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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.

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  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 argue...it'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).

              1. I currently evaluate a large, urban school district's federally-funded "nutrition" (read: healthy school lunch) program. It has some differences from what's been discussed above (namely, it's an impoverished district with approximately 78% on free/reduced-lunch), but you can't believe the limitations facing school feeding programs, such as: finding trained, "affordable" staff; meeting health and safety codes for kitchens that actually cook vs. just heat up food; serving hundreds of students in an ever-shrinking window of time; providing enough calories to satisfy minimum requirements (for free/reduced-lunch students); balancing student wants with health needs (sounds absurd, but there are tremendous calculations taking place to determine WHAT will be eaten as opposed to thrown out)...I could go on and on. And of course there's the budget considerations in every aspect of this, because it's always the first place to shave bucks.

                Then, on top of all this, you have an intense lobbying industry that has a vested interest in keeping healthy foods out of school cafeterias. Just look at LA's battle with Coca-Cola. The reason ketchup was classified as a "vegetable" was a well executed move on the part of food industry groups. And what would the corn syrup people do if processed foods were booted out of school cafeterias? These companies have a completely captive consumer base for 1-2 (and sometimes even 3 if you count extended day "hot meal" programs) meals a day, and they are holding on tight to that. The program I cover offers a miniscule amount of money to 14 schools in a district of 60 to have salad bars and whatnot, and that's "revolutionary" in the field.

                And I'll also tap into what foodpoisoned mentioned - lots and lots of problems in these schools. Which leads me to my other major pet peeve: lack of recess and physical education classes. I work in several districts that have completely eliminated recess for all grades, and PE is offered only once or twice a week. So we're stuffing them with processed junk, giving them no exercise or physical outlet, and then twiddling our thumbs in frustration when test scores don't improve? Hmmm...wonder why?

                8 Replies
                1. re: RosemaryHoney

                  How long are lunch breaks these days in school?

                  I was wondering because personally, there is a huge difference in how I eat when we have the hour lunch or the half hour lunch at work (sundays we close early, so shorter lunch break). For the half-hour, by the time I've gotten my food, I just have to scarf, and sometimes end up eating a bit too much for my stomach due to not enough time to process the "full" feeling. The hour though is just about right, long enough to just enjoy lunch.

                  Please don't tell me they are cutting student lunch times :( If it sucks for adults, think of how much it would suck for kids, who must also do their main socializing AND daily activity during this short free time.

                  1. re: Popkin

                    As far as time goes, 22 minutes is the longest our school has had in the recent past. The insider joke among teschers is how fast we inhale our lunch because we need to get to the caf. get our food and be back at our class before the students.
                    An aside, we classifiy the lunches in our school as the white lunch, the beige lunch or the yellow lunch. The school I work at has a "for profit" school system. Don't let me get started at "Breakfast/lunch" options.

                    1. re: Popkin

                      Typically it's around 30 minutes in my school district, but that may include the time it takes to get to/from the cafeteria. Unfortunately I don't think there's much leeway at many schools because many cafeterias are too small to accommodate the current school population. We have some schools in my district that have 250-seat cafeterias for 1500 students.

                      I'm with Rosemary on the lack of PE. I think it's a huge reason why we're seeing increased behavioral problems in the classroom. Kids just get stir crazy having to stay in the classroom all day. The argument is that kids need more classroom hours to "catch up" with higher performing countries, but as it is we have more classroom hours than almost every country and are still not doing well. Other countries simply spread the classroom hours out over a longer period of time and incorporate other types of activities into the school day.

                      1. re: Popkin

                        In my experience, it depends on the district. The the district's performance, the lower the lunch break. In most of the districts in which I work, 22 minutes is the norm in elementary schools, while middle and high are as short as 18. And that includes getting to and from your classroom, and getting in line for your food (and in these schools, everyone "buys" lunch). When I was a teacher, I had 20 minutes to get my students from my room to the cafeteria, herd them through the line, get seated, eat, clear their trays, go to the restroom (locked except during lunch), and get back to the classroom. They were 7th and 8th graders.

