Foodie sound off: a plain old sandwich as a pariah?

Who doesn’t want a sandwich for lunch, right? I love a good sandwich. This past week over at The Lunch Tray Bettina noticed an article on MSNBC: Some schools cut lunch options for kids who struggle to pay and she blogged about how kids who can’t pay get an “alternate meal” of a sandwich. Hold on. That’s a punishment?

Bettina noted:

What was especially interesting to me is that the dreaded “alternative meal” usually consists of a plain cheese or peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk or a juice, and sometimes a piece a fruit — a meal that MSNBC describes as “bland” and “unappetizing.”


While I don’t mean to minimize the plight of financially disadvantaged students, I couldn’t help but think how much I’d rather have my child eat a simple sandwich than some of the highly processed food my own district regularly serves.

Agreed. Last year when I ate school lunch, I would have preferred the cheese sandwich over “Salisbury steak” (processed meat patty). Why? Well, those terrible Salisbury steak farts, that’s why! Lord have mercy. I will never forget that…even if I want to…

Sandwiches made right are a perfect way for kids to get calories they need at lunch. The kids who pack lunch often eat sandwiches made by mom or dad. I know I did. Actually one of my coworkers eats a sandwich every day. Lunch time is about learning and let’s teach kids that sandwiches are perfect for lunch.

It all goes back to decent, simple food. Not weird processed foodlike products. What’s wrong with a plain sandwich once a week? Soynut butter and jelly? Cheese and tomato? Turkey and spinach? Chicken salad? Ooh, egg salad? (Sorry, I turned into my own grandma for a second) What about a BLT? The list goes on and on…

Thoughts on sandwiches? I’m betting they are too labor-intensive and won’t stay fresh for as long compared to processed foods that can be frozen. Why can’t sandwiches be cheaper than meat patties? Don’t answer that — I know the answer has to do with corn subsidies, right?

When Did the Sandwich Become a Punishment? (The Lunch Tray)
Some schools cut lunch options for kids who struggle to pay (MSNBC)

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26 thoughts on “Foodie sound off: a plain old sandwich as a pariah?

  1. I still pack both my HS children lunch every single day. I pack them the night before because our mornings start at 5 am. I even pack my 9th grader something to eat after morning weight training. He works out for Football 4 mornings a week from 6 am to 7:30 am. School starts at 7:50. He takes an Oatmeal to go bar and a Sandwich Thin with Peanut Butter to eat after working out. The school choices for lunch and breakfast are loaded with preservatives and the lines are long. I would much prefer to take the time to pack them food and know they are going to have to truly sit down and eat it.

  2. In my last year of high school (4 years ago) we were told that we were now not allowed to charge meals to our account because too many students were not paying their bill at the end of the year. So instead they were given an "alternate meal" which was a choice of pizza or the daily entree – but not pay for it. Still not sure how that worked out for them but it meant a year of free lunch for some people.

  3. I'm in college and I still eat a sandwich for lunch almost every day. I think there's nothing wrong with it. I usually have turkey, but sometimes PB&J, egg salad, tuna… I love sandwiches!

  4. The small, public elementary school I work at (and where my son goes to kindergarten) does do a soup-and-sandwich day each week. The sandwiches are always on wheat bread, and the soups are *made* there, not poured from cans and heated. We manage that with just one cook, too, for about 150 students (the older children help with the serving). I think it's great, I love sandwiches and soup. My son still insists on bringing lunch from home though. ^_^

  5. At the school where I work the cook says she's supposed to give the kids a sandwich and milk if they owe money. I haven't ever seen her do it, though. The sandwich is one of those "uncrustables." It consists of white bread in a round shape with peanut butter and grape jelly. They arrive frozen and are thawed before eating. I tried one and it made me feel icky.
    I do Kinder lunch duty and I can say that 95% of the lunches are thrown in the trash. It drives me crazy.

  6. The question isn't whether something is wrong with sandwiches. Here in D.C., sandwiches, or wraps, are offered as an alternative in the meal line almost every day. The question is whether they constitute a reimbursable meal, or whether they're being offered with the side dishes that constitute a reimbursable meal. If not, then the school is paying for the sandwiches out of pocket, and is merely offering them as a token meal rather than a complete meal, as defined by the USDA.

  7. My daughter's school serves the PB&J Uncrustable as an alternative meal for kids who are too far in the hole on their school meal account. However, Uncrustables are also offered as regular menu items a few times a month, so I would imagine they're purchased under whatever plan allows for reimbursement and then any extras are kept on hand. (Not totally sure how that process works, so I could be wrong there.)

  8. I brought a sandwich 9 out of 10 days for 4 years of high school.

    Although I had a college cafeteria for 3 years for lunch (with a variety of healthy and non-healthy options), My last year of college and even now I usually bring a sandwich — turkey, peanut butter and jelly, and recently mushroom and hummus. There's nothing wrong with a properly made sandwich.

