Day 138: popcorn chicken and lunch lady conversations

Today’s menu: popcorn chicken, peas/carrots, bread (kids took two slices), pear

I have to admit I was a little crestfallen to see the popcorn chicken. Like I’ve said before I try not to look at the menu to keep it a surprise as well as to approximate the experience of non-reading students, but they are posted in the school. I do pass menus posted right by the door of many classrooms and so I get a chance to see what is coming up. But I see the menu items’ names with unseeing eyes. The meals’ labels register for a split second and then they are forgotten.

A couple of the popcorn chicken thingys were fused together so I could get a look at their spongy interior.

Inside it looked more like mashed potatoes than chicken…
The pear was good!

I chat with the lunch ladies almost every day. I want to share what they have told me over the past month or so. One told me about getting burnt on the big ovens and warmers. They all have battle scars (anyone working in food service does). Then she said with a half-smile and a shrug, “[They] pay me to serve, not to cook.” My heart broke in that moment.

Another told me, “I can’t believe you aren’t getting fat eating all of these lunches?! I had to stop eating them because I gained too much weight.” Funny, right? (My weight has not gone up or down over the course of the project)

Yet another told me, “All of these kids…are my kids. If I’m having a bad day, I don’t let them know so that they don’t think it’s them.” That tells me so much about the relationships they build with the kids at my school and the inherent relationship we have with the people who feed us… it’s so valuable. For the kids that lack stable homes (once one of my colleagues had a class roster with eight kids in foster care), building that connection with lunch room staff affects their education in a positive way. As someone who frequently hangs out in the cafeteria, the only problem with not serving the kids one day is that they notice. When I don’t see the regular faces, I wonder where they went to.

I want lunch ladies to receive more credit for the work they do for kids every day. If you don’t think what happens in the lunchroom affects a child’s education, you’d be wrong.


Thanks for your sweet and encouraging comments from yesterday. I wrote what I did not to defend myself, but to clarify what I said. I don’t want my words to be misinterpreted and I try not to offend when I can (some topics are inherently prickly). Like some of you suggested in the past, I think it might be best for me to start a different more personal food blog next year so I can express myself more freely and devote this blog to school lunch info exclusively. I’m overwhelmed at the idea of two blogs, but it could be a better way of managing the personal information many of you enjoy reading and that others of you dislike hearing about. Thoughts?

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26 thoughts on “Day 138: popcorn chicken and lunch lady conversations

  1. i personally love the personal info and would LOVE to subscribe to a more personal blog. you're not just a teacher, or a good lunch advocate, or a friend to your students, or any of the hundreds of other roles you seem to have picked up. you're also a person. you have feelings, opinions, thoughts, desires, worries. and i for one find reading about them much more humanizing, and considerably more enjoyable to read, than whatever the latest status is on school lunch legislation.

  2. I love that you talk to the lunch ladies. We are people too!

    I have commented here before, but I must admit that I don't know enough about your project to know how many students your school serves. I am the lone cook for a school of nearly 300 students. I am occasionally helped by my boss (when it's a high lunch count or a particularly cumbersome entree) and there is another women who comes in to help me serve and clean up.

    Yesterday, I diced fresh green peppers, red peppers and scallions and added them to corn and black beans. Today, I sliced cucumbers, carrots and tomatoes to add to a salad. Today's dessert was grapes. I picked every one of them off of their bundles and washed them myself. I would never serve a piece of fruit with the sticker on it. Was that pear washed?

    My point is, that healthy lunches are not as hard to make as it seems. I work for five hours a day. That includes prep, cooking, serving and clean up. I do a lot of that work by myself. I wouldn't even work there if we served food like what you have shown today.

  3. its your own blog–you are allowed to write whatever you want on it. I like the personal stuff, it explains why you are doing this experiment in the first place!

  4. I like your blog the way it is. The personal stuff just makes it more… personal, and that's a good thing.

  5. I think your blog is just fine as it is. Don't split it up. And I don't think you're elitist.

  6. I wondered about the sticker too- I hope the fruits get washed! But I would have been thrilled, in your position, to see a pear. YUM! 🙂

    Thanks for continuing to do this for everyone. Raising awareness is a huge job, and it is much appreciated.

  7. This blog chronicles several important current issues at a crossroads. Child obesity, the American food system, the education system, three important issues receiving far too little in the way of exposure on a first hand basis.

    Please DON'T discontinue the social commentary. Whether you mean it to be or not, this whole project is a social commentary, and I would hope your readers are coming here not just to see pictures of cafeteria food.