                        Oh - and what is this socializing of which you speak? That is not acceptable anymore. Several of my schools have "silent lunch", where there is no talking and the kids actually bring books to read when they finish their food. All of the others are heavily monitored to minimize talking. And there's absolutely no movement once you take your seat.

                        1. re: RosemaryHoney

                          That's isane! How can the restrooms be locked during classes- what if a student has to use the bathroom?!

                          In my opinion, kids socializing during lunchtime is a good thing. Kids need time to decompress and chat with their friends. Students also influence each other in a good way too... if one student eats an apple every day instead of dessert and explains to his/her friends that's it's good... others may start following along.

                        2. re: Popkin

                          Interesting - my school was way overcrowded. We had four lunch periods and each one was 30 minutes. If you were one of the last kids in line, chances are you had about 2 minutes to eat. There were not enough tables. It was cool when the weather was nice, because we could sit outside. However, in bad weather, people were sitting two to a chair and on the floor in the lobby.

                          1. re: Popkin

                            Between 20-30 min. This includes the walk to the cafeteria, standing in line (with 2-3 other classes of the same grade), paying, eating and cleaning up. Our lunchroom is small so they stagger lunch times for each grade. The monitors rush the kids to eat so the next grade can come in and eat. The kids get a few minutes of recess either before lunch or after. It depends on the grade. The monitors don't like a lot of noise, so they try to limit the amount of talking. If it gets to rowdy, they dim the lights and that's the signal to quiet down. Oh and they have to riase their hand to be dismissed.

                            1. re: jcattles

                              Same w/us- the monitors roam the room reminding the kids to keep quiet, and when they dim the lights it means "silent lunch". Why does lunch have to be so quiet? The students have to be quiet in class AND in the hallways (I can't even say "hi" to students when I pass them in the hall, I have to give them this awkward little wave). Classes are rushed tin and out of the cafeteria and students who are at the end of the line have limited meal choices, as they tend to run out of the better meal choices. In our Middle School, seating is assigned-forcing shy kids to attempt conversation w/the mean kids! My daughter once had a girl tell her that she (my daughter) was invisible to her and requested that she (my daugther) not ever talk. Students routinely skip lunch in order to avoid these situations.

                              But it's all OK, b/c lunch is OPTIONAL in our High School!!!

                              My (admittedly unscientific) study- I asked my carpool of 7 teens if they scheduled lunch as a period, and 5 of the 7 said "no".

                              As in, they do not have lunch. To make this clear, they are not skipping lunch- they have no scheduled lunch. If you take two electives, you don't have enough time periods to schedule lunch. I have heard that some academic teachers allow kids to eat in the back of the room during class, but my carpool student lunch skippers report that they just have a drink and a snack (purchased from 7-11!).

                              My how times have changed.

                        3. My complaint about school lunches is that high school lunches here are totally ala cart - there is no 'meal' per se. So my son exists on pizza, a chicken filet sandwich, fries, and a big cookie every day. For over $6. He's 6'5, and 175 - and starving. Then he comes home and eats me out of house and home because his lunch is at 10:45 am.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: jeanmarieok

                            I've got ask. Why isn't he making a lunch and bringing it to school with him?

                            1. re: Kater

                              I've got to ask... What did you do for school lunches? Did you ever bring lunch? If not why not? If so did you pack it yourself? If not why not? Did it ever occur to you that your school food choices could effect your health? Why or why not? Did it ever occur to you that your choices would impact those around you, such as your parents? In what way? Why or why not? Looking back what effect if any do you think your experience of school lunches had upon your current attitude toward school lunches?

