I'm a huge fan of Jamie Oliver and his campaigns to get people to cook more food at home and to reform the school lunch program. Here's some background on his new show.
We've started packing lunch for the kids every day, because the school lunches are complete crap. And Jonah's cool with that, because he hates the food, too. Here's the menu from March. [Sorry, link removed.] Mozzarella sticks as a main course. Nacho chips with fake cheese another day. One out of every four lunches was pizza. They say they offer salads, but their salads are a cup with a few leaves in it. They sell potato chips and cookies to the kids. Some ten-year olds only eat the potato chips and cookies for lunch.
Reason Magazine has the nastiest response to Oliver that I've ever seen. They say it would cost too much to improve school lunches and that kids like crappy food, so we should give them what they want. Niiiice.
They roll their eyes when Oliver questions the wisdom of serving pizza to the children for breakfast. Their reporter stands in front of a McDonald's and says, "That was British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, whose campaign against delicious food like this has come to our shores." And he's not joking! Really! It's just awesome. Watch out for the evil organic kale, people.
42 thoughts on “The Politics of School Lunches”
Reason TV’s response made little sense to me; it seemed to be “we know he’s pretty much right but we don’t like him anyway.”
Of course, I saw the first Food Revolution, and it was ridiculous. I agree with Oliver’s overall philosophy and goals, but whoa, he knows nothing about how to cultivate people and get them working on his side. “Hello you fat lunch ladies who are killing America’s children through your ignorance and laziness, I’m here to show you how to do your job right” is not a recipe for success, no matter how correct you are. For one thing, they’re not the ones who decide what gets served (which one of them timidly pointed out).
Reason TV had part of the story right, in that government regulations about school meals and practicalities regarding price set boundaries about what kids eat at school, but what they didn’t mention was how political the process of setting those guidelines is, influenced heavily by the sugar lobby, the beef lobby, the grain lobby, etc. Indeed, the entire food pyramid is heavily negotiated, and much of it is decided by corporate interest groups over scientific evidence about what is actually healthy for humans. Read Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (might be a little dated now, but worth a read).
Do the kids still get government cheese? I remember that stuff, but I still don’t know what type of cheese it was unless “orange” is a type of cheese.
On the larger point, I agree with Suze about Oliver’s approach. If he’d set-out to get parents, kids and school officials to hate eating healthy food, he would have trouble coming-up with a better tactic.
I love Marion Nestle’s What We Eat. And I’m a big fan of the best possible school lunches.
I’ve seen it from a few sides. My mum owned a school cafeteria for 20 years. When she started she resolved not to have any junk food. So the kids brought their own from home and she didn’t make any money: profit margins on fruit, which rots, and yoghurt, which goes out of date, were not holding up. Eventually she conceded on the chips and cookies and hot dogs and chocolate milk, and then she started to make some money.
It wasn’t just the kids that were the issue, that’s for sure.
My son’s Montessori had a year with really great food and his palate expanded considerably, since they prepared a lot of non-standard dishes in fun ways, like build-your-own-rice-dish where the kids could stir the components they would eat in for themselves, curries with bread to dip into them, etc. However the parents had to be willing to deal with the fact that some days, their child would only eat the bread. It was also pricey – $100+/mo. Guess what happened the next year? “Pretty decent” food that includes monthly chicken nuggets, at $90/mo.
I actually thought though that Reason’s article had some good points, like the Waldorf Tuna pita lunch having as many calories as a Happy meal (although I’m pretty sure more nutrients came with it.) But I also don’t think it’s an atypical response.
Now I want a hot dog, chips and cookies and two of them are off the menu for Lent.
I’m sympathetic to Oliver’s mission (and agree that his methods need some work). But I also really like some McDonald’s in moderation. (Foreign McDonald’s are rather interesting, and I like to see what the mad food technologists have come up with in supermarkets.) Basically, I just hate dogma on either side–and I find some of the health claims for various types of “natural” eating hilarious, when they aren’t boggling or depressing. (See: kombucha.)
But that Reason piece was just silly.
Yikes. You should guest blog at Fed Up With Lunch and share your lunch calendar!
Our school lunches are horrible, and a friend and I actually tried to make it better by having meetings with the administration. But then the recession hit, so it’s nachos & cheese, fruit yogurt with 30 grams of sugar, and cheese that resembles silly putty.
