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Changing school lunch food

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Has anyone tried to get your local schools to serve better food? I'm pretty fed up with what they offer our children. My kids regularly pack, but it sickens me to see the preprocessed food that is made in a central kitchen and shipped to each school. I would like to change it, but not really sure how to go about it. Also, just out of curiosity, do any of your local schools have a peanut, tree nut ban on foods? And, how do the families deal with it?

BTW: Here's a link to our monthly menu. Please note it is the same thing month after month, week after week.

https://www.sodexhoeducation.com/segm...

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  1. Boy, kinda heavy on the junk food offerings, isn't it? I don't have any children in or out of school (all my kids have 4 paws and tails lol) but my bakery has the contract to provide rolls & bagels for a few area school districts. We have a long-term (5+ year) plan to make the stuff healthier. Each year we add more whole wheat flour and grains to the mix to make it more nutritious. We started off with basically a white dough with a little whole wheat thrown in. Each year it gets better, and the students are loving it. The school boards felt that to suddenly change from white to wheat would set off a student revolt. *G* Anyway, that's my little contribution to school lunch nutrition!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Catskillgirl

      Good on you. Love it.

    2. My Mother changed our county's school lunch program, but she was on the Board of Education and Director of the Wellness Together program at the hospital. Of course with rising costs of food right now, your battle may be even tougher than before. I would say to schedule an appointment to talk to people on the board or the person at the Board of education in your area who may be in charge of that Asst. Superintendent normally whereI am from. And go to Board meetings, most school boards are required to have monthly meetings open to the public.

      1 Reply
      1. re: ktmoomau

        More power to your Mom!!

      2. There is a small but growing Farm-to-School movement in pockets around the country. A beacon of hope is Alice Waters' connections to the school community in her neck of the woods. There was a great article about it in the magazine Rethinking Education about two years back.

        1. I have two children at an EXTREMELY SMALL parochial school. I had an eye-opening experience when I started volunteering in the school cafeteria. The school lunch program infuriates me.

          I have heard about the "Food is Fundamental" program, but I haven't investigated it. As a food lover, I would like to bring the program to our school.

          I'm sorry I don't have any answers to offer, but I'm with you in the fight!

          1. USA Today wrote about the difficulties in producing a nutritional and appealing school lunch under the financial constraints. Basically, it said that after covering costs and wages, the average school district has less than 30 cents for the actual food put on the tray. Gone gone gone are the days of someone's Mom or Grandmother standing in the school cafeteria with a hairnet on, dishing out hot and wholesome food. Wichita's school lunch program is assembled off-site and miles away from the schools and trucked in, and then re-warmed on site. Because something like 2/3 of Wichita public school students get free or reduced lunches, the district can't afford to staff cooks in every elementary school, middle school and high school, and what is served as a result are things like cold sandwiches, chicken nuggets and pre-packaged pizzas and hot pockets. I sometimes wonder if they don't feed the inmates in the county jail better food.
            One of my daughter's refuses to eat school lunches, the other only eats when they serve delivery pizza, so they carry their lunches most days -- sandwiches, roll-up sandwiches, chef salads, etc.
            Oh, and regarding the peanut/tree nut ban, none of our schools have one, although one of my daughter's had a classmate who's mother requested no strawberry-based treats for class snack days. I don't think it was a potentially-fatal allergy, more of a uncomfortable hives sort of allergy.

            4 Replies
            1. re: podunkboy

              As a pediatrician, I can say there is no such thing as a "merely uncomfortable hives sort of allergy." If an allergen causes hives, it is the beginning of an anaphylactic reaction that with repeated exposures can get worse and become fatal.

              1. re: podunkboy

                Actually, Sodexho, one of the major suppliers of school lunches nationwide, is also a major supplier of meals to many of the nation's prisons and jails. What does that tell you?

                1. re: trishyb

                  That a non-sequitor (as well as a red herring)..

                  Most food service operators run food service operations in a variety of institutions and cater to the level that meets the need of the client.

                  1. re: trishyb

                    And? I supply wedding cakes to upscale weddings. And also to prisoners at our local correctional facility. Does that mean that my baked goods are inferior because I also deliver to a prison?

                2. Our school cut the cafeteria staff to zero and the Parent's Association decided to bring in "The Lunch Lady" a franchise where they make boxed lunches custom ordered from a monthly menu(some regular offerings and some new ones) that's available online. Lunch Lady isn't as cheap as cafeteria food was but it's definitely healthier. I'd like to see them pull out the vending machines from schools too...but apparently the schools are offered financial incentives from Coke/PepsiCo to have the machines in the schools (put our machines in get a new scoreboard kind of thing).

                  More often than not we bag lunches and the school has a "nut awareness" policy which means we can't send foods with tree/peanuts/oils although some kids are still bringing in snacks containing nuts, turning the teachers into food police. I don't have issue with the no nuts please policy...some kids have such severe allergies that being around the nuts sets off an anaphylactic reaction. I'm not going to risk sending another kid to hospital for the sake of sending PB&J to school. But then I don't know what parents with picky PB&J-only kids do.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: maplesugar

                    So sad how much times have changed in the US from when I benefitted from the high investments in education in the 50s-70s to beat the Soviets who had Sputniked first. Now my 4 1/2 old daughter is about to start school here in Colombia.

                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      ( I'm in Canada btw) I don't remember there being a school lunch program in my schools growing up. In secondary school we had cafeteria service but it was pay-as-you-go with a whimpy salad bar and prepackaged sandwiches, deep fried food, pizza and the obligatory bowl of fruit. Not what you'd call healthy or fresh, but certainly appealed to the average teenager.