                              1. re: Kater

                                That's just a whole other issue. For 'safety' reasons, the students are not allowed to carry backpacks between classes. His class is in one wing of the school, his locker in another. So he'd have to go back to his locker, then make his way to the cafeteria, which I have been told can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Their lunch is only 22 minutes. My daughter brings a good lunch, but only because her class right before lunch is near her locker. She has confirmed it is impossible to navigate the halls just to get your lunch, and completely not worth it.

                            2. The school lunch is repulsive, unhealthy, and cultivates limited eating habits/ picky eating. No responsible parent allows their child to buy lunch. But in an affluent suburban environment (where not special interest or charity is going to be allowed to start a program of some sort) that is just the way it is. And it really is fine because you just send a healthy lunch, but it is annoying that school districts carry on with a lot of lip service about health. Telling me you don't fry anything when you are reheating frozen french fries every day is an affront to both my intelligence and my culinary sensibilities. Come on! Just admit that you serve total garbage and hold your heads up high if you're really fine with that decision.

                              Ultimately it comes down to the fact that school food service workers do not cook. They have perfectly adequate kitchens and equipment but they only reheat processed foods.

                              13 Replies
                              1. re: Kater

                                There are plenty of "responsible" parents who don't have enough money to prepare several lunches everyday. For students on free and reduced lunch plans, the breakfast/lunch provided in school may be the only choices students have. Some food service workers do cook. I've been a few cafeterias that had very interesting items that I'm sure were not distributed district wide.

                                1. re: queencru

                                  I don't know how 'responsible' you can be if you won't work enough hours to buy your children a proper lunch. The suggestion that some children are living in homes where there is no responsible parent are somehow better served by a low quality school lunch than a high quality one is perplexing to me. If it is their only choice then that is all the more reason that one of the lunch-ladies should find the wherewithal to make some vegetable soup.

                                  1. re: Kater

                                    Just wanted to point out that in schools that in which 100% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, cafeteria policy prohibits students bringing in food from home.
                                    And, there are a lot of responsible parents who are out of work unexpectedly and trying desperately to make ends meet, even in "decent" suburban districts. I have spent a lot of time in school cafeterias, and I can assure you that there are plenty of American children who rely on their schools to give them the only hot meals of their day.
                                    Finally, in response to your comment: "Ultimately it comes down to the fact that school food service workers do not cook. They have perfectly adequate kitchens and equipment but they only reheat processed foods". Only the first half of this statement is correct - most school food service workers do not cook. The second half is largely incorrect. I have only seen one school kitchen (in a recently renovated charter school) that has a kitchen complant with codes that would allow cooking and baking. Most not only lack equipment, but also lack proper ventilation systems, space for the number of meals they would need to cook, etc.
                                    Here's a link to a great article on food service in a NYC school - the ideal, really:

                                    1. re: RosemaryHoney

                                      Perhaps in NYC, but not the rest of the free country. I cannot speak for all cities and states, but certainly have been in my fair share of school kitchens. Once as a school board member.

                                      Perhaps we are talking about the same broken NYC that inflcts the Rubber Room technique and watses thirty-five million of taxpayers dollars by paying to punish teachers for years at a time? $35,000,000 just to park unwanted teachers!

                                      Enlightening read:


                                      1. re: DallasDude

                                        Actually, I wasn't talking about NYC. That article just references the struggles schools elsewhere face. My work, btw, is in states as varied as NY, LA, NC, CA, NV, and GA. A commonality is that they are typically under-resourced schools in either urban or very rural areas. But yeah, the lack of up-to-code equipement and space is a serious problem.

                                        What did the schools you've worked in serve? I'd definitely be interested to know!

                                    2. re: Kater

                                      Unfortunately we live in a society where many children come from homes with only one parent who has to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. A person working for minimum wage in my state makes $290 a week pre-tax and I believe unemployment is $275 a week. When you have a decent income, saving a few dollars a day on breakfast/lunch may not seem like much, but for that income level free breakfast and lunch can mean the difference between having a roof over your head or being on the streets.