    One more thing as way of a cheer up message- Are you familiar with the children's book writer/illustrator Adam Rex? I thought this post on his blog was pretty appropriate, about how reviews and comments can drive you nuts-


  8. I personally enjoy the blog as it is- both the school lunch info and your more personal bits. I wouldn't be keen on going to 2 different blogs to keep reading your posts…but it's up to you if you'd rather split! I don't often comment but I do read all your posts 🙂

  9. My mother is a lunch lady. I went to school were she worked all my friends loved my mom and the fact they saw her everyday. A few years ago a young man who had went to her school came back and told her that she was the reason she was alive. He said he was having a hard time when he went to this school and was thinking about killing himself. but, said that everyday my mom would smile ask him about his day and tell him she would see him tomorrow which kept him going. My mom would be upset of watching kids just get sliced bread. On a day with they serve chicken nuggets my mom would always make homemade yeast rolls they are so good. Teachers come in and by extra and tell my mom that they serve them to their familys with dinner

  10. When I was in middle school, we had one lunch lady who was nice most of the time but she had her days. I remember one week when she was just grouchy all the time. It ruined lunch because she was just rude. I later worked with this woman (at an elementary school after school program when I was in high school). I found out that she had been trying relentlessly to get our school to provide better food (we had a high percentage of free/reduced lunch and kids in foster care/homeless). She was angry because no one would listen to her when she pointed out that many of these kids only got fed at school. I never realized how much she cared until I spoke to her about it.

    BTW, I think you should keep it as one blog too. If people don't want to read the personal stuff, they can always scroll past it.

  11. Just remember, especially after you finish this project, there are no rules saying you have to update each blog every day. I don't see how two would be any more difficult than one blog…you just have to remember which one is which. I know I enjoy reading school lunch posts, not so much other ones, but I wouldn't care if there wasn't an update every day.

  12. My two cents, for what it's worth:

    The thing that makes your blog interesting is your personal input and insights. Taking away your personal experience and limiting what opinions you post here will seriously damage the integrity of this work.

    You're dealing with complicated issues that go beyond just snapping a pic every lunch. You're not going to make everyone happy – I admit at times I'm not thrilled about the social commentary, but it's your voice and I like seeing it (although I do disagree with you). I'd hate to see you lose that.

  13. i could see how some would rather not read about personal things..but im the type that loves to get to know somebody. i like to read your opinion and how you feel about whats going on. i love the personal side of your project.

    the lunch lady that makes a point of knowing that if she acts differently a kid might think its them…well..that would have been me(who would get their feeling hurt if i didnt get the same smile/nod/greeting etc). so she is appreciated!!

    and..the one that was surprised that you werent getting fat by eating the same as the kids…how ironic yes?

  14. I agree with the other comments — keep just one blog, keep the personal stuff, and don't feel guilty if you can't blog every night. The readers will live.

  15. It's your blog. I have never understood how people can criticize people about what they publish on the internet. The internet is a free free-speech place. Yeah, I'd understand if I bought an issue of TIME and it was all about the Kardashians, but your blog is YOUR blog. Keep it manageable and you'll have more "fun".

    Your ideas matter. I've enjoyed reading (even if I don't always agree) the social aspect of your posts. Nothing is ever about just food. Food and education are some of the most polarizing topics in the world, because as Americans (and people of the 1st world), we eat and went to school which makes us experts. Right?

    Keep the one blog, people can stop reading if they want.

  16. First, I think that is one of the better lunches I've seen. The "popcorn chicken" isn't the healthiest but I love the fact that the rest of the meal is fruit, whole grain and vegetable. 🙂

    The comment about the lunch lady gaining weight on school lunches is a telling one. You've been able to maintain because of your healthy habits outside of the school. But what about those who don't have healthier habits outside of school? They are at a higher risk for weight gain and being unhealthy. Poor school lunches just contribute to an already unhealthy lifestyle. For students who many only get decent meals at school, they are at even higher risk.

    I hope you don't feel the need to separate your blog. I love the personal insight. You wouldn't be doing this if it weren't personal. Yes, some subjects can be touchy and others will feel the need to post something that isn't really nice but on the other hand you inspire some great debates and make us look at not just what is served for lunch but the social and emotional aspects that are tied into the issues. I applaud your honesty and bravery for "putting it out there". 🙂 If we always say things that are "politically correct", how can we effect change? After this project is finished, I hope you will continue discussions on food, nutrition and education.