                      I'd like to see both Canada and the US make education a real priority again...and that includes feeding kids, particularly those who can't afford it. I know politicians are talking the talk but really? 30cents for lunches? (nevermind books, salaries etc)That's appalling. I have one in school now (grade 1/6 yrs old) and I was glad to see the cafeteria program get cancelled. I'd rather see no cafeteria service than a junk food smorgasbord.

                  2. My granddaughters regularly take their lunches in Denver. The oldest, in 5th grade, had the latest lunch period this year. When her class was allowed to eat, there was no food. The kitchen staff hadn't prepared enough. The 5th graders were being given yoghurt and fruit for lunch. They ran out of milk also. Lunches were still full price though.
                    Now my daughter has two lunchboxes for each. A cold box and a hot box. My little girls have the best, healthiest meals in the school. How often do you hear a 2nd grader ask for a chef salad for lunch with bleu cheese crumbles, please?
                    As to peanut/nut bans, the kids schools don't allow homemade treats at all. If you want to bring cupcakes, get them at the supermarket so that there is an ingredient label. Don't bake cookies, bring a store-bought bag. Ick!!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Pampatz

                      Wow that's quite the serious ban. So long as I bake without nuts/nut oils and ensure the work area & equipment is nut-free I can still bring in baking. I'd hate to have to get grocery store treats. ick. There is however a certified nut-free bakery here so if they got more serious about the no-nut policy I could get treats from there.

                      1. re: maplesugar

                        The bans in schools on home made food is also about liability. They don't know how food was prepared at home, how clean, etc. Even on these boards, you read the different attitudes people have about food safety. Suppose one parent thought it was fine to make chicken the day before and didn't refrigerate which people have talked about here? There's no way a school can police that. I'm not supporting the policy, btw, just explaining what was told to me in another school district.

                        1. re: chowser

                          From a strictly legal stand/ liability averse standpoint it makes sense. However, it is also a practice that seems to be fraught with Socio-economic class peril. Having to buy something from a store immediately shows how much money your family has for disposables, because your mom has to buy store brand oreos instead of name brand Oreos. Whereas, if you bake to offset costs, many of the ingredients for something tasty are just lying around and you have already paid for them.

                          Having grown up rural and not terribly well off, I understand that not everyone will take this route...but I've always thought of baked goods as an equalizing force to this equation.

                          Of course, I suspect that my kids will go to school with a bag of apples if any children I have end up going to such a school because there is just to much crud in store bought cookies and my Pumpkin Chocolate chip cookies are just so much better for them, even if the school wouldn't allow them in.

                      2. re: Pampatz

                        I am in Quebec and a movement to remove fried food, sugary and fast food has been happening, and a law has now passed that schools may not serve any of those foods or have vending machines that offer it. It is not an easy change for most kids, but since my children have always brought lunches before this law was passed it makes little difference to me.
                        But I am on the school parent meetings and I know that the teachers cannot even bring soda or anything like chocolate bars in class either, so the ban is schoolwide except for the teacher's area.
                        I seriously welcome the changes, it is amazing that the link to the new sizes of children has not rung some bells sooner then this.

                        I think though that there is hope for any other school too, you only need a few good people to back you up and get the ball rolling, in fact, think how proud the school would be to put in place such a healthy program.

                        Good luck!

                      3. It is a shame that schools aren't better but they have to provide for hundreds of children every day at a low cost. Some school districts do better. Ours only has whole grain starches; at the same time, they consider deep fried mozzarella sticks a main course. But, we need to educate children on making good choices. There are decent choices on that menu you posted. It really isn't that different from eating at most restaurants that Americans frequent. When you come down to it, when you only pay $1.75 for a whole meal, you can only get so much. I pack the kids lunch for the most part and they buy on certain days but we go over the menu on making good choices. But, sometimes they can splurge and eat whatever they want. It's harder at the middle school level where it's a full blown cafeteria w/ pizza bar, burger bar, etc.

                        As nuts go, we have a nut-free table for children who have allergies. Not sure it's the best way, segregating them, but it's a huge table and growing.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: chowser

                          I could hardly believe how many schools serve mozzarella sticks as the main entree in a lunch. I even saw a menu recently where the meal was moz. sticks and onion rings. What kind of meal is that for kids?

                          1. re: why_itsme

                            One making a lot of use of donated USDA Commodities

                            1. re: DiningDiva

                              Right. The national school lunch program (free and assisted lunch based on income) gives cash subsidies and commodity foods, plus commodities from ag surplus to schools that participate. From an op-ed piece I saved: "The program's authorizing language requires that participating schools serve the most abundant commodities - mostly milk and meat, with few fruits and vegetables. The ties between the government and the commodities industry, aided and abetted by poor nutritional choices by state and local food service officials, trumps federal nutrition guidelines, resulting in menu offerings that resemble fast food."

                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                I'll blow my cover here for a bit. I am a former Director of Food Serivce for 3 different school districts in the State of CA, one of them a very large, urban district serving over 30,000 meals a day. I have been out of that segment of the industry for over 10 years now.

                                Child Nutrition programs are not about kids and they are not about the food. When Richard Nixon moved the programs to entitlement status in 1968 and their oversight and jurisdiction from the Department of Defense to the USDA, things changed. Not so much at first, but radically as time went by.

                                The NSLP, BBP, and other related programs evolved into gigantic agricultural support programs, with the eye more on price stabilization and the growing corporate ag business and less on the end consumer. And before everyone jumps on the bandwagon saying how awful USDA Commodities are, they are not. In fact, some of them are actually quite good. And they served a purpose. They allowed schools to serve meals at practically no cost.