                                      1. re: Kater

                                        That must be it. My parents must have been lazy slobs who turned down extra hours at work.

                                        Seriously? Please don't make assumptions about how people raise their children.

                                    3. re: Kater

                                      I assure you that my parents were extremely responsible in raising me and that having to eat school lunch on a daily basis cultivated a more tolerant attitude to different kinds of food than I would have had if my parents packed a lunch of things i liked to eat like pb&j, fruit and juice boxes. Also, growing up, I hated milk and if it weren't the only thing available to drink at school, it's likely I would have been extremely calcium deficient.

                                      1. re: soypower

                                        You must have hated milk less than I did. I found the water fountain a perfectly acceptable substitute. :-)

                                        Seriously though, what does the parents' perceived responsibility level have to do with making sure a child is fed properly in school? My friend has been an elementary school teacher in a disadvantaged district for many years. She and her fellow teachers know perfectly well that school food is the only food some of their students will get that day. The teachers routinely try to "sneak" extra breakfasts out of the kitchen for students who are late, just to make sure that they eat. They frequently get caught by the food service workers and have to put the food back. Why are the kids late? Mom had to do the laundry. There was no one at home to watch the younger kids. Pick a reason. And the best we can do for these kids is feed them warmed-over, over-processed garbage. I thank G-d every day that I can send my child to school with a healthy, tasty lunch every day.

                                        1. re: rockycat

                                          A friend used to work in a disadvantaged high school teaching chemistry. Her school served free breakfast to all students and faculty- but the breakfast hours were before school officially started. Like your friend, she would sneak extra breakfasts to students, but got in trouble.

                                          When she started investigating why students weren't showing up for the hot meals, she learned that their parents wouldn't let them. There were younger siblings to take care of, household chores to do, and so on. She started a chemisty 'workshop' over breakfast where she basically led a tutoring session for all students who were interested. By the end of the year she had almost 100% attendance at her informal session.. and the kids were also eating breakfast.

                                          1. re: cheesecake17

                                            I'm glad that your friend found a solution. I most certainly support programs that get free meals to children who need them. I simply take exception to the assertion made about parental responsibility. I think your post illustrates quite capably that school food service programs are built around stop-gapping failing parents and not around providing high quality meals to students as a whole.

                                            1. re: Kater

                                              Kater; lets take a moment to be grateful you know not whereof you speak....... Your previous posts have lead me to believe you A) Have not had to do without (I hope you will never have to). and B) Have no children, as you are apparently still under the misapprehension that children are automatons that can be controlled.

                                              Yes; I am one of "those" parents whose children qualify for free or reduced lunch (thank you Dot Bomb). Although our change in financial status was stressful I am positive the only effect it had on my *responsibility* to my children is to teach them things I hoped they would never need to learn, but am now glad that they have. Such as: A) When the rhythm of life changes, dust yourself off and learn a new dance. B) How to make good choices in tough situations, and yes that includes a cruddy lunch counter. C) How to DIY (do it yourself). D) How to think critically about everything including food, tastes, shopping and as I said everything, because at this income level nothing is below your consideration. Honestly my children are now better prepared to live without me then they would have been had this not happened to us. Our previous life would have only accustomed them to champagne tastes on the beer budget that is college and young adulthood. Giving them false expectations and fewer tools to deal with reality is not what I want for my children (children and young adults expect life to be close to what they came from). I'm not even sure they would have had enough of an understanding of finance to make good choices for themselves (it never would have come up) and that to me now, would have been *irresponsible* parenting.

                                              Now as to the school lunch program, leave the poor lunch ladies alone! I can't see how anyone expects someone else to do what they would not. In this case try and buck the rules and regulations of your job, particularly when those rules are set down by the federal, state and local government. I can see you now "no Boss I won't feed kids this crap, I don't care if this is our budget and I need to donate my salary and time to give them something worthy of eating!" The Feds being in bed with Monsanto and other big business is another issue and if you wish to change federal policy I would back you 100% but focusing your vitriol on a bunch of over regulated, underpaid people is ridiculous! By the way how much volunteer work do *you* do? Your local school could use your support.