We pack lunches 4 days a week. The 5th day we just let them eat the crap.
My kid’s school contracts with a local organization who prepares our lunches and brings it in. It’s a real challenge to meet cost, gov’t guidelines and the taste palates of children. Everything is freshly made, so when a parent bitches that a kid had bean burrito, they should know it was black beans, brown rice, and smattering of cheddar in a whole wheat tortilla. It was healthy. My guess is their kid didn’t eat it, because it wasn’t the frozen kind that the kid gets at home. There is fresh fruit served every day and kids seldom eat it. Every afternoon the staff lounge has big plate of leftover sliced oranges, bananas or even sometimes strawberries. But the chocolate milk and string cheese are gone every time.
Changing school lunches is a lot more complicated than anyone thinks, and the first step is getting parents to serve healthier foods at home and get their finicky kids used to it.
We’ve had this conversation at school, too. I think parents like you, Laura, with kids like J, who actually eat what you serve at home and eat decent food (and actually reject the stuff offered to them at school) are having a different debate than some parents. You’re trying to get good food that your kids *will* eat at school.
The problem is the parents whose kids either want to eat the junk food (even if they’re not served it at home) or whose parents want them to eat better than they do at home. That’s not a reasonable requirement for a school. And, if there are enough kids/parents like that, changing the menu doesn’t change what the kids eat.
I think lunches at our kids school are decent, though not up to foodie standards. They’ve been good for my kids, who are learning to expand their tastes by getting lunches at school (mine are notoriously picky, and don’t eat all that well at home).
I also like McDonalds in moderation, though moderation is a smaller number than I actually end up eating it, for convenience. I wish I had better food on offer in a fast food way — memories of the cafeteria at the French Embassy in DC and at a retreat/hotel in the Cascades haunt me. I’d pay more, but I need to be able to drive up and purchase it and eat it right away, with no prep.
or whose parents want them to eat better than they do at home. That’s not a reasonable requirement for a school.
Yes, that would be unreasonable. I have to say that I wouldn’t eat a burrito like one described by Lisa V unless I had no other choice and was very hungry. It sounds like somebody went out to discover the blandest foods from around the world and combine them into one package. Would a bit of salsa or sour cream be too pricey?
(Full disclosure: We ate Pizza Hut last night and the leftovers for lunch today. Breakfast was better: Eggs over easy on top of cheese grits, plus strawberries.)
MH, I would love a little cumin or salsa on that, but most kids don’t. Salsa was served on the side, though most kids chose not to take it. If there was sour cream, there is moaning about obesity and fat. I’m not kidding. You really can’t win when you are figuring out a school lunch menu.
This is the first year we’ve offered school lunch and your head would spin at the diversity of opinions on what the “ideal” should be.
I was outraged to discover that this year our school added a hamburger or chicken nugget “alternative” daily. In case one’s poor starving child cannot stomach the marginally healthier menu. They do have a fresh fruit ands veg bar daily, but I kind of doubt my kid is using it much.
However, I’m still buying school lunch because it became such a bone of contention last year: she would cause a fuss over eating her home lunch, and it made it hard to focus after lunch because she was so continually outraged. I am assuming she eats pretty well at home and I push the fruit for snacks so it’s something of a wash.
So, I was volunteering at my school for lunch the other day, and had to admit that I cannot get much outrage out about the quality of our lunches, especially. We don’t have a fruit or salad bar — that would be a great addition, but one that I guess would get used only by the teachers. We asked every single kid at the lunch bar if they wanted the peas (there’s always a vegetable) and we got 2 kids taking the offer. Adults ate them, so it wasn’t that the peas were bad.
And, at our school, you can tell what your kid is eating, so if they’re making unwise choices, it is your choice to cut them off from school lunch.
We don’t have federal lunch at our kids’ small private school. One of my neighbors arranges for local eateries to do hot lunches four days a week. The kids get lots of chicken nuggets, pizza, some other Italian noodle things, some Mexican options, a baked potato with fixings, a pita sandwich and the occasional burger. I’m not sure on the fruit/veggie content, but I believe that Chick-Fil-A may include a fresh fruit cup. The lunches run around $3 to $3.50, so to some respect, I’m lucky that there are so few options that my kids want to eat. I budget about $60-$70 a month for hot lunches and send peanut butter and jelly (whole wheat bread, 100% peanut butter) on the other days, maybe with an applesauce cup. Last month, I missed the deadline for ordering lunches, so I’ve been making sandwiches every morning. One of my kids is prone toward drifting into a 100% carb diet, so I actually welcome the chicken nuggets.