  9. Sadly the sandwiches served at the elementary school where I work leave much to be desired. Like everything else we serve they come in frozen and then thawed and served. Many times the kids get a sandwich that is frozen in the middle. The lunchmeat is usually something resembling turkey bologna and it has processed cheese with it. I agree that a nice, hand-made sandwich is a great lunch but it's possible that the sandwiches being used as an alternate lunch would be closer to the ones served here than the ones our parents packed us.

  10. i LOVE sandwiches! i packed myself a pb&j sandwich for lunch almost every day in high school. occasionally i'd mix it up and have a turkey sandwich or egg salad. now my favorite is tomato and mozzarella with pesto. sandwiches are perfect for lunch!

  11. Good, healthy sandwiches are a far cry from what our students get for "alternative" meals if they owe money. The "sandwich" is a pre-packaged cheese sandwich. It's made up of a pale "wheat" bread (2 slices) and a processed cheese slice that has been previously melted to the bread. This is served in a sealed plastic bag and is served cold with a small apple and a milk. It is one of the most unappetizing foods I've ever seen. That same sandwich is sometimes served "hot" for lunches. (Steam warmed.) Most kids stay away from it. If they have to have an alternative lunch, why can't it at least be appetizing so they will eat it? These poor kids aren't likely to be getting much else that is remotely healthy.

  12. At our school the kids get a bagel and cream cheese and milk if they owe too much for lunches. I've never seen any prepackaged sandwiches… they sound horrid. 🙁

  13. I didn't like bringing sandwiches as a kid for lunch was because of lack of refrigeration-I didn't like PB&J, and the idea of eating lunch meat that's been sitting out at room temperature for 4-5 hours grossed me out-still does. I'll bring them to lunch now, but I work as a social worker at a middle school and have my own mini fridge in my office. I did like buying sandwiches in high school though-I was strange, but they would make them in the morning and saran wrap them and stick them in the ala carte fridge, and I loved how the saran wrap kind of smushed everything together. I also remember when I went to the after school program in my elementary school, they would sometimes serve us a PBJ for a snack. This was 20 years ago, before all the peanut free stuff started.

  14. My grandma used to make me sandwiches every-single-day for lunch. It was disgusting after awhile…that's when it went straight into the trash and I waited to go home for "Lunch" which was usually after 2:30pm. I did eat breakfast, but I was hungry. (My sandwich consisted of two slices of ham between 2 pieces of white wonder bread.)

    When I learned how to make my own sandwiches, I ate them. I eat them every single day when I am on campus because it is just easier to carry. My co-worker, eats 4 sandwiches a day when he's on campus. He refuses to eat sandwiches out side of school.

    I never knew that if you come from a low-income home, the child will get an alternate lunch. That is so degrading on so many levels. It will also point out the "rich" kids from the "poor" kids and segregate them even more! (I know some kids make fun of those who do not we're "cool" shoes and/or clothes. It is so sad.) I think this is totally wrong on so many levels!!!

    Just Better Together

  15. Sarah pointed to an interesting thing: Soup and sandwich day. Were I involved in providing the "alternate" meal, I'd advocate the option of providing soup, and either crackers or bread to go with it as a side, and then plain milk or water, and a fruit like an apple when possible.

    Heck, I'd be inclined to serve soup to everyone at least one day a week.

    Soups are easy to make, with relatively little cost and effort (and pre-cut frozen veg, which can be obtained in bulk would still be better than some of the processed cr*p they serve children, if the resources aren't enough to prepare).

    Soups are hearty, and if my budget were to ever drop to having to pay all my expenses from under €500 a month again, including rent and utilities, transportation, study materials and food, I'd be buying root vegetables, beans and rice in bulk to have those staples when my budget just doesn't quite cover it.

    I'm sure a lot of children wouldn't mind a good soup as an alternative to going hungry, and I would almost dare bet that it's cheaper to make (even locally) than the processed junk they're feeding the paying kids.

  16. If I could live off sandwiches, I probably would. Actually… you probably CAN live off sandwiches, can't you? It's like the perfect balance of carbs, veg (or fruit), dairy (assuming you put cheese) and protein. And they taste so good!

    But I do agree with some of the comments, there is little in the culinary world more depressing than a bad sandwich. Take what I call the "meatwich" (meat between two slices of bread. eew). A cheese sandwich is another that can be made beautifully, or be absolutely repulsive. As one who gives into grilled cheese cravings once a month or so (and who desperately wants to try that french classic, brie and butter on baguette), I will NEVER forget the WORST cheese sandwich I've ever had in my life:

    third grade. I forgot my lunch. Like most kids that age, I had no pocket money with which to buy the hot lunch. The solution? I was sent to the nurse's office (of all places) for a sandwich out of the supply fridge (I'm finding this story is wrong on so many levels as I relive it for the first time…). The sandwich that was then presented to me consisted of:
    A) one slice of white bread
    B) one slice of wheat bread
    C) one square of american cheese
    And was still FROZEN SOLID.
    It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. Why one of each kind of bread? Were we supposed to turn it "favorite side up" and pretend the icky bread on the bottom didn't exist? And seriously? One slice of cheese and nothing else?

