a couple of books on the subject of food additives in our current culture. The food we eat today is not the same food that our mom's and dad's ate! But trying to purchase all organic food is too costly for the average family. I try to get only wheat bread for my kids, and use sugar sparingly.

    The reality is that our food is tainted with additives and chemicals. There is no way to avoid it altogether, but some ways to reduce the chemicals you eat are:
    Avoid meals in boxes, bags and cans.
    Try to cook with fresh foods rather than processed ones. Avoid lunch meats.
    Read your food labels.
    Make sure you are not eating large amounts of sugar or salt in any of your meals.
    Know your body's chemistry. I do much better when stay away from carbs like potatoes and pasta, and eat more meat and veggies. My sister does better when she eats less fat and more carbs.
    Eat a variety of fresh fruits and raw veggies.
    Avoid sugar substitute.
    Drink water instead of soda and punch.

    Trying to follow the above steps have helped me lose and keep off 30 pounds. I still have 30 to go, but it will happen.

  26. Angry Beaver: Time
    The grade school my kids went to had the longest lunch period in the city. They start the day 5 minutes earlier than any other Elem. school. that extra 5 minutes was tacked on to the lunch period making it 25 minutes.
    Still not enough time.
    I always thought when they made the day 15 minutes longer from 3:30 to 3:45 that the time should have gone to lunch.

  27. If our government actually cared about children, they wouldn't feed them the crap Mrs. Q has been subjecting herself to for the last year. I don't know how we can continue to feed the children of this country like this and still sleep at night, it is really disgusting.

  28. Thanks so much for all of your comments! We absolutely need more time to eat lunch. 20 minutes is ridiculous!!

  29. "With NCLB and standardized testing, schools are under more pressure to achieve. Taking time out of lunch and dedicating it to classroom learning seems to be an easy choice to make."
    Which is why NCLB is failing. There is a hell of a lot more to growing up and becoming an educated well rounded healthy adult than test scores.
    I grieve for the child who is packed into a classroom with 30+ other children asked to sit still for hours on end, fed crap, and then not given the chance to run and play.
    After eating lunch with my kids a few times this year and being absolutely disgusted we are actively seeking ways to send lunch from home next year.
    I think the schools need a priority shift. Especially in K-5.

  30. I just graduated in 2000 and I remember there being a fresh 'salad bar'; it had fresh fruit and veggies… well maybe not 'fresh'. We used trays that had different sections divided in it, and real utensils. We had real lunch ladies that cooked and served our food to us. I never had grilled cheese with tomato soup but we had decent food, and I always ate the lunch provided. We had three different lunch hours and, including the salad bar, 6 serving areas. Two pizza lines, one 'Spanish' line, one salad bar and two hot lines. There were soda machines placed in the lunch room the last year of my school but milk and water was offered through the line. In each of the lines there was also a choice of two different fruits and at least one choice of veggie, even the pizza line.
    Just thought I would say in the last 10 years it is hard to think how much value has changed for our children. No wonder childhood obesity is on such a rise in the last 20 years!
    I still think it is GREAT what you are doing Mrs. Q! I just understand that there are many teacher that might lose their jobs and I know how hard it is for them to say 'yes, hire better cafeteria staff and toss me to the curb'. I hope that American soon realizes that we need teacher and staff, cafeteria staff included, to have a healthy future of adults.

  31. A note about the amount of time for kids to eat lunch:

    At my high school in Florida, the Assistant and/or Vice Principal would always stand at the doors of the Cafeteria on "Lunch Duty", supervising the kids as they ate. If anyone was late arriving to lunch, if there were long lines, or if you felt you needed more time to finish eating, all you had to do was ask for a "pass" when you were done eating and ready to go back to your normal class. The Vice Principal would write "To Class" and the time, sign the paper, and you were accepted back to class on time without having to go to tardy hall. I only had to take advantage of "lunch passes" a couple times in the 4 years I attended, but just knowing I had that option if I wanted to slow down and enjoy my lunch made all the difference.

    That being said… yes, kids need MUCH more time to eat their lunch.

  32. The school district where I attended school for many years recently changed its meal timing. School starts with an instructional period. Instead of breaking for a short recess, they break for a 40 minute "nutritional period". There's another instructional period followed by another 40-minute nutritional period, ending the day with yet another instructional period.

    They don't offer lunch – most schools don't have cafeterias, high schools do though. They do give guidelines about what to pack in the child's lunch – and I wouldn't be surprised if someone from the school would be sending home a note if the child was seen eating junky lunches on a regular basis.

  33. Duh — how could I forget about the time to eat lunch!! It MUST be lengthened. I'm going to blog about this later in the week in "part two."

  34. I teach at a public elementary school that has a fully functioning kitchen, with an all you can eat fresh fruit and veggie bar set up in the eating hall for the kids to load up on once they have been through the main line. They are given 45 minutes for lunch and recess… and therein lies the problem. I have seen MANY kids go straight from the line to the trash can and out the door to maximize their play time, skipping/wasting the meal their parents just paid for! My own son used to do this all the time.

    When I was a kid, we ate in the classroom and the teacher inspected our lunch to make sure we had eaten the healthy stuff before we could go out to play. I don't know a single teacher who wants to be the lunch police nowadays.

  35. Question; What do they do for kids with a digestive disorder like Ciliac (Wheat gluten intolerance)? Do they accomodate, or just force that child to bring home lunches?

  36. Angry Beaver: I have two comments for you and others like you-
    1. Is it that you don't KNOW how to design a school with a fully working kitchen that makes you come off as so angry?
    2.Adding 15 minutes on to a school day to work in extra time for lunch or add recess time should be the bigger priority to you than making cracks about teacher overtime. It would be very easy to start 10 minutes earlier and leave 5 minutes later every day. OR how about this- change the school week to 4 days going from 8am to 5pm with 45min lunch for grade school and mandatory recess worked into that schedule. Before you come back and say "that would cost money" it would actually save school districts 100's of thousands of dollars (larger school districts) because they wouldn't have to use the electricity and buses on the off day.

  37. Mrs. Q-
    I agree wholeheartedly with your summary and fully support it. The problem I foresee in achieving this much needed change is the Food Service Lobby. If the schools have to start cooking more food in their own kitchens, then the prepackaged industry will lose money. There's no way they will go down without a fight, so everyone needs to get prepared for an uphill battle. It's already evident that money is more important than just about anything else in this country. Thank you for your blog- it has been inspiring and eye opening. I have changed the way my son (6 y/o) eats at school by providing him with a packed lunch most days at his request.

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