                                              On to my brilliant children and their interesting choices. In elementary school the caterer they had at their Montessori school served slop so I made lunches everyday. At that time this was my area of culinary expertise from bento boxes to pic-nic baskets to take out and everything in between was available to them and most still is. Unfortunately as kids become teens they really hate being seen as too different (regardless of income), so bringing lunch becomes a special occasion thing even though the option of a mom or kid packed lunch is available. By the way what did you do for lunch in school? Just wondering if your diatribe began as one of those "I was scarred for life" things.

                                              My DD is gluten intolerant. I of course spoke to her head lunch lady and they were more than helpful. I just needed to send a note so she could eat off the salad bar or have no bread/milk served and they would still get funding. They (the lunch lady herself I believe) even bought lemon and olive oil for her salad as she is also lactose intolerant (I would have provided for her yet that was shot down as too weird by DD). My son I'm sure eats whatever is available as he has better things (in his mind) to attend to. The point is parents can not hang out in their children's pockets making choices for them. The best you can do is teach them what good food is, how to make good choices and how to order food for better quality even in bad situations. Haven't you ever been faced with nasty conference food? The good news is my children will try anything and eat and crave many interesting things, not just the typical teen diet of fast food and nuked crud, although they do have some of that on occasion; didn't you? In any case as the sort of neighborhood mom I have found that most kids are rather persnickety with their food regardless of income. Yes they all seem to like crummy pizza, burritos and burgers! I could actually get away with buying those wretched, cheap frozen things, but alas I can't face it. One of the boys that comes over regularly would not eat a grilled cheese because it was made with cheddar instead of the American he is used to. This boy's father is a doctor, his mother a nurse and they all live in a lovely ranch up the hill. Apparently there is no accounting for taste, thankfully I had some ramen. If parents with a ranch overlooking the ocean and medical backgrounds to boot *fail* their children what chance do the rest of us have?

                                              What my schools are doing wrong: They are regulated by Big Brother and all his cousins and you can't buck the system. Budgets are screaming tight (we are a district of one elementary/middle and one high school three hours from anywhere) and there is only enough for the ladies to purchase the federally subsidized junk, and enough paid hours to reheat it.

                                              What my schools are doing right: My kids are lucky even though they are now in public school. It is a small district, as much as possible is decided locally. Every teacher and employee knows every student and parents know every teacher and employee. The lovely lunch ladies come in early on their own time and make muffins for breakfast a couple times a week as well a soup/stew twice a month with homemade biscuits! Also unlike other schools my children have attended they have a 90min lunch whoo-hoo! no silent lunch, and no you didn't eat enough you can't leave yet policy. Thankfully they realize children generally don't starve themselves. Compared to their last school with 20 mins and a "clean your plate" policy.

                                              The wonderful women (and our teachers) find ways of personalizing every aspect possible and I really can't imagine that some people want them to give more of themselves when those same people give nothing but their opinion and even that is based on nothing, a lot like the Feds.

                                              1. re: just_M

                                                Best of luck to you. I hope your efforts will result in a reversal of fortune soon.

                                    4. I apologize that this is rather off topic, but your post title reminded me of a funny story. A friend of mine is a grad student at my alma mater, Emory U. One day he overheard a fellow student asking the cafeteria lady what "coq au vin" was. Her answer? "It's kinda like Shake 'n Bake with gravy." Oy.