                                Unfortunately, many schools could not deal with raw and bulk commodities so a cottage industry grew up coverting things like chickens and turkeys to turkey ham, turkey roasts, chicken nuggets, and truly the absolute worst commodity I ever saw and tasted, the canned chicken. Flour was converted to bread or pizza. Tomatoes to tomato paste that was then diverted for use as pizza sauce. And so on. Any vendor wishing to be a processor of USDA commodity for use by end users receiving government subsidy has to go through a fairly rigorous (read lots of buereaucratic hoops) process and provide very exacting price and yield information on their finished goods. Nowhere is anyone concerned about what the end product actually tastes like. In less than 40 years this cottage industry has evolved into a multi, multi, multi Billon dollar business. For schools it has meant huge savings in labor (read, they could drastically cut staffing and benefits) and the ability to continue to serve meals for very little. Meals that do not reflect the true cost of value of the food in them.

                                So you've got the USDA, Ag Business, manufacturers doing booming business in commodity processing, now ad the various farm lobbies. Two of the most powerful are beef and dairy. In the early 1908s many school food service directors wanted to discontinue offering whole milk. No go. All those milk solids and butter fat had to be removed from the market somewhere along the line to support retail consumer pricing. And beef? Tons, literally, of it, and most of it was decent. Converting it to precooked hamburger patties to save cooking time (and ostensibly to ensure the appropriate level of protein) was not so decent. Over the years the USDA did lower the fat percentages in it making a much leaner product.

                                Let's talk about the teachers and principals who don't belive it's the schools responsibility to feed children, that the parents should be doing that. Yes, they should, but when the parents are unemployed, substance abusers, physcially abusive, or in so many other ways dysfunctional, it falls to the school to provide something. There is hunger in American (contrary to the beliefs of some in government) and when the face of it is a child, you can't help but hurt. What about those overcrowded schools, some of which have to start serving lunch at 9:30 in the morning just to get all the kids needing to be fed, fed. Who wants to eat lunch at 9:30 in the morning. Or the schools with no kitchen facilities.

                                Then there is the paperwork, mountains and mountains of paperwork.
                                Fail at this task and the USDA withholds the reimbursement. Try teaching a cafeteria manager who might have not much more than an 8th grade education the finer points of USDA mathmetics, or how the USDA figures out protein equivalents. I can manage a $13 million budget, but I could never figure out the math on the component requirements. Thank god I had staff. Everything is tracked, and god forbid someone who isn't entitled to the food gets fed, if even by accident. The paperwork required of Child Nutrition programs is extreme and enough to sink not only the Titanic but every ship in the U.S. Navy. and much of the work is done by hand, not electronically.

                                You'll notice, nowhere have I mentioned feeding children. School lunch is not about the kids. It's about adults, the adult world and a government entity - the USDA - run amok and mired in absurd over regulation.

                                All those vending machines? They are not operated by the school's food service department in most cases. They're operated by PTAs, Athletics, ROTC, Drama and even site administration. In the State of CA, they became the way to replace funding lost because of Jarvis-Gann Prop. 13. The sodas? USDA regulations state that the school districts food service department cannot sell soda in the same location that it sells reimbursable meals. There has to be a physical separation and/or barrier between reimbursable meals and soda sales by the cafeteria. That does not apply to other departments within the school selling soda. The soda biggies - Coke & Pepsi - weren't that concerned about the sales. What they did promise were tangible things like electronic athletic scoreboards in exchange for signage and usually the contract for soda sales in the district.

                                School lunch is BIG business, very big business and very lucrative for those businesses. If you want to change it you're going to have to go grassroots, and go guerilla. Go to a school board meeting and ask the hard questions. Anyone can speak at them if they submit a speaker card. It won't change - because it doesn't really have to - until critical mass is reached. I think that's still a ways off,but it will happen because it has to happen. And as Jerry Maguire famoulsy said...Show Me The Money. And that's what it's all about. If you can solve the moeny piece, you can change school lunches.

                                1. re: DiningDiva

                                  Thanks for your insights, DD. I think this sheds a lot of light. It is a shame faculty and staff think so disparagingly about the NSLP, because there are many poor families it helps (if not tastily or nutrionally): 35 million kids get lunch through the program, and 20 million of those also get breakfast. But you are not kidding about the money made for the businesses invested in it, as the budget is $8.5 billion a year.

                                  1. re: DiningDiva

                                    makes a lot of sense, seeing it from the built side.

                          2. I have a little story to tell.

                            years ago, when I was in the fifth grade, my friends and I had the same thoughts as you. we hated school lunch food, and had it in our minds that we wanted to "stick it to the man". we organized a sit-in (after lunch), collected signatures for a petition, and essentially protested. we eventually were able to arrange a meeting with the food service that our school used (sodexho, like your child's school's), and had a little chat with the school principal, lunch ladies and some sort of sodexho representative (I think a manager). we got the menus changed, at least with different choices. we felt like we'd changed the world, made a difference. we were so proud.

                            anyways, that's my little story, and its purpose was to let you know that it CAN be done.

                            1. Here's a link regarding my public school's lunch program. http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/...

                              We've been very pleased with the mindfulness that goes into the menu/nutrition planning, especially since we are a very diverse school district. My youngest has three years to go, and I have to say I have very few qualms about her eating school lunch.

                              Calls to one's district or attendance at board meetings may get your food concerns front and center. Activism may require attendance, or letter writing.