Amy P – They let you have peanut butter at your school? I was on the cafeteria committee for my K-12 girls’ school. God awful work. Between the parents who wanted to ban all deserts and non-nutritious snack foods and the ones who wanted to have only junk, there seemed little hope of ever depoliticizing the issue. We got an awesome plan in place that satisfies everybody but the cafeteria at best breaks even. At most private schools, it’s a money maker. Lower school lunch is either entree, or hot dog, or salad bar (all with sides and desert) signed up for in the morning and trackable on-line. Middle and upper school expands the choices to include several entrees, sandwich bar, sushi (6.50 or so for six pieces of salmon roll, for example), pizza of the day, several sides. They use some organic products. The roasted veggies and also the greens have become big hits. So have the oversize chocolate chip cookies served twice a week, one to a customer.
“Amy P – They let you have peanut butter at your school?”
I was surprised, too and relieved–I am suspicious of “lunch meat” and I don’t like the idea of dairy or meat sitting for several hours in a cubby waiting for lunch. It’s a small school, just over 220 kids. I think there is one child in my son’s class with a peanut allergy, but it’s not a severe allergy.
I believe there’s been some research recently that says that a lot of food allergy sufferers don’t actually have them.
One of my kids is prone toward drifting into a 100% carb diet…
Mine will eat nothing but dairy if we let him.
Middle and upper school expands the choices to include several entrees, sandwich bar, sushi (6.50 or so for six pieces of salmon roll, for example), pizza of the day, several sides.
W. Dave, I’m going to assume that is satire.
On the peanut thing, my experience is that if a parent says the kid has a problem, they’ll ban nuts from the room with that kid. If nobody asks, they don’t care because the people who run the schools have been watching kids eat peanut butter for 30 years and do not think it is dangerous.
My son’s current school (he’s in a preschool at a school that runs through 8th grade) has never mentioned peanut butter to the parents and doesn’t ask about nuts or the like when you bring in homemade treats for the class.
“W. Dave, I’m going to assume that is satire.”
There have certainly been huge advances in college food service, so maybe it’s not so crazy for a fancy private school to have nice lunches? Remembering the endless cheese-filled manicotti of my undergraduate days, I think my husband’s college’s dining halls are amazing. If you can get there before the lines get backed up, they’ll cook you an omelette, a stir fry, a pasta dish, make you a deli sandwich, plus there’s good quality readymade food.
That menu looks a lot like my vague memories of grade-school lunch, though without the terrifying stuffed hot-dog things (hot-dogs with a hole down the middle filled either with “chili” or some melted cheese bi-product. I think they were called “frank-n-stuffs” or something.) We also had a salad bar and, once a week, a baked potato bar. There was no option to not eat the food as you couldn’t go to play until you ate at least most of the food. Before leaving you had to raise your hand and a lunch lady would come to see if you ate enough. I sometimes brought lunches and, for about a year and a half, went home and ate lunch there (‘d ride my bike home) but it was probably less healthy as I’d mostly make myself top ramen noodles or something like that.
“This is the first year we’ve offered school lunch and your head would spin at the diversity of opinions on what the ‘ideal’ should be.”
Proving Momma right once more: “It takes all kinds.”
People often forget that kids tastes change over time despite even well-meaning parents or the best of school lunch programs. I used to HATE tuna-casserole as a child-LOVE it now. Same with fresh tomatoes. Wouldn’t touch the stuff fresh, until somewhere along my Jr. HS years it became one of my favorite foods. Kids are finicky eaters. In the 50s we used to have to finish all the food on our plates before the cafeteria “monitors” would allow us to leave the lunchroom. You have no idea the number of inventive ways we devised to smuggle unwanted food on our persons without messing up our clothes just to get out of the cafeteria and out to the playground–ditching the food in the restrooms.
Leaving aside “It takes all kinds” as a nice sentiment, tuna casserole is not technically food. It only exists to save Lileks some trouble in looking for a visual punchline.
Here are three things I remember from school lunch:
1. greyish green canned peas
2. “pizzaburger” (theoretically a square slice of pizza)
3. a perfectly round scoop of mashed potatoes (undoubtedly instant) crowned with gravy and tiny bits of kibble
In the whole scheme of things, the fight to improve school lunch programs are a low priority for me. It’s a largely a concern for middle class communities. Providing a decent education for all kids is much more important to me. Because you can always pack a lunch for your kid.