                                      Your story about the school cafeteria is quite distrubing. :(

                                      1. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

                                        I graduated high school 20 years ago and I can still vividly remember the food in my cafeteria. Food rotated around tacos, burgers, chicken patties, grilled cheese, fish, and spaghetti. There were usually two choices every day and Friday was always fish sandwiches or pizza so as not to offend the school's large Catholic population. The pizza was gross and I never ate it. EVERYTHING came with french fries - even the spaghetti. You could also get a serving of fruit or some kind of veggie (canned), but cake and cookies were extra as were hot pretzels and ice cream. There was also a "cold" line where you could get sandwiches and a side and they also had yogurt in the cold line, but the sandwiches were always drenched in mayo. I remember the weird flavors and textures of the "meat" in the meatballs, burgers, and tacos". Drinks were milk or juice. Soda was verboten.

                                        I remember there was this big inter-school tennis tournament at my school, so to impress the outsiders, they put up a salad bar. It cost about $.50 more than the sandwich lunch or hot lunch, but it had a halfway decent variety. It lasted two weeks after the tournament.

                                        I can't imagine just how much worse the food must be now. If it was bad in the late 80s, it must be abysmal.

                                        1. I taught in an inner-city school (Chicago) for five years. By the last lunch period the only available option was nachos with the same kind of "cheese" sauce that you get at 7-11. Sometimes you could get an apple with that. And whole, skim or chocolate milk. Most of my kids were on free lunch and I am guessing that for many of them it was their only meal of the day.

                                          I have to say, I am surprised at the tone of many of these comments. Unless you live and/or work in a low-income school, you have absolutely NO idea of the difficulties that some of these families face. Count your blessings and stop being so mean spirited. For the most part, people do the best they can with what they have.

                                          1. In Britain, chef Jamie Oliver led a campaign to improve the woeful quality of school meals. Most schools were offering reheated crap - including something called a "turkey twizzler", which has since become a byword for rubbish food. He was largely successful, and managed to get the government to take note and provide more funding for school dinners. Things changed.

                                            Unfortunately, a lot of children are opting not to eat the healthy options. They actually prefer the crap. :-(

                                            1. here's an older thread the op might be interested in


                                              i think the main problem is that food is no longer prepared in individual schools-- it's all glop from commissaries who have underbid each other for so long that what is served is not really fit for human consumption. at some schools they use lower grades of meat than at u.s. prisons, for example. i'd take the t.v.p, personally.

                                              1. This post from an insider explains a lot of what is wrong with school lunch programs in public schools: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5186...

                                                The entire thread, "Changing school lunch food," is a worthwhile read: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/518682

                                                So much of what is done is informed by the National School Lunch Program, which is regulated in a way that favors business over the nutritional needs and health of children. Again, more details in the posts linked above. The federal Child Nutrition Act, which includes the NSLP, is up for reauthorization next year, so this is the time when community influence could make a difference.

                                                It is certainly depressing to read of the situations described by posters here - 20-minute lunch periods, lunch at 10:30 a.m., students not permitted to bring lunch from home, silent lunch, etc. Much has changed in the two decades since I was a student. I can't say how the cafeteria food was when I was growing up, though, as I never ate it (always brought my lunch, or sometimes bought off campus in high school).

                                                1. L: Did you catch this article from yesterday's Hartford Courant?
                                                  "Quality of School Lunches Not Just a Matter of Taste"

                                                  1. Here's a story about a school doing it right. I used to work at a private school in Southern California. The school employs a full-time nutritionist to run the food service. Everything is done in-house, and all the employees are employees of the school and get full-benefits including tuition for their own children. The food is COOKED at school, and sometimes classes are held in the kitchen, like when a culture is being studied and there's a lesson about the food. And the food...good restaurant quality, mostly organic, with a lot of variety. Vegetarian option everyday, nothing fried or sugary ever. Lots of seafood, lean protein, ethnic food. Two very large salad bars including pre-made salads and protein-based salads. Lots of whole grains. Most the fruits and veggies are locally grown, and fruit is available for free to anyone all day long, including breakfast and through after-school activity time. The small student-run garden provides some fruits, veggies and herbs. Sometimes the kitchen will have a theme day at Mardi Gras, featuring creole food, or Thai Day when we had a speaker from Thailand. They hosted a chili cookoff that was awesome, they always serve two soups a day. The kitchen staff knew about my weird food allergy and would call or send me an email when an item had that ingredient. And if they liked you, they would hold aside extra servings of a favorite dish so you could take it home for dinner.