                              I must say I am pleased to be living in a district that tries as much as ours does. Good feelings going forward. Maybe, jcattles, you can find others that want the same and are willing to vocalize?

                              Cay

                              1. Great topic!

                                Here in Rhode Island, there will be new requirements for school lunches beginning in 2009. These include, among other things, at least 3 fruits or vegetables served at lunch, all grains must be 50% whole grain and 50% of grains must be 100% whole grain, at least one fresh fruit or raw veg per day, and legumes once a week. We have a program here, which I believe is part of a national program, called Kids First RI, that lobbys for healthier food being served to our children. You should see if there is a Kids First for your location.

                                We also have a growing Farm-to-School project, which is part of Kids First, and links local farms to school. The cost of fresh produce over canned can be prohibitive though. (couple that with the loss in revenue from the ridiculously lucrative soda machines which are now banned as well, and we're talking a major hit to many school budgets). Here in RI, farms have had to lower their asking price to make it work, and some of the larger contractors (Sodexho & Aramark are two of the big ones here) are actually paying more than they can pay elsewhere. Because of this, they use other sources as well, but I recently read that Sodexho's purchases of local produce is up by 75%. In RI we also offer tax credits to entities who are serving local produce to local schools, so that helps the program work as well. In my city, we've even had parent volunteers shucking corn to get it to the kids. It's really a collaborative effort, but the movement is definitely there. I'm not sure where you live but I'd be surprised if there weren't people already working towards this end. If not, it's definitely a worthwhile cause that I'm sure you can find support for.

                                1. My kid goes to a small private school with no cafeteria. Every kid brown bags it and eats in their classroom together with their teachers. There's a microwave available but it's use is discouraged due to time constraints. Nut bans are the teachers' call and are done on a class by class basis. Fortunately, my daughter's current class has no bans. I hope we're so lucky next year. Home-made treat are absolutely encouraged as it is assumed they will be healthier than anything bought at the store.

                                  Having eaten lunch with her class, though, I can say that what the kids bring varies from super-healthy to "even a confirmed junk-food junkie wouldn't call that food." On the whole, though, the children see a variety of foods and learn that different eating styles are acceptable. On the down side, my daughter will no longer eat mushrooms at school because she's been teased for it. At home is still okay.

                                  Our public school menu is loaded with hot dogs, tacos, pizza, and other junk. We definitely eat all those things sometimes but that's the key - just sometimes. Then again, I just have to satisfy one customer a day, not tens of thousands.

                                  1. "Entrees marked with our Healthy Lift-Off logo will be less than 30% calories from fat."

                                    that about sums up your situation with Sodexho, doesn't it? (and what does that say about the other entrees?)

                                    1. While I don't condone what your typical public school provides for lunch, I also don't blame them for the slop they serve.

                                      Considering the budget crunch most public school districts are facing (e.g. 40 students per teacher, lack of books, not enough desks, etc.) providing a healthy lunch probably doesn't rank very high. Nor should it.

                                      Like James Hatfield so eloquently put it ... Sad, but true.

                                      1. the wholesale part of my company was approached to provide school lunches for a local urban charter school a year or so back. they offered a set price per meal/day and asked that the menus be halal and have only whole grains, and that we use our local farmer contacts to get fresh local produce, etc. they wanted to use govt. commodity subsidized milk etc, at the same time as local organic/sustainable foods. they wanted the price/pound of sustainable produce to be exactly the same in january as in september, as in may. in minnesota. the only problem was that under their budget, the price/pound for local fresh produce (many times certified organic!) was equal to the canned/commodity govt. price (the local family farmer would essentially donate both food and labor, essentially putting the sustainable farm (local rural economy) at risk); the cost of the whole grains was covered, but not the labor costs for any employee to cook them-- even at min wage, which is against our company policy-- we pay living wage for cooks, and for a job like this we would insist on minimal benefits for our employees, they are not slaves(!!!!); also, our company would have to provide cooking, holding, and serving equipment for the school and we would not be reimbursed for having whole separate storage/refrigeration for the school meals. i spent several weeks sketching meal plans which eliminated all meats in order to pay a living wage to kitchen staff and offered many menu option drafts to the school. they refused to acknowledge that farmers are human beings, with families; or that cooks are human beings, with families; that whole grains are not currently available as government subsidized canned goods, and that they do not cook instantly in 30 seconds in a microwave. the school board continued to demand that i pay my people min wage/zero benefits and use my supposed "influence" to pressure/cheat/manipulate local sustainable farmers, a group who in my climate can absolutely not afford to donate the better part of their harvest to folks who are willing to pay seven cents less per pound than the item originally cost to produce. when i offered my best bid for a financially feasible, yet sustainable menu, they rejected it because it was vegetarian. it is amazing to me that the school boards can ignore current wage guidelines!!! they want the kids in their school to be fed as if pro nutritionists ruled the world (and not govt subsidies and agribusiness), but they refuse to pay anyone who feeds their kids enough to be able to carry/have/support kids of their own, or give them basic time off/benefits, maternity, etc!!! people who are "fed up" with "what they offer our children" should realize that the people=human beings(!) who are serving the slop in their local schools, themselves ***can not AFFORD to have, or support, their OWN children***!!!! many things are wrong with agribusiness and govt. food subsidies, *please* change the system, but not at irreparable cost to low-wage earners in the food industry. thanks.

                                        1. As with another poster, my daughter's small private school has an arrangement with an individual and we order online (clients include some public elementary schools I think). Individual in turn works with local vendors to supply different foods (Chicken stir fry, pasta w/wo meat, etc.) But it is not cheap. It is FIVE dollars a meal with no fruit or milk offered just entree, tiny side* & water. Lucky for the children, there is a family who donates fruit many days of the week. This is not a posh school by any means.

