Saturday, November 12, 2011

School Lunches, Or No More Mystery Meat

Does anyone have fond memories of the lunches they were served in school cafeterias?

I don't.  No excessively horrid memories either, which is almost worse - the meals weren't anything special either way.

Last year, I spent about half the school year, or maybe a little more, eating lunch every day with our youngest son (I'll call him Danger!Boy).  Most days, I brought a lunch from home, but some days, I was in a hurry, or just couldn't be arsed to get around to packing a lunch, so I bought lunch at the school.

Lunch at school isn't the way it was when I was a kid.  It's better, and worse, and just... different.

I polled some folks on Facebook about their least favorite lunch options, and the results of my utterly unscientific poll are below:

Kind of a wide range, but we're talking a time range from the 1940s to the 1980s, and geographically from all over the US, from Canada and the UK.

For most of the 2010-2011 school year, I ate lunch at the elementary school with Danger!Boy every day, and  I can tell you that the offerings at the school aren't as varied these days.  Sure, the school lunches are slightly more nutritious, but that's not saying much.  There are vegetarian options, but they generally go with chicken, both for cost and to avoid dietary issues.  The food isn't cooked at the school any more - it's cooked at a central location, and reheated at the school

These are primarily cost-saving measures, allowing schools to provide low-priced, nutritious lunches for students, and I can't fault them for trying to get as many balanced meals out to as many students as possible.

I'm led to understand by Only Daughter and the First Born that it's a little different in middle and high school - there are more options, and they're generally more appealing, though there's less effort spend making sure the kids get properly balanced meals.

Schools tend to get short shrift budget-wise in the US, and after the Arts, meals suffer the most from every cut.  I've followed Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution as it's developed, and I have to say I agree with him - it's worth it to spend a little more to give our kids quality food.  We don't generally get exposed to a lot of real food at school, as Michael Pollan describes it.  It's heavily processed, and grown hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Our vegetables tend to be bland, bred for transport and durability on the shelves of the produce department.  I understand the need for institutional cooking to be cost-efficient, but at the same time, using local produce, and cooking the food fresh on site would help our kids develop a taste for variety, and mixing regional cuisine with something new for the kids would also help broaden their horizons.  There are a lot of teachable moments around new cuisines, and finding ways to build those into the curriculum is a way to unobtrusively stretch education into currently empty areas.

This is, I realize, very much in the realm of wishful thinking, but it's something I've been mulling over for a while, and will continue to do.  It costs me nothing to consider it, and it's a worthwhile topic for discussion.

Readers, what are your thoughts?  If you could change one thing about school lunches, what would it be?


  1. I am sorry I didn't respond to your survey. For what it is worth I have fond memories of the food, but then again I attended school in a small town in Iowa. All the lunch ladies had gray or blue hair. Some served our parents, same story with some of the teachers.

    Coincidentally, this evening I recreated my favorite school lunch for supper - chili and cinnamon rolls. My rolls were from a tube and not the hand made ones from school so they seemed diminutive compared to my memory.

    A couple years ago the school nurse at the elementary school my sons attended (and where I worked) went on a crusade to improve the school lunches. Her crusade was what you suggest along with a healthier protein-to-carb ratio especially at breakfast.

    The one thing I would change about school lunch is to give the kids recess prior to lunch. This has been studied and was shown to decrease the amount of food thrown away and discipline issues.



  3. The biggest thing I'd change is to get rid of all of the bread and bread-like offerings, like pizza, "Italian Dunkers," and sandwiches. There's not much real nutrition in bread once it's processed into a shelf-stable, transportable, bomb-resistant state and less bread would mean more room for other things.

    FWIW - I can't remember my least favorite cafeteria choices. I can't really remember what was offered at all. Apparently, tho, Iowa has the kick-assiest school lunches. Everyone I've known from Iowa raves about the school food.

  4. Good point re: bread, Adrienne - I'd like to see more vegetables and fruit, and more Real Meat.

    Let's invade Iowa and take their school lunches for our own.