Puerto Rican School Lunch

Fresh orange, white rice, garbanzo beans with pumpkin, seasoned pork that has been steamed & cooked in its juices, canned corn and carrots and chocolate milk

Back in November, a reader (D. Orsini) sent in the above photo of a school lunch from Puerto Rico and gave permission for me to share it with my readers. She added:

I love eating in the school cafeteria. I’m a teacher in the public school system in Puerto Rico. I regularly eat lunch in school and I praise the lunch ladies’ cooking. They are great. The picture is what I had for lunch on November 1, 2011. White rice with garbanzos and pumpkin (rice is given at almost every lunch, it is a staple in puertorrican diet), well seasoned pork cooked in its own juices, canned corn and carrots and chocolate milk (they also have white but I’m a chocoholic). Let’s just say the whole meal was delicious. The following day the meal was white rice, pink beans in a tomato base sauce (resembles the garbanzos) with sweet potato, fresh orange, breaded fish tenders and chocolate milk. Again, delicious.

Forgot to mention, IT WAS ALL FREE. Public schools in Puerto Rico offer free breakfast and lunch to all students and faculty is also welcomed. The Department of Education is very dedicated in giving the best meals to students. There is even a Free Summer Meal Program during the month of June (school year August – May), which is open to all children up to the age of 18. The school year in P. R. is from August to May. I am very proud of our School meal program.
I love how the food culture is represented in the school lunch. The main entree is stunning. I’m less crazy about the the canned veggies and the chocolate milk, but most of what is on the tray is real food. I’m intrigued that the chocolate milk is in a bag. I wonder if that’s more eco-friendly or more efficient? Thoughts?
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52 thoughts on “Puerto Rican School Lunch

  1. If only we could see something similar here in the U.S. Although the white rice should be exchanged for brown and we could skip the chocolate milk and canned veg but definitely a step in the right direction. Could you imagine the average U.S. school kid finding a garbanzo bean or a piece of pumpkin on their lunch tray….

  2. I think the bag thing is economical. I live in Israel and they also sell chocolate milk in a bag (one serving) as well as regular milk in a bag (which is slightly cheaper than the carton) for the home (they sell plastic pitchers specifically for the bag of milk for easy pouring at home).

    I should add that there is NO school lunch in Israel provided by the school / government.

  3. i think it looks delicious — and like good fuel for the afternoon. the pork looks great and it’s a small portion. thumbs up!

  4. The bag o’ milk is definitely a cost-saving measure – my school system switched to a distributor that used those when I was a freshman in high school (in 1994), after a round of pretty draconian budget cuts. The company actually sent a representative to show us exactly how to pierce the bag with the straw without making a mess. They got the job done, but they weren’t anywhere near as satisfying as a carton.

  5. I’m impressed by the REAL orange. My husband educated me the other day that the color of real oranges is green. Also, the writer stated that this is a staple in their diet to eat these foods. How did pizza and nuggets become our staples??? We do eat a lot of pumpkin in our house. I overbuy cans and buy whole pumpkins in the fall, cook and freeze. It’s a great way to add a veggie to pancakes and such. Granted there are some things I may do different with this meal….if it was fed to my daughter, I wouldn’t mind a bit!

  6. Re: canned veggies. I remember in college, someone complaining (jokingly) with the cafeteria staff, “It’s not like my mother’s.” And, in a good natured way, the cafeteria worker shot back, “If your momma was cooking for 1000 people a night, she’d cook this way too.” And we laughed but I never forgot it. Economy of scale is different. You just can’t scrape that much fresh corn every day. (You can sure do a better job than our school systems have, but that’s a given.) So like the poster above, I might tweak the above meal, but I would eat it cheerfully and be thrilled if the school served it to my kids. If canned corn gives them the time to slice fresh oranges and make that garbanzo dish, I’m on board.

  7. Forgot to mention – aseptically-packaged milk in a bag is common almost everywhere outside of the US, although “boxed” shelf-stable milk and soymilk are processed in a similar way (and some refrigerated milk is also packaged this way, frequently organic milks.) It’s essentially canned milk, processed at UHT (Ultra-High-Temperature) that is shelf-stable and doesn’t require refrigeration. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-high-temperature_processing There is significantly less waste with this method, although there are some who are concerned about this type of processing.