                                          My daughter is somewhat picky therefore only takes bag lunches. BTW, on top of the $5 price tag, there is a 7.5% processing fee. For schools with no on site cafeteria nor a volume business, I don't know what choices are available.

                                          *tiny side may be garlic bread with pasta

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: ceekskat

                                            We must be lucky; my daughters' school uses a program called "Kids Kitchen" (Just north of Toronto). For $4, you get a hot entree (e.g. spaghetti with tomato sauce), a dessert (fruit salad), and a drink. If you want more, for $4.75, you can get a heartier entree (meat lasagna), a side (garden salad), and dessert. We order on-line the night before, and it's delivered to the school the next day. Best of all, the parent council gets a 5% rebate on all orders, which helps us buy extra equipment for the school.

                                            They have lots of choices, from pastas to sandwiches to wraps to burgers. Sides can be garlic bread, salads, or veggies and dip. Desserts can be healthy, like fruit, or a treat, like oatmeal cookies. We usually pack lunch for our kids, but sometimes we take advantage of this service.

                                          2. hi-- me again and i've calmed down a little. while the series of school-lunch meetings was one of the most frustrating experiences i've had in quite a while, i took several things away from the whole thing.

                                            1. food in schools has historically been such a low priority in comparison to sports, administration, special ed, no child behind test cram sessions, etc; that it has become a lowest-bidder thing, leading to cheaper and cheaper food in schools.

                                            2. large companies have built themselves around specializing in using govt. commodity foods such as canned goods (cling peaches, gray peas), subsidized dairy and low-grade meats; making mass-produced, low-nutrition edible foodlike substances, and supplying area school cafeterias. their quality and prices are very low and they employ minimally compensated unskilled workers. the schools in many cases no longer employ full time kitchen staff or any skilled cooks themselves.

                                            3. many rural schools, off the map of profitability for the mass-produced school lunch system, have better school food and still employ skilled, scratch cooks. the meals often/generally have a healthier nutritional profile and the schools often use grassroots supply systems through which they obtain locally produced foods.

                                            4. school administrators don't get the logistics of foodservice much and feel that they can handle food issues at a distance. ime they are unwilling to visit local farms and have a poor grasp of the traditional foods of the ethnic groups they are supposedly teaching. they don't see a problem with exploiting people to get the lowest possible price, even when it results in an unsuccessful or unsustainable system. they lack a basic food/nutrition vocabulary. they want to simply transfer the principles of the unsuccessful current system to a new system, but they are confused when numbers and logistics don't add up. they don't want to explore alternative models, or read about successful food programs that are working elsewhere. they want someone to wave a magic wand and have the lunch trays suddenly contain whole grains and local veggies prepared for free, by house elves, but they want nothing to do with it themselves. school administrators are seriously in need of a mandatory food sensitivity course or something.

                                            5. it's difficult to have a dialogue with people who believe that knowledge flows in one direction only, not back and forth.

                                            6. all of these factors make for an unsatisfactory, monolithic, dinosaur food system that will be difficult to change overnight. first people need to want to change it, then they need to put their money where their mouth is, then they need to dialogue better. without further school cutbacks, parents will probably need to chip in financially. the new farm bill may show there is hope for getting better govt funding for nutrition in financially and nutritionally poor schools, but i'm not holding my breath. until things get better, everything sucks and our kids are eating garbage.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: soupkitten

                                              Great thread!

                                              I have a 5 yr old, and started voluteering this yr to help with our pizza wednesdays- there is a ROP program at our high school that provides meals 5 days a week to our school- and the choices are the usual- hot pockets, chicken burgers, corn dogs. My daughter got over the program pretty fast- I let her order once a week for a while- it's been 2 months since we ordered anything.

                                              Pizza wednesdays are good pizza from a local company (who at the pizza parlour- make excellent salads and pastas ) and we also currently offer a capri sun, carrots, peaches, chips , oreos and rice crispy snacks. We- now that it is fruit season- have been offering chopped fresh strawberries with whipped cream and fresh cut orange slices.

                                              I had a thread a while back about aSpaghetti Bake- I ran and cooked for this PTA "Moms night out", and it was pretty successful, and now have offered to do 5 or more for next yr, and will be next years "Pizza Wed Mom "too. I am looking forward to making smoothies for the kids, making tamales, and other goodies in our well equipt, yet never used kitchen.

                                              I have been approached by several school people, and they are encouraging me to seek out grants, information and are pushing for me to do more for the school, which I am glad to do, and proud to be asked. There are alot of sites you can read- if you google or find Alice Waters site- and link.

                                              I am excited about the adventure- I have until my daughter is in 8th grade to experiment with my love for food/my culinary training= getting good healthy choices out there for these kids!

                                              1. re: soupkitten

                                                I agree with a lot of your assessment here, but I think you're missing a huge piece of the problem. Schools aren't going for the lowest possible price b/c they see farmers and food producers and less-than-human, they're doing it because they usually don't have much choice. For the 2008-2009 school year, the federal gov't reimbursement per meal for reduced lunch is $2.17, for free lunch it's $2.57. In school with >60% free/reduced lunch the rates are 2 cents higher. So schools can either set the meal price close to the reimbursement rate and develop meal plans that stay within the budget per meal, including labor/equipment/facilities or they make students who pay full price for meals pay more in order to subsidize the expense of meals that are fully reimbursed in the free/reduced program. But charging more will lead to students who pay full price packing their lunch more often, and we're back to square one of having less than $3 per child for lunch. Either way it sucks.