Steve, Ian , and Jonah get packed lunches four days a week. I just don’t understand why schools have trouble keeping costs down. The contents of Ian’s lunchbox must have cost 75 cents: turkey sandwich, pretzel sticks (big bag broken down into little baggie, never pre-bagged stuff), fresh strawberries, yogurt, 2 juice boxes, brownie.
I wonder if I’m the only person (X’er) whose elementary school didn’t even have a cafeteria? Back in my day, when you walked uphill to school in the snow both ways, it was lunch from home or nothing. There was a woman selling milk but that was it. I wonder if the thought was that a) kids would be able to walk home for a lunch their waiting SAHM prepared and b) there weren’t any poor kids attending?
In my junior high, there was a cafeteria but the food was so horrifically, appallingly bad (the kind of stuff you’d expect to see at San Quentin) that most of us elected to continue brown-bagging. I ate a lot of peanut butter growing up. (Thank God nobody thought of “peanut free schools.”)
Laura: labor is what costs. Evidently that and clean-up, particularly if the school wants to be green and use reusable trays/plates, etc.
I think you’re undershooting the price of the home lunch by quite a bit, if the lunch contains all of the items you mention. However, if it’s just a selection of the items, you may be right. In any case, consider what you would pay for the same lunch if you were out and about–it would be easily $5-7 bucks. The hotness of the hot lunch is probably a obstacle, too.
Where the quality of school lunch is *not* a middle class/upper middle class issue is in public schools where free lunch is offered. For some of these kids, this is their only reliable meal of the day. For others, it’s not an option to just bring your lunch. So I do think there’s an issue there. It’s just not relevant to our (private/decent lunch/choices/monitoring) experience.
Amy is right that labor plays a huge factor in lunches. You have to pay someone to cook, serve, clean and sometimes deliver it. You also have the costs of trays (cleaning or disposing and replacing) and sproks, napkins. You also need special fridges for milk. You have the facility costs (lots of schools don’t have kitchens anymore) and delivery costs (gas and vehicles). Most districts also have nutritionists, meal planners. Then you have to have someone that actually can fill out the lengthy paperwork to get reimbursed for free or reduced lunch. Not an easy task- you’re audited by the feds once a year. You have to pay the accountant to balance the books, doing the banking, etc.
It’s actually a miracle to get all that done for $2.75 a lunch. We only serve for 325 kids and it’s still a huge task.
bj made much of the point I would have- for lots of kids, getting a decent lunch (even just a filling and minimally nutritious one) at school (and maybe breakfast, too) is necessary to make education at all possible. For this population, lunch from home isn’t an option, at least not a reliable one. (You can see this in that, in many parts of NYC, including the one I lived in, lunch is still offered during breaks and the summer.)
“Amy is right that labor plays a huge factor in lunches.”
That was more Julie G., but I agree. It is a miracle to get a hot lunch served for $2.75. Maybe IKEA could cater? But then it would be meatballs 4 days a week.
Seconding Matt and bj. Decent and reliable meals, not to mention healthcare, eyeglasses, clothing, a basic level of home and neighborhood safety and stability all contribute to a kid being ready for learning.
One big problem is that, as kids get older, they become embarrassed about the free lunch/breakfast program. Look at statistics for kids on the free meal programs in elementary school vs. high school. I don’t have time to look them up now, but have seen them in the past, and the number of older kids in the programs drops dramatically. It’s not that the families are suddenly doing better…
At the school where I did my student teaching, which had a huge number of economically disadvantaged kids, many of the kids did not eat lunch at all. Skittles and quarter-water were the meal of choice; it can be had for 85 cents and was considered cool, cause it’s what most of them were doing. The VP of English kept a loaf of whole wheat and PB&J in the Eng. faculty office; I’m convinced that some of the minor discipline problems were kids who needed to be fed but couldn’t admit it (he’d bring in kids caught wandering the hall and while he questioned them about where they were supposed to be, he’d make them a sandwich).
Suze, at our school and our older daughter’s high school, there is no way someone would know you were on free or reduced lunch, except the school secretary who does the book keeping.
In our school, all students who’ve ordered lunch are on a list, there is no distinction on who pays what.