    While I will never forget that atrocious excuse for a sandwich, I cannot for the life of me recall whether I actually ate it, or took two bites and decided starvation was preferable. Both seem like likely candidates for something I would have blocked from my memory. :p

    With that in mind, I wouldn't put it past some schools to try to serve exactly that sandwich, considering so many of you are sharing tales of the dreaded uncrustable.

  17. Are PB&Js really that much more difficult than mixing who-knows-what? I"m thinking you're right that it has to with the cost and subsidies. Sandwiches are a great way to go (as long as they don't get stuffed with bologna and other processed meats!)

  18. I never knew that if you come from a low-income home, the child will get an alternate lunch. That is so degrading on so many levels. It will also point out the "rich" kids from the "poor" kids and segregate them even more! (I know some kids make fun of those who do not we're "cool" shoes and/or clothes. It is so sad.) I think this is totally wrong on so many levels!!!

    That's not the situation at all. Children on free lunch, or children on reduced lunch who pay the reduced price, still get the regular meal. The sandwich is ONLY for children who are NOT eligible for assistance here but who do not have money on them to pay this time.

  19. Mrs. Q,
    How does the free/reduced program work at your school? Here in MN, families can apply for it at any point in the year. Often, if a family has a large amount they owe, a person from the food service office will contact them and ask if they are interested in applying. It is done quietly and politely. Just wondering if that option is available where you are.
    We have the same policy of giving a "sandwich lunch" when balance accounts are too low. However, I have been with my district for a few years now and have never seen it done. I think our lunches ladies are too kind hearted to punish children for something out of their control.

  20. Mrs. Q – My RSS feed was down and so I just saw your lovely shout out to The Lunch Tray and my post re: sandwiches!

    It's been so interesting to read these comments and those on my original post. I had been using the issue of the sandwich for nonpaying students just as a springboard to raise an issue that's bugged me for a long time – why my district won't serve sandwiches on its regular menu and the feedback I've gotten that kids don't like them as part of the school meal.

    But the post also tangentially raised issues about stigma and the logistics of handling nonpaying kids in the lunch line, and there's a really interesting dialogue about that on my site between Dana Woldow (SF school food reformer), Wilma (my anonymous school food professional) and others. It's worth checking out.

    Thanks again! – Bettina

  21. I have to comment on the Uncrustables. Many years ago -I'd say 13 or 14 years ago- before we had kids and before I had ever seen Uncrustables sold at the store, my husband and I would buy them from Market Day. My employer at the time held a Market Day sale every month which is how and why we were able to order their food. I bought the Uncrustables a few times and we loved them! They were not big enough for a meal, really the size of a small half sandwich, but they made a great snack. I have to say since having kids we've never bought them. I've pointed them out to my daughter at the store to see if she'd be interested, but she answers with a firm NO! Ah well, I suppose it would be better all around to make them ourselves if we wanted something like that to eat.

  22. I briefly worked at a charter school in New York where teachers helped pass out lunch to students. Students who were vegetarian got the main part of the meal (about 98% of the time it was meat) switched for a pb&j. I was surprised they could serve that, with so many kids who have allergies. I felt bad for the little girl who got that every day – she started refusing lunch. I don't think pb&j is that nutritious, and to eat anything every day would drive most people crazy.

    I forgot to add, all the kids who didn't get sandwiches regularly always tried to say they were vegetarian or allergic. It was pretty funny to ask them what they thought those words meant.

  23. One of the pitfalls of sandwiches is that we forget how much salt and preservatives are in most lunchmeats and coldcuts, even artisanal meats. They're descendants of the way our ancestors preserved meats: with salt and clean, fresh air. Nowadays, we don't need so much salt, and we certainly don't need lots of preservatives. That's one of the reasons we rarely make sandwiches in our house. Another reason, for me, is that I just don't want to eat that much starch in one meal.

    That said, I made challah and multigrain bread this weekend, and we enjoyed French toast and coldcut sandwiches to the hilt as a result. Homemade for the win.

  24. I work in a kitchen of appr. 500 elementary students. We have cold sandwiches once in a while and they are "fresh" and on whole wheat hot dog buns, cheese is a choice not a "must". I have never heard of a school being so mean to a student for something the "parents" are not doing. Most schools have "government funding" for lunches and also get "comodity" (sp) foods to serve, from the veggies, to different nuggets, fish and the like. If schools are serving these nasty sandwiches, its only because someone wants to line their own pocket and are not thinking of our children.

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