Schools are only one piece of the puzzle

Media coverage regarding the school lunch program has increased recently both on the local level and even nationally.  Everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter.  As a parent, as a vegan, as a cook, and as a school food service worker, this issue is close to my heart and one about which I feel I am knowledgeable enough to share my thoughts.

Before forming opinions about school lunch I must encourage everyone to set aside the negative stereotype of the fat, greasy, grouchy lunch lady plopping unidentifiable scoops of mush onto kids’ trays.  School lunch has come a long way since my parents were in school, and even since I was in high school.  The basic framework is still there, but the food has changed, the methods of cooking have changed, and the ways of serving the food have changed.  We don’t have fryers anymore.  We don’t serve pots of slop.  We don’t steam our vegetables beyond recognition.  That is not to say we’re perfect–we certainly still have a ways to go.  School nutrition directors are constantly looking for new ways to arrange the budget in order to provide better options for the children, who are always the first priority.  We truly do the best we can with the limited funds we are given.

But we have a lot to deal with, more than most parents consider.  Some school cafeterias are run by management companies, who try to make profit for themselves and for the school by lowering costs as much as possible.  Many others are run by the districts themselves.  Some districts are supportive, some are not; some have the money to offer a lot of choices and even organic foods, most do not.  We have to please the school board, the students, the parents, the accountant, the USDA, the health department.  Sometimes these groups have conflicting views.  We have to offer lunch at a low cost and provide it at reduced cost or free to students who qualify.  We have to provide it on time every day, we have to keep participation in the program high enough to keep the budget balanced, we have to plan months and even years ahead.  Some schools have to deal with limited availability–we cannot get certain foods in our district, for example, because the nearest distributor is too far away to deliver to us.  Keep these things in mind when thinking about the lunch program–it’s not just a matter of making your child’s favorite food every day.  Our days are far more complicated than most parents assume.

Also consider that students do not walk through our doors as clean slates.  By the time we meet them, they have already formed likes and dislikes, favorites, and ideas about what is “normal” to eat, what is “good” to eat, and what is “cool” to eat.  It is not entirely our responsibility to make your children like peas and apples.  If they think pizza and french fries are okay to eat daily, that is what they’re going to want.  If your children see you passing up the vegetables at dinner time, they’re not going to want vegetables either.  Don’t blame us because your child has never seen a fresh pear.  It is your job as parents to introduce your kids to a variety of healthful foods, to teach them what should make up their daily diet and what is a treat or an occasional splurge, to set an example for them by eating healthfully yourself.

At our school, which services sixth through twelfth grades, we have no less than twenty entree options every single day.  We usually include at least three side dishes each day, three kinds of milk, and two kinds of juice.  Every day I hear kids complain there is nothing to eat.  So we offer new foods:  they have no interest in trying them.  They pass by the salad bar and get a cheeseburger.  They wrinkle their noses at vegetables unless they can put cheese on top.  Numerous kids have no idea what chickpeas are (we put them out for a week and were asked every day what they were) and the beautiful Red Anjou pears arranged in a basket at every serving line sit virtually untouched.  They will not eat plain berries; we have to sugar them.  We have salsa every Tuesday and one week we put black beans in it–we used only about a third of the salsa we usually do.  Last week, we had a chef come in and create a few entrees and sides for us.  Fresh cabbage and peppers?  No thanks.  No, we don’t like pineapple.  Can you pick the peapods out for me?  Um, I’ll just get a cookie.

Any worker in school nutrition will tell you–we are practically begging to offer your children the fresh and whole foods that will keep them strong, lean, and healthy.  But we need to offer foods they will eat, and if the stigma against plant foods is perpetuated, we can’t accomplish our goals.  Parents, you cannot be so quick to point your finger at us.  Look at what is on your dinner table tonight.  Look at the foods you have been feeding your children for years.  Look at what you eat yourself; look at what opinions you express toward peas and broccoli and spinach.  Think about how many times you order pizza or go to a restaurant and act more excited about it than when you cook a meal at home.

What your children eat is first and foremost a manifestation of the values you have instilled in them.  Grocery shop with your children and tell them about different fruits and vegetables.  Try new recipes.  Visit an orchard.  Show them how to read nutrition labels.  Research ingredients you don’t recognize.  Check out an ethnic restaurant you’ve never tried.  Lead by example and make healthy choices yourself.  When your children come to school excited about eating healthfully, then we can start to create real change in our lunch programs.  The school lunch program needs a foundation of kids raised to eat healthy foods to truly succeed.  We need your help and your support to make it happen.

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