                                                A lot can be done at the local level, but we need to overhaul the national food system to really fix the problem. We need to make the crap food more expensive and the good food cheaper. We need to reevaluate the reimbursement rates so they are a reasonable amount to cover the full costs of healthy food. And we need to address the underlying issue of poverty in the US so we don't have families so poor that they have to rely on free/reduced lunch to provide what is likely the only real meal their kids get each day.

                                              2. And the school's/county's budget for food often depends if it is public on the number of kids on free and reduced lunches too, which can be quite high in many areas, the money they get for that is really nominal compared to prices.

                                                1. you might find the following resources informative:

                                                  this is the website of ann cooper, a badass chef hired by the chez panisse foundation to go in and start cooking fresh, healthy food in middle schools: http://www.lunchlessons.org/ she's pretty inspiring and is really trying to start some activism surrounding this issue.

                                                  there was also a documentary film called "two angry moms" about, well, two angry moms who tried to change their school lunch program. they now also have a website that's a good source for activism: http://www.angrymoms.org/

                                                  the rudd center for food policy and obesity at yale has a school initiatives program where they're doing a lot of work on how to change school policies to ensure better food: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org. lots of interesting blogs on the site, too.

                                                  the best way to change it would be to engage other families and try to talk to the school about it, recognizing how difficult it is for them to provide healthy food when there are so many financial considerations. the other thing to keep in mind is that it's not just finances...it's also the really wacky and outdated USDA requirements for school lunch programs, which schools/food service providers have to abide by to keep the funding. these regulations were put in place after world war II, when the country was worried about our children being malnourished. ha! from malnourished to getting type II diabetes in half a century, go figure. so they require a lot of calories and some strange restrictions on fat content, but few on sugar....so it is very difficult to come up with meals that are affordable AND meet the USDA requirements, and often the easiest way to do both is to serve chicken nuggets and pizza.

                                                  1. To see how one large urban school district changed their school food, please visit www.sfusdfood.org

                                                    1. Don't know how I forgot to mention this earlier, but Jamie Oliver of Food Network fame had an entire series called "Jamie's School Lunches" where he tried to improve the lunches served to kids at Britain's schools. Prior to his involvement, most children were eating pizza or hamburgers, and fries.

                                                      It was quite absorbing, as he had to battle everyone every step of the way - the school boards, the principals, the "lunch ladies" who prepared the food, etc. It was also heart-breaking to watch him work away for no money, taking abuse all the time, and then bring the food out to the children, who almost universally shied away from it. (One got the impression that the only vegetables British kids ate were potatoes and mushy peas.)

                                                      Don't know if it's available on video, but it's engrossing viewing, and if Food Network decides to re-run it, I thoroughly recommend it if you have kids in school.

                                                      1. We just made a video about the topic of kid's lunches over on CHOW: http://www.chow.com/stories/11358

                                                        I was really moved by Ann Cooper's cause. As she says, "Nothing is more important." I thought everyone on this board might be interested in seeing this too.

                                                        Thanks, Meredith of CHOW

                                                        1. I'm a teacher and the food served to the staff has generally been worse than the kids! Actually, I take that back- because this year the staff cafeteria has been closed so if you want school lunch, you have to nudge in front of the kids for your processed "turkey" or oddly textured "burger". Seriously, aside from the salad bar (which thankfully has at least fresh lettuce!) I cannot stomach the "food" served. I honestly feel bad for the students, many of whom are commuting from across the city to come here- so more often than not they have to eat the food. The other problem is time- there's so many students they're on line the majority of their lunch period and have to shovel down their lunch in 5 min before their next class. BTW I work in one of NYC's best public schools.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: NicoleFriedman

                                                            Last year I taught in a high school with a thirty-four minute lunch break. There was no way I was queueing in any sort of cafeteria line, staff or otherwise! Now I'm teaching in a middle school and we get forty-five minutes for lunch, but there is no cafeteria and there are no places to get any sort of food within walking distance. Frankly, I love my Sunday ritual of preparing a pot of soup for the week. I've been doing it for three years (since I started teaching) and it's one of the few things that gets me through the day! I often check in on my students eating in the cafeteria- far and wide the healthiest lunches are brought by students who are very recent immigrants from Asia. Other than that I'm seeing a lot of cold hotdogs (the smell of which makes my vegetarian stomach churn), instant noodles (our school provides hot water) and Lunchables. I'm not sure that we have a system in place to ensure that our students actually have food to eat (although the younger students eat in their room with a lunch supervisor who would hopefully take note), but all of the schools I've taught at have been in areas where the average household income is $100,000+. I do know of a few students who have to prepare their own lunches, but they seem to be doing just as good a job as many hurried parents who toss Mr. Noodles into the lunch kit and call it a day.

                                                          2. I am very enamored of Michael Pollan's idea in the recent New York Times Magazine "Food Fights" issue to have a program that offers federal student loan forgiveness for culinary school graduates who work for 2 years in public school kitchens.

                                                            I don't see a downside to this.

                                                            The piece most relevant to this discussion:
                                                            "To change our children’s food culture, we’ll need to plant gardens in every primary school, build fully equipped kitchens, train a new generation of lunchroom ladies (and gentlemen) who can once again cook and teach cooking to children. We should introduce a School Lunch Corps program that forgives federal student loans to culinary-school graduates in exchange for two years of service in the public-school lunch program. And we should immediately increase school-lunch spending per pupil by $1 a day — the minimum amount food-service experts believe it will take to underwrite a shift from fast food in the cafeteria to real food freshly prepared."