    I’ve never seen the tiny bags, but in Argentina, where my mother is from, the bags come in 1-liter sizes and they have special little pitchers so you can put the entire bag in and just cut a corner.

  8. Canned vs. fresh, white vs.brown, chocolate milk vs. white milk…all of these in my opinion is not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things (ok the milk part I may consider it again). What I am looking at is the entree and the sides and the portion size and for many kids who may not otherwise eat this kind of food at home this is indeed a blessing and I was most impressed with the fact that all of this is free! FREE!!! to all students and faculty. I really really wish in the US food would become more a reflection of the culture and not a reflection of what we think is right or cheap or easy to cook. I read somewhere once a while ago, that cooking for one or cooking for 100 is the same…I mean cooking time for garbanzo beans doesn’t change for 1 serving vs a 100! More public action and awareness will change this trend in the future…we didn’t get to this point overnight so the change will take longer but I am sure it is happening! Kudos to all who play an active role.

  9. I grew up with milk-in-a-bag at elementary school. We had morning snack milk service in kindergarten, at least, and that’s what they served at lunch (along with cardboard pizza and salisbury steak). Maybe it’s gotten better, but I have memories of milk that tasted more like plastic than like milk.

  10. I am just bursting with pride reading all of your comments. Thank you !!! If anyone has any questions please feel free to ask.

  11. Out of curiosity, what’s wrong with canned vegetables such as sweet corn? Surely it’s best they were eating canned veg than none at all? And obviously, would cost a hell of a lot more to provide uncanned sweetcorn…

  12. I agree that this is a solid lunch, and the fact that it is provided free is a bonus, but I wonder about all of the comments that it is culturally representative and the wish we had the same here in the US. Our company, Choicelunch, feeds about 18,000 kids a day in 220 schools in CA. But, we have huge variations in the demographics of the kids in the schools and while carnitas burritos and chicken fajitas are popular in some schools, other areas order far more of our fresh sushi rolls and potstickers. I guess my point is that cultural variations are great even within 1 state, let alone 50 and I think it might be easier to please more homogeneous palates in a smaller country such as Puerto Rico.

    1. Sophie, I believe you are correct. Puerto Rico and it surrounding island have very similar eating habits. Rice, beans, root vegetables, plantain, fish, beef, chicken and pork are staples in the diet. It is easier to feed students when almost all have the same dietery habits. The majority of the population in Puerto Rico eats rice and beans on average 4 to 5 days a week. The school lunch program also offers canned or dry pasta, burritos, breaded fish and on rare ocassions pizza and nuggets, but it not the norm. When they do offer these the students generally will not eat it and will just eat the fresh fruit and milk.

      I also agree with Kelly, canned veggies is better than no veggies at all. I think it it easier for storage and cost effective to have canned veggies instead of fresh.

      Also, the public school system offers free breakfast. Usually its oatmeal, milk, juice, fresh or canned fruit. Other days it can be any one of the following: french toast, pancakes, cereal, scrambled eggs or cream of wheat.

      Thank you !!!

      1. D-that is fascinating that when ‘standard American fare’ like the nuggets and the pizza are served, the kids won’t eat it and simply eat the fruit and milk!
        What are the age ranges of the kids served at the school and how many cooks serve and cook for the school? Also, I wonder how many lunch periods there are and the duration of each meal service.
        Thanks so much D. for bringing your experience to the table:)

        1. Sophie, I teach at an Elementary school that ranges from Kindergarten to 6th grade and the ages rages from 5 to 12 yrs. old. There are two 1 hour lunch periods, one for grades k to 3, the other 4 to 6th grade. I also get a 1 hour lunch period. The school cafeteria has a total of 6 employees and 3 are cooks. My school has a total of 300 students. Fresh fruit (apples, pears, watermelon, banana, oranges, mandarins, and plums) and milk are delivered every other day as well as any fresh local vegetable that are in season (mostly a variety of root vegetables, plantain, pumpkin). In many schools, leftover food is given to local pig farmers to use as slop so food is not completely wasted.

