Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >
Oct 23, 2009 12:30 PM

What's RightWrong In Your School Cafeteria?

As a teacher, I have eaten lunch in MANY school cafeterias, and I thought it would be helpful for CH's to learn about what our kids are REALLY eating in school. You might be surprised!

For example, in the town I currently work in, pizza is available EVERY DAY. I know that many kids tell their parents they had "the hot lunch choice" but really eat pizza every day.

Did you know that margarine is served in my hometown's school cafeterias? I called the lunch office to ask them why margarine and not butter, and they told me that "x-tra choice" items are not required to meet the same dietary rules that apply to "main choices". Margarine is just gross, but I see kids glopping it on EVERYTHING! Ditto for the bottled "parmesean cheese".

Our grilled cheese sandwiches have 3 pieces of bread- bread, cheese, bread, cheese, bread! Why? So the meal contains a proper amount of "fiber". As far as I can tell, the bread is white and processed... The kids peel off the top layer and then it looks really gross so they throw it out.

Here's an interesting bit of info from my town of employment (a pretty "tony" suburb). If the child goes down the lunch line and grabs a dessert before fruit or veggies, that child has not "selected an appropriately healthy lunch" and is required to choose a healthy item before checking out (which is then thrown out in the large garbage can next to the checkout). Here's the interesting part- if the child selects the lunch AND a healthy side, the dessert costs extra! Get it? It took me awhile to figure out why the cost of my lunch varied from day to day.

Milk is required-even if you are allergic or hate it. In order to avoid paying more for an "a-la-carte" lunch, you MUST take a milk. And the milk choices I have seen include: strawberry (a shockingly gross pink color), chocolate, vanilla (added pretend "vanilla" flavor), and banana (a bomb w/kids in our district). Which ones did YOU choose when your mom wasn't looking? Don't necessarily believe your kids when they say they are choosing "fat-free". Water, which is good for you, costs more than $1 extra, unless your child uses a re-fillable container and water from the fountain. If you just got the milk b/c you had to but don't want it, the big garbage can next to the register is there for your needs. I would guess that more than 1/2 the milks are tossed regularly.

Our school used to have a table where unwanted items (like milk) were placed for others to peruse, but for "health and safety reasons" this practice was outlawed. Any food items touched (including packaged items!) are required to be thrown out- a HUGE waste of perfectly good food items, including boxes of raisins, containers of milk and baggies of carrots.

I could go on and on, but I hope other CH's share what you like and don't like about YOUR school cafeterias.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Most school districts buy food from the lowest bid, and must follow certain dietary and nutrional guidelines. However, what actually takes place is a large amount of food service frozen nonsense has infiltrated the schools. Think textured vegetable protiens, and meat analogue, the same thing that is used to simulate meats in many dog foods. TVP is often used in prisons for several reasons: its low relative cost, high protein, and low fat qualities make it ideal, as does its relatively long shelf life, which allows institutions to buy in bulk.

    Look at the processed foods in the supermarket, such as premade meatballs. These are not meat, generally. Read the label, TVP. Disgusting. The cases as they sit, give off a reak that is extremly off-putting. You can tell when a kitchen uses these products.

    And schools are allowed to use gummy bears and fruit roll ups as a fruit sub. Amazing.

    These foods are disgusting and far from pure. When I was a kid, our lunch ladies baked bread daily and made wholesome from scratch meals. Simply not the case in this age. Sysco wins, kids lose.

    3 Replies
    1. re: DallasDude

      I've always been intrigued by school food service as I've worked in that field for more than 10 years. If your school is a sponsor of the Child Nutrition Program, which most are, it is very frustrating to follow all of the requirements of a federal program and yet not be embarrassed to be responsible for feeding so many children everyday. There are some very good companies that offer school pricing on some very good products. It just takes the talent and experience of a good Food Service Director to be able to direct his staff to make good food for very little cost. Unfortunately that means not being able to pay people very much and having to answer to the school districts Business Manager (who usually does make a large salary and has no food experience) to do a decent job. Most "lunch ladies and gentlemen" sincerely love their jobs and working with children and we all do know some Business Managers and Food Service Directors who just shouldn't have their jobs!

      1. re: DallasDude

        I work in a prison. There is no TVP.

      2. Here is a link to my kids' school lunch menu. Go to page 2, to see the daily menu

        Our school district has a central kitchen that prepares (warms up) the food for 13 different schools. It is all preprocessed, full of preservatives and horrible. There is white or chocolate milk available. A salad bar consisting of chopped iceburg lettuce and maybe some shredded carrots with only ranch dressing available. There is always canned fruit and canned vegetable offered. Any fresh fruit that is there has seen better days. They do have an ala carte rack, but it is potato chips, fruit roll ups, rice krispie snacks, etc...

        The good thing is there are 2 microwaves so kids can reheat what they bring from home. My kids usually pack, and I can't remember the last time they bought a school lunch.

        The Jr. High and High schools offer convenience school food in addtion to the regular lunch. Things like pizza, pretzals, nachos. They've removed soda from the schools but know offer many other sugar and chemical filled beverages.

        I get so angry that this is the way our children are being taught to eat. It kills me that this is the only "nutritious" meal some of these kids get a day. It's just so sickening.

