Tuesday, March 9, 2010

School Lunch

I (Emily) have a commentary on Minneapolis public school lunches for your reading pleasure. No recipes here. Well, maybe I'll stick one in later; we'll see.

Every day at work, I spend half an hour as a lunch lady. No, I don't have to wear a hair net. I do, however, pass out condiments, keep the kids quiet(ish), and wipe off the table after the teachers come for their students.

Now, my school does some things right. Rather than handing each child a tray with an entree, vegetable, roll, and milk, the students get to choose their own food. They are encouraged (but not forced) to take one of 3-4 entree choices, a roll, a milk (plain, chocolate, or strawberry), and two fruits or vegetables. Every day, one entree is vegetarian, and students can opt for a hot meal or a sandwich, salad, or wrap. Rolls are whole wheat, and the milk is low-fat (1%, I think). Vegetables and fruits are usually available in both whole and processed form. On the same day, one might find apples and applesauce, carrot sticks and fruit cups. The options are plentiful-- sometimes too much so for my little second graders, who sit down with way more than they'll ever eat. Luckily, the cafeteria has a table where students can put food they have not eaten and other students can take it. This system minimizes wasted food and provides children ownership over their meals.

Unfortunately, this ownership is something most of the children aren't necessarily ready for. In second grade, students study nutrition, and I noticed during this unit that my kids would say (with seven-year-old enthusiasm, so you're going to have to imagine how cute it sounds) "Hey, Ms. Emily, I have two fruits and a grain and a meat!" However, as nutrition gave way to other studies, the kids' attention to balanced meals waned. Most days, they gobble their entrees and drink their milk, leaving salads, oranges, and pears behind. This makes sense; while school lunches don't include desserts, most of the food is so loaded with sugary substances that the kids don't crave the natural sweetness of fruit (except high fructose corn syrup-loaded "strawberry" applesauce).

In fact, what sparked this whole post for me was picking up a container of so-called marinara sauce this afternoon and looking at the label. I don't remember all of the ingredients, but the first few were "water, tomato paste, high fructose corn syrup, salt." I think there was some dehydrated garlic in there too. I know that a lot of tomato sauce contains HFCS, but for it to be the third ingredient, and particularly when the first is water, was truly disturbing to see. It's supposed to be tomato sauce, and tomatoes don't come first? Just to get the whole picture, this marinara comes with "Max Stix"-- white bread sticks stuffed with cheese. They come in packages of two, right out of the microwave-like warmer the lunch entrees spend their mornings enjoying. I know, I know-- HFCS is the foodie "enemy" and is an overrated bad guy. But it still bothers me, just like the corn syrup and corn starch (for thickening) in the chocolate milk bother me.

Another point: condiments. I know a lot of kids enjoy putting ketchup and bbq sauce on their food. I do too! But at our school my kids will eat more condiments than lunch, if allowed. They come up with the most innovative dipping strategies. My students put taco sauce on pizza, ketchup on lasagna, and miracle whip on rolls. My personal favorite came last week. I handed a boy a cup of ranch (for his carrots, or so I believed). Five minutes later, I saw him chomping on a ranch-doused banana. Go figure.

I want real food in the schools. I want marinara sauce made from tomatoes, milk without added sweetener, meat that isn't gray, and...well, I could go on, but I won't. I would so much rather see kids eating good food and good dessert than these substitutes for both. School lunches are free for most of my students, because their parents don't make enough money to provide the good food they deserve, so surely the government has a responsibility to give the kids access to quality nutrition. Across the country, people are working to get real kitchens and real ingredients back into schools. I just hope that these grassroots groups become mainstream sooner rather than later.


  1. I think there's a lot of good there, although maybe some parts of the system are better for older kids. (Second graders don't need, and probably shouldn't have, so many choices. They need balanced meals put in front of them.) And the gross stuff in the milk is trouble-- milk is plenty sweet already, and kids have always loved it just fine. The condiments though is actually a good sign. It means the kids show some creativity, and some interest in their food. Kids (and people) like having some interaction with their food that feels like "preparing" it, and putting on condiments can be the bare minimum--I think this is active on a fairly deep-rooted psychological level. And its the same impulse that makes (or can make) someone develop more interest in cooking as they get older.

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  3. You should watch Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. It addresses this exactly.