                                                            The rest: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/mag...

                                                            1. I go to a middle school in SE wisconsin and the food is horrible. I usually bring something and only about twice a year buy something because of the quality of the food. The burgers they make are almost unedible. They get soaked in grease or something so that when the lunch lady puts the meat on the bun by the time we get to our lunch tabl;es the buns turn to mush. We can feel grease leaking out on our fingers. No amount of toppings could fix our burgers. And the hot dogs are really odd looking. They're pale and greasy and the buns that go with them are hard, almost stale. The fries often have green spots and they taste like eggs. The taco meat is mostly juicy greasy stuff.

                                                              I've been to other school, and i have actually been to one with worse food. But I use to attend a school in Alabama and the school lunch was wonderful! a huge variety and it wasn't super greasy.

                                                              I'm currently working on a persuasive essay on improving school food.

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: darkmoomoo

                                                                I can't believe you are only in middle school! You sound like you know what good food should taste like, and I encourage you to continue to try to get your school system to listen. Try petitions, and don't forget to ask your PTO to help out. As a pediatrician, I am always trying to get my patients to take an interest in what food their school is feeding them, but you are rare and special for caring.

                                                                1. re: cheeseguysgirl

                                                                  my mom and dad were really good when i was little about what kind of food i should eat ^_^' I hardly ever got fast food and when i did it was Popeye's, Domino's, or Papa Johns. We would usually go to fancy restaurants where the food was made right in front of us. Also my dad is cajun and has basically drilled into my head what things are suppose to taste like.
                                                                  I don't really like bringing lunch to school because i prefer to just roll out of bed 5 minutes before the bus comes, but I don't want to ask for lunch money because the food is disgusting. I know the high school is better, they have a sandwich stand and ramen that you can make the way you want and fresh vegetables and stuff.

                                                                  I think my school should be spending their money on the lunches but they keep buying more computers and stuff for the teachers lounge. We already have 4 computer labs, 6 macs, like 5 smart boards, 80 laptops, and a computer for every classroom. The teachers lounge has like two vending machines i think, and they're filled with soda and snacks. The student vending machine is filled with powerade and water =/ we don't get much of a variety in that either.

                                                              2. It is more expensive to make better school lunches. Where I live, if a school district DARES ask for an increase in funding, the anti-tax "tea party" crazies all start campaigning against it. So for better school lunches? Better school funding is a good way to start.

                                                                3 Replies
                                                                1. re: jmckee

                                                                  More money for lunch can come only, in my opinion, from the federal gov't, 'cause as you say, if the school would dare spend more for it on its own the budget is likely to get voted down (and as it is lots of other important things like class sizes, honors classes, etc. are chopping block candidates)

                                                                  1. re: DGresh

                                                                    And that's assuming school board allocations are even an option. Around here school cafeterias are financially independent of the schools. Their entire budget comes from students who pay cash for meals/snacks and from federal reimbursements. With the astonishingly small amount the government reimburses for free/reduced meals, the students who pay cash are already paying much more than their meal actually costs to prepare and serve. My mom used to work in a school that routinely ran out of food at the end of the month as food ran out. One time "lunch" was a hot dog bun and a box of raisins.

                                                                    1. re: DGresh

                                                                      The federal government provides no more than 5-8% of school funding in any given year. The free and reduced lunch program is one of those ways that funding reaches the school, but for the most part, states and local governments are expected to raise the other 92-95% themselves. Many districts have also started free breakfast programs available to all students because they discovered students were not eating breakfast at all. For many districts, ensuring that children can eat two meals a day is a priority over providing one meal that may have higher quality ingredients.

                                                                  2. I think I may have posted this before on another thread, but I worked for a firm that built school facilities and kitchens just aren't included anymore in new construction. period. a sort of butler's pantry where trays are reheat\ed called a servery, but that's about it.

                                                                    eat up!

                                                                    I'd prefer the overcooked macaroni and steamed hamburger sadly.

                                                                    1. I thought people might be interested in this Washington Post Article about the Baltimore school lunch program and how they are trying to change it, at least one man is:
                                                                      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/...

                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                      1. re: ktmoomau

                                                                        Here's another article about this: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200907...

                                                                        He's doing some of the things discussed in this thread - cooking fresh food, buying local produce, etc., and on budget.

                                                                      2. ROLMAO! I'm reading this thread, nodding my head and saying, "O yeah! Bingo! Just what we need!" as I dab frosting from a can with the tip of a plastic knife into my mouth. I feel so...dirty. LOL again.

                                                                        My gastronomic shortcoming aside, I saw the Ann Cooper video here on CHOW and realized this is a cause worth getting involved with. I have a 16 yr old step-son in high school here.

                                                                        So, I put the frosting back into the fridge after a few tastes and will be contacting my local shool district to see what we're feeding our kids and how can we make it better.

                                                                        1. I went to school in the south during the 70's-early 80's. I loved school lunches. We were served real roasted chicken, fresh collard greens, real turkey and stuffing, ham, sweet potatoes..cake for desert. We didn't have vending machines, the only beverage you could purchase was milk.

                                                                          Here's a blog I read awhile back. A teacher ate the school lunches for one school year and she gives her feedback on what she ate. I thought it was interesting.

                                                                          http://fedupwithschoollunch.blogspot....