  13. We had milk in a bag starting in Elementary School. I remember we even had a meeting for all of us where they instructed us on how exactly to pierce the bag with the straw. (push on a corner of the bag and then puncture it with the straw where the air bubble appears). Being lactose intolerant, I didn’t get a chance to participate, but it looked really fun.

  14. I think frozen corn is a better alternative to canned, and it’s just as easy to prepare. The rest of the meal looks fabulous! I love that there’s pumpkin in it–makes up for some of the fiber lost in the white rice.

    @Meredith, green oranges come from countries where the weather is tropical year-round. Even here in Florida, we get some cool weather, so all our oranges are orange. Last week, I went to one of the groves’ packing houses. There’s an area where the locals can pick through bins of fruit that isn’t pretty enough for retail so it doesn’t get polished, and all the oranges (of several varieties) were, in fact, orange.

    1. I have read that some oranges in the us do turn orange because of the cooler temperatures. However, some companies coat them with wax, ethylene gas, and wash them in detergent to get them orange. I could be wrong. I’ve neve spoken with a grower since I don’t live in orange climate but I would be curious to find out.. There is stuff all over the Internet about it.

      1. We had an orange tree at our last home, and I’ve seen them growing all over this area. They are orange on the tree, but they are polished and waxed (and sometimes sprayed with pesticides, color and other gross chemicals) for retail sale.

  15. I now know what I’ll cook for dinner on Sunday when my Mom comes over, except I will exchange the white rice for brown and take away the corn & oranges. We are both diabetic a disease @ least stateside befalls us.
    When I first started making brown rice even in traditional dishes heavily seasoned she had such a sad look on her face. Eventually she has admitted that although it isn’t like her mother made it is never the less good. Now if I could only come up with a low carb way to make pasteles, lol.

  16. The food looks delicious but I am also impressed at the reusable tray and real silverware. In my daughter’s school, nothing is reusable and all gets thrown away. Such a waste.

  17. This lunch looks terrible. I cannot believe so many comments are in favor of this food. No child is going to eat this in the United States, pumpkin and garbanzo beans? Really? It is not culturally acceptable.

    1. Of course it’s not acceptable for the US. This is made for children in Puerto Rico. This meal is culturally acceptable for them because it’s part of their daily diet and it’s part of our culture. I am Puerto Rican born and raised in the island. Each country feeds their children according to their culture own distinct diet. For us this is ok. I appreciate your comment and hope it can bring further discussion on how all countries can better their school lunches.

    2. This comment ignores the diversity that exists in the U.S. Perhaps the run of the mill, “all-I-eat-is-chicken-fingers” US kid wouldn’t want to eat this, but there are plenty of kids who eat a variety of foods from various parts of the world…living in the US.

      1. A usual lunch that I bring to school is lentil soup, an orange, and celery with hummus. I like flavorful, fresh food. Our school lunch sucks (plus I have allergies) so I can never eat the school provided lunch. I’d love to have the lunch in that picture at my school!

    3. If by “culturally acceptable” you mean food that came out of a deep fryer and most likely contributes to our obesity and diabetes problem, then perhaps we’d best change what’s culturally acceptable for our kids.

      1. Each region of the US has it’s own food culture. School should incorporate this in their menu. What kids eat in Texas might not be the same they it in Alaska or Minnesota. Yeah they like burgers and nuggets but that’s not all they eat. Kids also eat other things but some school don’t see that.

  18. At my son’s elementary school they have 20 minutes from the time they leave the classroom to walk down the hall, stand in line for their food, eat AND have recess before heading back in. They are not alowed to talk (much) during lunch. I have eaten w/ him a few times and was very intimidated by the adults (all very nice people btw) who pace the floor keeping watch and having to eat in silence. But I must say the lunch room and kitchen are the cleanest I have ever seen (very important) and the children are well behaved. The food was standard fare (for the U.S) and they are given several choices of grains and fruits and/or vegetables. My son has a choice to take his lunch or not and usually eats the schoold lunch. I think they are doing the best w/ the $ they have. Which leads me to wonder how more affluent districts feed their children. Do they have better choices? $ for lunches in a state should be evenly distrbuted. Or we might all end up like Newt Gingrich, thinking that only the “poor” children should clean their own schools.