  17. Well, I am going to be brutally honest here and that may offend some readers, but so be it. This is YOUR blog! NOT THEIRS! You have the freedom to write whatever you want. If someone doesn't like what you are writing, then they are free to NOT read it. I, personally, enjoy reading the blend of school lunch posts and also your personal stories. I feel it is thought provoking to learn how eating these meals affects you personally and how they might affect a child with different food tolerances and sensitivities. Anyway, just wanted to say I don't feel you should strive to people please everyone. Do what works for you and your life. Those that support you will stick around, for the long haul! Cheers!

  18. Love Momo Fali's comment – "We are people too."

    Mrs. Q, glad to read what you have heard in your conversations with the food service workers at your school.

    While I am personally somewhat resigned to being in the servant class (but there are days it depresses me more than others), I think…no, I know…it bothers me more that the meal programs in general are not seen as an important part of the school day by administration. Until administration (I mean the school board, superintendant, principals and even teachers..they are not all as active as Mrs. Q) supports what we do, it is going to be even harder to make the changes we want to see.

  19. Hey the peas don't look too over cooked! you know, gray. Now if that had been a real piece of chicken, it would have been a meal!

    Mrs. Q. Your voice is what makes this blog just a picture and a list of what was on the menu does not capture the attention. You can not please everyone all the time and you shouldn't try. Don't stress any more than you already are.

  20. Mrs. Q, keep the blog as is, please. Please! I've been reading for a while now and have come to like reading about Mr. Q, your child, even the mundane stuff that goes on in your life. Sometimes I wonder if the criticisms come from new people who don't "know" you like I do (stalker-creepy, I know, but I'm kidding). I love the fact that you are a working mom who has undertaken this project and you get things done. Mostly I have really enjoyed reading about how you and your relationship to food in general has changed. It's interesting and inspiring and to separate into 2 blogs would ruin a really really good thing.

    My condolences on the popcorn chix.

  21. Those mushy mashed-potato fake-chicken things look gross, especially in the close-up shot with the dark red-brown ketchup looking like congealed blood! It is unfortunate that the kids are being brought up to think that this what chicken should be like!

  22. Blogger to blogger, here's my 2 cents. 🙂

    1. You can't do it all. Better do ONE thing well, then spread yourself too thin. I've been there, done that. Posting daily is hard. Been there too, although you have a little person to care for and I don't.

    2. No matter what you post some people will take offense to it and call you judgy. It happens. Write what you know, what you observe, what you think, and stick to it. Don't let people sway you. This is your voice, and if you offend people, so what?

  23. why does every meal usually look drab brown. Also, the commentor who stated that until everyone realizes that this important it will still be very hard to change things. The lunch periods have to be longer with more time to actually eat & 'enjoy' the food.

    Also, I am wondering if the children who eat these lunches all the time are being sent a message about 'container' food i.e. fast food, frozen dinners, etc. I mean the yucky food that you get would even look better displayed altogether on dinner plate. (I know the reasons they are separate)

  24. My sister in law is a lunch lady. She and her mother are fabulous cooks but she never cooks at school, just reheats and dishes it out. A few years ago they even got portion spoons so that each student got exactly the same portion as the others (no extras). Lovely.

    Anyway, my mom always pre-paid my school lunch every month when i was growing up in the 1980’s. I asked her once and she said that she thought if I was forced to eat school lunch, I’d eat more variety. I have severe food issues. She was wrong. LOL.

    I often would sit on my lunch break and stare at all the food I couldn’t/wouldn’t eat and go hungry all day. Any day that had any food I could eat, I would trade very thing I could to get more of it.

    On Chili, PB sandwich day—I’d trade students for their crackers and I’d make a meal of soup crackers.

    On watery soup bean days with the cornbread and bitter green beans, I’d eat only the cornbread. Usually I couldn’t even it a whole piece of it, it was so oily.

    On Chuckwagon day, yes chuckwagon pattie, I ate nothing. That was what it was called on the menu but basically it was a compressed meat patty from several types of animals.

    I did eat the plain pizza until fourth grade when they changed it from the squares baked in teh cafeteria to the round pre-frozen ones. Gross.

    I am lactose intolerant, do not eat pasta, hate rice, will eat raw veggies but not cookied and absolutely detest processed or shredded meat. School lunches were a long day of starvation for me until I got to high school and discovered the vending machine. I still thank god for that piece of metal and plastic. I put on forty pounds but my stomach didn’t growl for four hours everyday.


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