Guest blog: High Schooler’s Perspective on School Lunch

I love it when people email and share their stories about school lunch. Unfortunately, it often takes me a long time to respond. I got a wonderful email from high school student. I believe that there’s no better way to understand school lunch than by hearing the thoughts of the students who eat lunch.

Bio: R. is a sixteen-year-old incoming junior at a high school in Southern California, who is an active athlete and interested in psychology and sociology.

I rarely ever buy lunch at my high school, because it is a little expensive to buy all the time and also because I prefer to make my own lunch before I leave for school, but I tend to carry a little money with me in case I forget my lunch. However, one of my best friends buys lunch every day, and I could definitely say that seeing the kinds of food he ends up with is quite possibly on of the reasons I rarely buy school lunch.

Every day, the snacks available include: Popsicles (the “Push Pop” kind), ice cream sandwiches, frozen “soft serve” ice cream, chips (baked or regular versions), pretzels (Rold Gold), Pop Tarts, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, Goldfish, Rice Krispie Treats, Froot by the Foot, cinnamon rolls from a local bakery, and chocolate chip cookies. (I have no idea where the cookies come from, or if they are even fresh, because I’ve bought them once or twice and they tend to be stale.) Then you have a choice of beverage, and you can choose from 2% milk, chocolate milk, Gatorade, Vitamin Water, and regular bottled water.

On really hot days, I sometimes buy a carton of chocolate milk as a treat, though I always have bottled water with me at school. Milk is $0.75 for a small carton and $1.50 for a bottle. I know that a lot of people buy milk instead of bottled water, because water is $1.75 for a regular sized bottle, and people simply don’t want to pay that much. I also occasionally buy pretzels during the break between my classes (my school is on a block schedule, so we have three classes per day. Each class lasts two hours. We have a fifteen-minute break between our first and second class, and then forty minutes for lunch after the second class.) The pretzels are Rold Gold, as I said before, and they’re always fine, but then it would be pretty hard to mess them up because they are pre packaged.

Most of the entrees, however, are not name brand things. I’m pretty sure they are heated up and then wrapped in foil or plastic wrap. On a typical day, menu items available are cheeseburgers (I have had these and never, ever will again.), “spicy chicken” sandwiches, Smucker’s Uncrustables, “teriyaki” chicken over rice (something else I will never eat again), macaroni and cheese, and Papa John’s Pizza. Additionally, two days a week, they sell bags of Little Caesar’s “Crazy Bread”, which are basically breadsticks with butter, garlic salt, and parmesan cheese on top.

Typically when I buy lunch, I buy the pizza because I know where it comes from, and honestly I trust Papa John’s more than the school lunch. I bought the cheeseburger once, and I’m honestly not sure there was even real meat in it. The cheese had melted into the bun, and the patty did not taste like beef. Also, there were no vegetables on top, and ketchup and mustard are not available. I have also had the teriyaki chicken, and while it may have been real chicken, it was not good. Also, there were only a few small pieces of chicken over a lot of white rice. There was no teriyaki sauce on it, so it was overall pretty bland. I have never had the macaroni and cheese, but it doesn’t get very positive reviews. Most of the people I’ve asked say that the ratio of noodles to “cheese” is way off, so there are a few limp noodles floating in a lot of artificial cheese. I’ve also been told that the cheese tastes like the “cheese” you squirt out of a can. I don’t buy the Uncrustables because they just don’t appeal to me, but at least they are not tampered with at the school, so they’re probably fine. The “spicy chicken” sandwich is supposedly very good, though I believe it is also frozen and then heated up. This is something a friend of mine buys often, and it always smells really good, but I’ve never bought it. The “Crazy Bread” also always smells good, but it is served with choice of chips and a drink, so I can’t imagine how it could ever be healthful, no matter what you choose to go with it.

After I looked at Mrs. Q’s “breakfast in the classroom” posts, I decided to check on what’s available at school for breakfast, and I’ve discovered that the following items are offered: donuts, Pop Tarts, sausage biscuits (similar to those on the menus of McDonald’s and Jack in the Box), muffins (pre packaged), coffee cake (pre packaged), bagels with cream cheese, and a couple different cereals, including Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Apple Jacks, and Honey Nut Cheerios. With the exception of the muffins, I have never bought breakfast, so I don’t know how it is. I’d imagine it’s probably fine, though, because only the sausage biscuits involve any work.

Also, I would like to note that my school is located close to a Henry’s (healthy grocery store), Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a few frozen yogurt places, a few Mexican food places, Pick Up Stix, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and a couple other restaurants. My school has a rule that only seniors are allowed to leave campus for lunch. However, due to budget cuts, there is no longer anyone to check the grade level of the students that leave, so juniors and seniors can pretty much go wherever they like, and many underclassmen just walk right off campus for lunch.

Prior to ninth grade, I always attended parochial school, and the lunch there was very different. My school was Kindergarten through eighth grade, and there were two hundred and seventy students total. (One-tenth of the number of students that attend my high school.) Hot lunch was made daily by parent volunteers. You signed up for a certain number of days, and then lunch was prepared fresh on site. Lunch always included an entrée, fruit, a vegetable, a snack (such as chips or pretzels), and a cookie, with a choice between water, skim milk, or 100% fruit juice to drink. Hot lunch entree items I remember were homemade chicken noodle soup, chicken Caesar salad, homemade macaroni and cheese, deli sandwiches (similar to Subway, you wrote down what size of sandwich, type of bread, meat, cheese, vegetables, and condiments you wanted, and it was prepared for you), and spaghetti and meatballs. Everything was fresh and it was always very good.