        1. When I was a kid in kindergarten we had two options- eat the school's hot lunch- or eat a peanut butter sandwich. We ate lunch in our classroom.. so the hot lunch was delivered in giant trays and was dished out by the teachers. We got things like macaroni and cheese and roasted chicken. I remember the teachers being really good and knowing which kid liked the chicken w/o the skin, which kid liked the crispy portion of noodles, and who liked their salad without dressing.

          I think when I was in first grade, they ended prepared school lunch, and they had a menu where the food was brought in from local restaurants. You could choose monthly from the menu (and pay for it) or you could bring your own lunch. Parents volunteered to hand out the lunches.. and interact with the kids. It was a good system... and it's still in place.

          2 Replies
          1. re: cheesecake17

            Did you go to a private school? I don't think this is even allowed in public schools.

            1. re: Unraveled

              Yes, I did. But the system restaurant system worked and still does. The school has a salad bar for teachers- if a student forgets to bring lunch and doesn't order that day, they are given from the salad bar.

              Back when the school prepared lunch, it was government funded. No one paid for lunch.

          2. I used to substitute teach in my county about 7 years ago and then again for a few weeks 4 years ago. I've checked menus since then to see if there has been any improvement, but it's still the same awful stuff. They always have pizza and the high schools have a snack line that give you a huge plate of chicken nuggets/fries or something of that sort. I saw kids in middle school ordering gigantic cups of frozen yogurt instead of eating anything nutritional. I know some schools do know how to cook their own food. I ate in one cafeteria that had green lifesaver flavored cake, which I am sure was not pre-made. It was repulsive, but I had to appreciate the creativity.

            I think it's interesting you talk about milk. I taught in a Japanese junior high about 4 years ago and they all had to drink whole milk. The teachers ate with the kids, but none of them wanted the whole milk and some of the kids didn't like it either. They usually put all the extra milk (it was a tiny school) into the faculty fridge so people could take it home if they wanted.

            5 Replies
            1. re: queencru

              I think the milk thing is required as a result of some deal w/the Federal Government and the milk producers(as part of the Federal Lunch Program) and that's why it's free! Of course, these are the same folks who believe ketchup is a serving of vegetables... The garbage we feed our kids makes me sick, but I understand that budgets are tight now. Except we haven't made any progress since I was in school (30 years ago)!

              Ha ha!

              1. re: stuck in Hartford County

                I don't quite get what you mean about forcing kids to take milk. The milk definitely has to be one of the components of the meal in order for the school to get the reimbursement for it but the students are not "required" to take it or pay more. As long as they take the main entree and a certain number of "sides" (could be the milk, fruit, veg, dessert) the meal qualifies as a type A lunch and should cost whatever the published price is for a meal at that school. It is the "offer vs serve" requirement of the School Lunch program that the school has to meet in order to claim the lunches as reimbursable meals. If a student doesn't take the planned entree and just takes, for example, mashed potatoes and dessert, those items would not meet the nutritional requirements and the school would loose the reimbursement for that meal, whether they take the milk or not. The school should then charge an a la carte price for each item which could be more than the type A Lunch because they would be loosing money by not getting the reimbursement. I know it sounds absurd but trust me, the paperwork and accountablity of a National School Lunch Program is a nightmare. The state does come and audit and will go out of their way to make sure you can prove you are only claiming meals that qualify. They WILL come to your cafe and watch the "lunch ladies" serving and cashiering. Believe it or not, the nutritional values have to be met. It is very hard to have young people as your customer every day. The same people, over and over, every day. They can't eat anywhere else-just bring something from home. Most school meals-burgers, pizza, chicken patties and nuggets,sandwiches,salads- are meals that many people would go out and order at a restaurant anyways and pay a lot more. What could the schools possibly serve that is so different?

                1. re: cookiesforall

                  "Most school meals-burgers, pizza, chicken patties and nuggets,sandwiches,salads- are meals that many people would go out and order at a restaurant anyways and pay a lot more. What could the schools possibly serve that is so different?"

                  I'm sorry, but have you eaten school lunches lately? There is NO WAY I would go to a restaurant and order, let alone pay for what they serve. It is in no way comparable to the food my family orders when we dine out.

                  1. re: jcattles

                    Pretty much everyday.... Have you been to many "family restaurants" lately-TGIFriday, Ruby Tuesdays, Chilis, Friendly's .....

                    1. re: cookiesforall

                      As often as people complain about those chain restaurants, the quality is nowhere near as bad as what I've seen in HS cafeterias. And trust me when I say that in my subbing days, I saw A LOT of school cafeterias.

            2. I don't remember it being that bad when I was in school. In high school (graduated in 1998), we had 5 options every day. There was a salad bar, pizza, a bagged lunch (sandwich, chips, an apple), and one hot entree choice. I really didn't think it was that horrible considering the budget they're working with. Besides, a lot of kids would just use their entree money for ice cream or something anyway, so it's not like having healthy options would make a difference for them.

              I hate to say it, but I can think of bigger problems with the public school system. Most of the argument for school lunch reform seems to revolve around childhood obesity, but I think most of our bad eating habits are learned at home and through the media anyway (and laziness). I feel weird trying to's not like I want kids to eat crap food. I guess maybe I just don't see a solution, aside from packing lunch and bringing it in. I really don't think I could pack a healthy lunch for about $1 a day (which I think is about what I paid in school).