  19. Oh, I forgot to mention that my son’s school has almost 400 students and 2 lunchroom employees that I have ever seen. This is not including the janitor and supervising adults. Students work in the kitchen and receive free lunches. This school is k-5th grade.

  20. My niece (3) would think that the meal above was pretty tasty but then again I have made a point to let her try everything and then make up her mind what kinds of things she likes. I think it would be cool for schools to have a different region/culture/etc represented every day in the lunch room to give kids the opportunity to try different things. I think kids are often told they won’t like something or not exposed to something before they have the chance to step out of the box and try something new. I think schools could also have their own gardens and the like to encourage kids to learn about where their food comes from and it could help supplement what the school needs to buy. I went to private schools mostly in the U.S. and they ranged from really horrible food to really great fresh food. I think if parents and school districts worked together they could come up with creative ways to get fresh, healthy meals even in the poorest districts.

    1. Shoot, did I screw something up? I’m sorry. I don’t remember deleting any posts except for the occasional spam. And once you have been approved one time, then your comments should not be held again for moderation. Sorry about that!

  21. No, people there has been a mistake in information. I am from Puerto Rico and although lunch is indeed free for students, facultiy personal is not allowed to have lunch from the cafeteria. Schools that allow their faculty to lunch in the school cafeteria do it under the shadows of the Health Department. Many schools that allow their faculty to enjoy lunch have to be aware of regular visits and notify their teachers when no to lunch at the cafeteria. I consider it completly unfair considering that left overs are thrown away if not pick up by farm owners. 🙁

    1. Up to 4 faculty members are allowed to eat in the school cafeteria sometimes more depending on on how many student are in the school. I verified this information with the head lunch lady in my school. And at least in the 3 schools I have taught leftovers are donated to pig farmers to use as slop, this does not happen at all school mainly the ones in rural areas.

  22. Hi Paul – could you be any more mean and judgemental in your opinion about this lunch?

    “This lunch looks terrible. I cannot believe so many comments are in favor of this food. No child is going to eat this in the United States, pumpkin and garbanzo beans? Really? It is not culturally acceptable.”

    Although it might not be what you are used to eating, this meal is well-balanced, nutritious, and colorful. Perhaps it might do you some good, and your kids (PLEASE) to branch out when it comes to meal offerings.

    What food, in the US, would be culturally acceptable to you?

  23. This lunch looks good to me. If we regularly served food like this then US kids would eat it, as they would be used to seeing it. Chickpeas are one of my daughter’s favorite foods. As for the green oranges – “real” oranges are not always green. Apparently, in places where the temperature is always warm oranges stay green on the outside, but in places where the temperature drops oranges change to orange. As it is cool temperatures that promote the release of the orange pigment. While some commercially grown oranges are treated to promote the orange color – I have eaten many an orange grown in someone’s yard and the too were orange.

  24. I grew up eating white rice garbanzos n fruits at school. It was delicious and filling. For breakfast we had scramble eggs made with real eggs or oatmeal. I missed that when i moved to the states from P.R, we went from homemade rice to frozen pizza it was a difficult adjustment. To have the lunch room cafeteria ladies cook for us from the early hours of the morning to microwave food.

  25. I will give anything yo have a meal like this again!!!! Ohhhh how i miss those days!!! The food was amazing and the ladies working in cafeteria sweetest ladies ever. I live in US now and how i wish my son could experience this at school.they only offer pizza,nuggets tacos etc.

  26. I grew up in Puerto Rico and I remember that the only milk options were white milk or warm peanut butter milk. I hate the idea of it now but I was so used to it back then and the tablespoon or so of peanut butter was way healthier then the flavored milk used now. I agree with “emsmith” when I moved here I was grossed out by the frozen pizza and the weird looking fruit pieces in syrup that barely tasted like the fruits they were supposed to be. The irony is that rice and beans are as cheap as nuggets and fries and can be cooked in very large batches.

  27. I really don’t see what the issue is im born Puerto rican and u raised in in the bronx, and why should we say that is fine for only people in the islands if 85% of people in the US are Hispanics and everyone that’s not I still find in Spanish bakeries or restaurants come on

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