Due to the size of my high school, it is simply not possible to have that kind of lunch program. However, I do think changes could be made for a healthier program. As you can tell, there aren’t really any healthy items available at my school. I think this would be especially important because our athletic teams are nationally ranked. I run distance for the track team, and am a member of the cross-country team, so I understand how food affects the way people exercise.

The last thing I would like to mention is that we do not have any problem with the time we have for lunch. The lunch lines move quickly, and there has never been a problem with not everyone being served. I usually bring my lunch, and I always have extra time when I am done eating, so that is a good thing. We don’t really have places to run around, but it is high school, so no one is really interested in running around anyway, as people prefer to socialize during lunch.

Thank you for reading, and I would be happy to answer any questions you might have if you leave them in the comments below.
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10 thoughts on “Guest blog: High Schooler’s Perspective on School Lunch

  1. This just blows me away. Was there not a single vegetable or fruit available to the students? And $1.75 for WATER? In Southern California??? (head shaking)

  2. R., thank you so much for sharing this post with us. It is extremely powerful to hear first-hand, from a student, what is available for lunch. It is also very sobering.

    We wonder why there is a weight problem in this country. We wonder why our students aren’t doing as well as students in other parts of the world.

    Kudos to you for bringing your own lunch. It is really awesome that you are so aware of the connection between what you eat and how you feel and perform as an athlete.

    I taught in a public school in Phoenix, Arizona for two years and only ate the school lunch twice. I am vegetarian, which made it even harder to find anything decent to eat. I remember one meal I had consisted of pizza, french fries, and pasta salad.

    I love the idea of parents taking turns cooking. While you are right that it may not be the solution for public American schools, we can work towards it.

    There is a heck of a lot of work to be done. Thanks for reminding us why.

  3. And people really question why the health and wellbeing of our youth is declining? A friend recently mentioned that when she was in highschool, she ate a slice of pizza hut pizza, french fries and a coke EVERYDAY! This was over 10 years ago so this is not a recent problem. I guess people are now more aware? I dont know. Its a shame the the main reason we are given for the poor lunch choices are budget. When my husband and I eat healthy (healthy, not organic) it seems to be cheaper. I can make a wonderful meal of whole grain pasta, fresh sauce and a side salad, all under $5.00 including leftovers for lunch)and its cheaper than packaged chicken nuggets and french fries. Why cant the schools do the same?

  4. @Emily- Fruit and vegetables are not available for sale at school. During my freshman year, they offered a snack that was called a “pita tray”. It was pretty much a piece of pita bread, two cherry tomatoes, and hummus, but that is no longer available for some unknown reason.

    @Stacy- At my school, entree items come with chips and a drink. Chips are the only side item you can get with lunch, which makes healthy meals pretty much impossible. Since I live in Southern California, all the fruits and vegetables available at the grocery store are grown locally, because farming is year round here, and we don’t really have seasonal fruits or vegetables, you can get pretty much anything anytime. How hard would it be to replace the chips with fresh fruits and vegetables, since they are so readily available? It honestly doesn’t make sense.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this with us!  This is a real eye-opener for me.  From a nutrition standpoint, I think this is one of the worst examples of lousy school food menus I’ve encountered.  The offerings sound horrible!  So even fresh fruit is never offered, not even apples, bananas, or oranges?  What kinds of things do you like to pack in your lunch?

  6. I recently graduated from a large high school and we had something of a food court set up. There were multiple booths each with their own specialty (pizza/italian, chicken, hamburger, tacos, etc). There were some healthy options like the sub station, which was often the only option for me as a vegetarian. I would sometimes get a taco and ask the server to replace the meat with rice. And occasionally a booth would sell small fruit salads with a cheese stick. I can’t really comment on the quality of the meaty foods but it was standard school lunch fare. There was a salad bar but it was twice the cost of the normal $1.50 “value meal”. Kids on free or reduced lunch can only buy value meals so this was not an option for them at all. But no matter what you are eating, it gets old fast. There was only one booth whose menu ever changed and they tended to serve comfort or soul food. I started bringing my lunch regularly senior year, which usually consisted of a tofurkey sandwich and an apple. We had 50 minutes for lunch and some good options, so I consider us luckier than most schools.

  7. I feel very badly for this person. I went to a high school that was right about the size of the writer and our school lunch was great. We had two hot choices everyday and they only repeated every couple of months or so. Every lunch came with a fruit and a vegetable and a milk and these were all included. We also always had a sandwich line where you could choose the bread, meat, and cheese that you wanted. Of course, we had extras everyday, which included things like pizza, breadsticks, chips, cookies, milkshakes, etc. But, if you wanted to eat healthy, you were able to. It sounds like the writer was not able to eat healthy, even if they tried. Maybe it’s a California vs. Illinois (where I live) thing.

  8. Huge thanks to R. to sharing his story with us!  Glad to hear you bring your own lunch most days; these offerings sound horrendous!

    I’d like to add that “Uncrustables” are anything but “fine.”  Among other nutritional deficiencies, they contain hydrogenated oils — which means they have trans fats, which are not safe to consume, in any amount.  (The label lists the trans fat as 0 grams, but that’s only because they can round down to zero.)

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