                                                                          1. I want to resurrect this old post because I, too, would like some ideas on how to reform our school nutrition program. My kids just started school this year, and we're poor, so we easily qualify for the free lunch program. (To give you an idea of our food situation, in the summer, before school started, we were struggling to have enough food to eat at the end of the month, and would usually be down to beans, rice, and breads. I squeeze every penny I get, and make sure my kids get healthy, fresh, whole, home-cooked foods, but still, at the end of the month, we usually had no produce for the last week.) So the free breakfast/lunches at school really ease the burden on our food budget (about $200/month or less).

                                                                            The problem, of course, is the quality of the food. The children get virtually 0 fresh fruits or vegetables. Once a week, for one snack, the cafeteria puts out a fresh fruit for some sort of "broaden your horizons" crap. The rest of the food is canned, processed, and sugared. And in fact, every single meal has added sugars: sugar cereals, cereal bars, canned fruit preparations, desserts, chocolate milk, juice, condiments, etc.

                                                                            I just can't stand to have my kids subsist on sugar, grease, canned food, and sugar, but at the same time, we're in a real financial bind. I can't imagine that our poor, rural school district has the least bit of inclination to overhaul their system, train their workers, and pay the extra money in order to feed the kids real food, when the food they serve has all the right numbers on the ingredient list. I'm going to give it a try, but I don't expect to get anywhere. And I guess we're just going to have to suck it up and send the kids with real food, and go on short rations sometimes, because I can't bear the alternative. Very frustrating.

                                                                            And I suppose it goes without saying that we live in a poor, rural area where parents are poor, overworked, and undereducated, and extremely unlikely to spend any amount of time, money, or effort in making changes to what is essentially (to them) a free babysitting/nutrition service.

                                                                            I'm checking out all these links too, but does anyone else have suggestions on how to get the ball rolling? Is this just too big a dragon to slay?

                                                                            6 Replies
                                                                            1. re: emilyjh75

                                                                              hi emily. a lot of that canned crap is there because of govt subsidies and quotas, & a lot of the difficulty on the school's end of things lies in distribution difficulties and manpower/personnel hours. it is not enough just to want to effect change, folks need to tackle difficult logistics as well.

                                                                              maybe try contacting wholesome wave: http://wholesomewave.org/

                                                                              what area (broadly) do you live? there may be local resources or networks also available.

                                                                              1. re: emilyjh75

                                                                                Are you on govt assistance and taking advantage of those foods? I grew up with gubmint cheese (ha) and eggs and rice and milk and there is no shame in it. Food banks and churches also give handouts. Take the handouts and supplement with real food. I assume you are making your own bread, making the beans from dried etc? Dont let lack of cooking knowledge hinder you in this. My mom made homemade yogurt very week, had a veg garden etc and it wasn't to be fancy, it's because we were poor.

                                                                                1. re: emilyjh75

                                                                                  I would bring it up with your school committee, but be prepared for battle. The school district we currently live in is well-off, but we have found that changing the school menu is a complicated process. For one thing, there are limited cooking facilities, so there's a lot of reheating and serving prepared frozen foods, which are mostly crap. If your school is on a well and septic, they may not have a dishwasher (our schools don't) and this apparently also limits what they can serve.

                                                                                  But if there are enough people who complain about this, something will happen, even if it's only getting more whole grains added to the rolls or a big bowl of apples put out at breakfast. Since so many families in your district rely on the school to provide good food for their kids, they have a strong reason to change what they serve.

                                                                                  1. re: emilyjh75

                                                                                    this may have been pointed out upstream but for a voice of support:

                                                                                    http://www.jamieoliver.com/us/foundat...

                                                                                    and for full episodes if you have high-speed internet - we don't in our poor rural county

                                                                                    http://www.hulu.com/jamie-olivers-foo...

                                                                                    1. re: emilyjh75

                                                                                      Thanks for the input guys!

                                                                                      soupkitten - I live in the Arkansas River Valley in Arkansas. I haven't inspected the kitchen at every angle, but it seems to have sufficient facilities to prepare food. They do, generally, prepare the food onsite, but it's frozen, canned, etc. They have, as I mentioned, the stuff to serve fresh fruit once a week, but that's about the only fresh anything the kids get.

                                                                                      I visited the Farm To School website, and there are a few participating schools in our state, so it may indeed be possible to get something going in our school. Also, a guy I went to college with, I found out, runs a CSA somewhere in this corner of the state, so it may be worth hooking up with him and seeing what his farm (or perhaps connections) might suggest.

                                                                                      rockandroller - We are already on food stamps and WIC, and I absolutely get the most out of it possible. I'm totally fine with cooking from scratch, I make breads, beans, etc. We have lots of ways of stretching our food, and I'm pretty creative where that's concerned. Even so, it's hard to stretch $200 for 3 people and still get fresh fruit at the end of the month. This last week, the local store had a sale on frozen veggies, so I stocked up, so I should have at least *some* kind of produce for the end of the month, even if it's frozen.

                                                                                      Isolda - I plan on contacting our food service and see what the climate is. I suspect that food budget is low on the totem pole, and we have large percentage of parents unwilling or unable to donate any time or effort to the cause, so I'm not sure that much will happen any time soon. But I hope, as you suggest, that over time the district will consider it a greater priority.

                                                                                      hillfood - I've watched tons of Jamie Oliver, and have been spending loads of time on the other links posted. I was surprised to find our local library has one of Ann Cooper's books, so I plan to check it out.

                                                                                      1. re: emilyjh75

                                                                                        whoa you have done your homework,I assume you are aware of Arkavore - retail pricey but they have to do something with their no-sells (I'd imagine they'd have interest in your cause)

                                                                                        http://arkavore.com/