                                                    Admittedly, this couldn't happen at many large public schools. But this school wasn't too small -- they had to feed 1500 people a day. While it's a private school where people pay lots in tuition, the food program had to stick to a fairly meager budget and justify themselves to a money-conscious board looking to cut costs. About a third of the students were on financial aid that included free meals, and I know that the kitchen provided free food for dinner to about 15 families every night who would otherwise struggle to feed their families.

                                                    The food service was also a part of the curriculum and the school community. I mentioned the cultural studies, but the chemistry class spent a day baking bread. The kids work in the garden. The food program is genuinely one of the best things about a pretty great school.

                                                    1. I've taught in a handful of Canadian junior highs and middle schools (spanning grades four through nine) and never seen one with a cafeteria! Until high school, every school I've worked at expects parents to pack a (healthy, peanut-free) lunch for their child. Our lunch breaks give the kids twenty minutes to eat followed by twenty minutes outside, then five minutes to get organized before class. Speaking as a teacher who moves from one far end of the school to the other and back each lunch, I can say that it shouldn't ever take more than two or three minutes for a student to get to their locker, get their lunch and go to the lunchroom. At my current school, kids in grade four through six have two choices: stay at school over lunch and pay an extra fee for supervision, or bring a note from home saying that they will never eat lunch at school and then go home every single day all year (including in three feet of snow and minus forty degree weather). Students in grades seven through nine have the option of staying at school, going home or going wherever they want. They don't have to pay for supervision as they only require one or two teacher supervisors each lunch period. Students have access to hot water (we have a huge Asian population in our school and a huge reliance on instant noodles) but not microwaves. If a student forgets their lunch they can get an "Emergency Lunch", which is beef Mr. Noodles, a juice box and a granola bar: a bill for $2 is sent home with the students that day.

                                                      1. More than a few folks responding to his thread have suggested that kids bring their own lunches. At the elementary level, many kids do bring their own lunches, and may actually eat it. However, in the middle and high schools (at least around here), students are not allowed to carry their backpacks around the schools- and students often don't have time to get their lunches from their lockers and still have enough time left for lunch. Furthermore, students have to leave for school (in ur area) as early as 5:30 or 6:00 in order to get to school by 7:05 (start time). I think that many students fail to prepare their lunch the nite before, and just find it easier to buy. Besides, there isn't room in that overloaded backpack for a lunch bag! And as i've said before, lunch has become an "elective" that not all students schedule in!

                                                        I understand that financial and legal issues are huge factors here, but CAN'T WE JUST HAVE SOME NICE SALAD OR FRESH ALTERNATIVES FOR THOSE WHO WANT IT? That's all. If your child chooses pizza everyday, than that's their choice. But if there are no healthy, fresh ALTERNATIVES to pizza, why am I surprised to see them eat pizza? Why is there ANY soda, chocolate milk and margerine in today's cafeterias?

                                                        Here's a great idea. Let's require our "favorite" bailed out executives to eat exclusively in local school cafeterias! Bet the lunches improve, pronto!

                                                        7 Replies
                                                        1. re: stuck in Hartford County

                                                          Well cost is another issue. One objection I've encountered is that you can't provide a quality lunch for $2.50.

                                                          Who in their right mind thinks a meal suitable for human consumption should cost $2.50?

                                                          I could not agree more that kids should have a school lunch option that saves the the trouble of carrying lunch but if we are going to demand lunches that cost less than $4 then we are going to get what we pay for!