In the high school and the junior high, you’re activity card is swiped, the book keeping is not done in front of the children. Additionally, free and reduced is self-qualifying. You fill out paper work saying your family makes X of dollars. No tax forms, no pay stubs, no nothing. The child qualifies the second the paperwork is turned in.
I see school staff and the program bending over backwards to make sure there is no shame in this. It’s not just at our school, I see it in the local high school and junior high.
But you’re right, there are still kids who fall through the cracks- we have a handful of extra lunches every day to offer to students who are obviously in need and don’t have lunch for whatever reason.
You fill out paper work saying your family makes X of dollars. No tax forms, no pay stubs, no nothing. The child qualifies the second the paperwork is turned in.
Just like buying a house in 2006.
When I was teaching in the Bronx, we would feed the kids extra bowls of cereal in the morning on Monday, because they missed meals over the weekend.
Of course, food is an essential component of education. And in an ideal world, each kid would be getting locally grown, homemade meals everyday for lunch at school and for $2 per kid. But there are bigger problems. We need to get all the kids to the school building. We need textbooks and clean schools. We need teachers who are smart, enthusiastic, and professional. We need good school leadership. As much as I HATE that deep fried cheese is considered a main course at my kid’s school, I am not going to pick this fight with the school board. Bigger issues at stake.
It would be nice, if school were required to post the calorie and nutrition content of the meals online. If McDonald’s has to do it, then why not the schools.
So, I know nothing about food costs and procurement. But a Caesar side salad at Wendy’s costs $1.10 or something. It’s all packaged up and ready to go. Couldn’t Wendy’s provide salads to the schools? I actually like their salads.
Lisa V–that sounds like a better system, but isn’t how it’s run in NYC (unless it changed VERY recently). In the high school where I worked, at least (and it may vary somewhat by area), full-price student lunches, ala carte items, and adult meals are paid in cash. Free or reduced lunches are paid by card. It’s sort of like the food stamp programs at grocery stores.
Also, there’s an application that parents have to fill out and return (recently, this became possible to do online), then the dept. evaluates and lets them know whether they qualify. If they’re on an assistance program like food stamps, WIC, etc, they are eligible. I don’t actually know what proof is required.
Of course, NYC is also the place where we vote by going into the little booth, closing the curtain, and pulling the lever, just like in the 50s. Big systems require bigger outlays of cash to change…
Of course, one good thing about NYC is that breakfast is free for all students. The problem is that they need to GET THERE. I don’t know how many younger kids take advantage—I hope a lot of them. The older kids don’t get there in time, at least in the schools where I taught or observed.
NYC also provides free lunches for the entire community. My old super and his family used to go to the schools to get lunch in the summer time.
It’s stigma-free over here, too, Suze. One of Jonah’s best friends is on the free lunch plan, but Jonah has no clue. I only know because I know the family’s circumstances.
“Skittles and quarter-water were the meal of choice.”
I used to have a grape juice box and a roll of cherry Lifesavers for lunch, mostly as a timesaver, because I wanted to make the most of a limited lunch break.
Kids in our school district are assigned an account number in kindergarten, their parents send in money that is assigned to their account, and then they order items off the account right up through graduation from high school. I don’t know how it works exactly in high school, where the menu items are a la carte, but no money exchanges hands, so I’m hoping/guessing that even high school students on the free/reduced lunch program can’t be distinguished from the kids who are paying their way.
You can see some difference at breakfast, because the kids who qualify are all taken down to eat it, and most of the rest of the kids skip it.
The PTA has an end-of-the-year fundraiser/food drive to try to make sure that kids don’t go hungry all summer. It’s a humbling thing to realize that some number of your child’s classmates associate summer with end-of-the-month hunger.
Our kids eat the Sodexho-provided school lunches, which cover all the industrial bases. I got tired of spending my time preparing healthy non-peanut options (two kids with allergies here) and then opening the lunch boxes at the end of the day and emptying all the half-eaten food. If they’re not going to eat their carrot sticks and red pepper slices, I’d really rather not know about it.
Of course, at every break, when we practically bathe in humus and pita sandwiches, I start thinking, well, maybe we should try again. But I probably won’t.
Uh, hummus. That would be more palatable than humus.
Although with all the gardening going on now (yay for southern seasons), I wouldn’t want to swear that NO humus is being ingested.
Comments are closed.