                                                          1. re: stuck in Hartford County

                                                            Our schools have eliminated the soda machines, and even the juice/water/healthy snack machines are locked during lunch. They are unlocked about 10 minutes before school ends. That is a step in the right direction, I think. But the choices for high school lunches are pretty abysmal. I have heard they excuse that the kids won't eat 'good' food if it is offered. My son spent his first two years of high school at a private school, and really liked that they had a soup and salad bar every day. Public school lunch is a whole different problem.

                                                            1. re: stuck in Hartford County

                                                              Are you "stuck in Hartford County" Connecticut? If the schools you are seeing in Ct. have soda available for students in the cafe as you are complaining about, its pretty amazing that the professionals in your district (Food Service Director, Superintendent, Board of Ed, etc..... )who are responsible for administering the Child Nutrition Program are ignoring the fact that soda, sports drinks, coffee, tea, anything other than milk, water, and 100% fruit juice are against the law in CT for students during the school day. Also, if they are surviving audits from the State of CT. Child Nutrition Office when they only have pizza available and no salads, or vegetables, or fruit ever, you should find out why they are not taking advantage of the fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables available to them through the St. of CT DAS and DoD Fresh programs. I also always agreed with my childrens' pediatrician that a little chocolate in milk was better than my kids never drinking any white milk. Just an opinion.

                                                              1. re: cookiesforall

                                                                i agree that having chocolate milk as an option in public schools= more kids drinking milk. i don't have a problem with that at all.

                                                                1. re: soupkitten

                                                                  It's about the only way I get my child to drink milk. At home we use skim milk with Ovaltine. The chocolate milk in restaurants is nearly always low fat and has fewer calories than an equivalent amount of nutritionally empty soda. I'm all for chocolate milk if it gets consumed.

                                                                  1. re: soupkitten

                                                                    And at my school, it was always chocolate skim milk. I found it disgusting so ended up drinking 2% regular milk anyway!

                                                                  2. re: cookiesforall

                                                                    Yes, CT. As I showed in my op, just b/c there are rules and guidelines, there are loopholes and ways around them. The sodas available are supposedly "healthy" ones. In my opinion, no soda belongs in school. Ditto for fake cheese (or any kind of overly processed food items) and margarine. Pizza is an OPTION everyday- it is never the ONLY option. But is is too tempting for many kids. The younger children seem to eat more of it than the older grades. (Actually, about 1/2 the kids peel off the cheese and just eat the bread part.)

                                                                    Fruit and veggies are "sides"- tiny servings in tiny plastic containers. We have raisins, bananas, apples and oranges. There are no main meal "salads" for students- but there are very small sides of iceberg lettuce w/one other veg. (it varies from whatever is left-over, or you can choose a small container of veggies (6 pieces) and ranch dip). Lots of kids like salad, and would gladly eat it as a main meal- I think this should be an option for them-rather than the tiny 2 ingredient "side salads" they currently offer.

                                                                    If you want your child to get more calcium, why not try a cheese stick or yougurt? We do offer these and the kids like them. Chocolate milk has 22 g of sugars per serving and the "pink milk" has 26. That's a lot for such a small serving.

                                                                    BTW, I polled my 1st graders, and their favorite hot meal is the mozzarella sticks. How is that healthy? Fried cheese as a main menu item? Makes me think twice about the pizza.

                                                                2. I wonder if most of the people in this post realize that public schools get less than $2 per child from the government to feed them. This is a good Obsessives, for those interested in the subject:

                                                                  1. Ha! Love the new Jamie Oliver show where he's attempting to reform the school (and town) eating habits of a town in West Virginia. He's going crazy over many of the same things I wrote about in this posting last year! "Colored" milk, pizza for breakfast, "fake/reconstituted" foods... Such crap we feed our school children.

                                                                    1. After reading through some of the replies posted here, I feel very fortunate that I have both the time and the money to send my son to school with his lunch packed every day (and a decent breakfast in his stomach.)

                                                                      And the lunch my son's elementary school serves isn't even that bad - generally speaking. But they do serve way too much stuff like Domino's pizza and corn dogs.