Gene Logsdon and Friends

Better School Lunches Should Taste Better Too

In Gene Logsdon Blog on October 31, 2012 at 4:26 am

From GENE LOGSDON

Seems to me that if we want school kids to eat lettuce, broccoli, carrots, peas, green beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, whole wheat bread, fruit cocktail etc. etc., we have an obligation to make these foods taste as good as fast food hamburgers and French fries. MacDonald ‘s spent millions of dollars developing its French fry and now we want the kids to eat instead untried sliced, browned potatoes that I’m sorry to say, are not nearly as tasty. Ask any school kid.

Have you eaten a school lunch lately? I don’t want to criticize the cooks at all because they work hard and do the best they can, given the circumstances. About all they have to work with are mass-produced, canned products or “fresh” products from distant places. Commercially canned peas, green beans, or sweet corn taste awful to me and the fresh lettuce out of supermarkets is not very desirable either. Mechanical vegetable harvesters can’t handle peas and corn at their tenderest, most tasty stage and factory-processed food of whatever kind just isn’t as good as home-cooked. Just because bread is brown doesn’t mean it tastes good. Mass production equals mediocre taste and most school lunches are by definition mass-produced. When I ate school lunches with my grandsons on Grandparents’ Days, I noticed that most of the vegetables went right off the plates into the garbage buckets.

It’s good to see some new programs developing like the “National Farm To School” project and other efforts to link up local fresh fruits and vegetables with school lunch programs. An article in the Farm and Dairy magazine of October 11vreports that local food is being served in various counties in West Virginia (and I presume other states) and some cafeterias are actually cooking from scratch instead of heating up from cans. In one project, students planted and picked the beans that were fed to them in the cafeteria for two days. I have doubts that such dedication and pilot programs will continue, because school time occurs mostly when fresh garden produce isn’t available. But West Virginia’s Ag Department has thought of that too, and in some instances high tunnel greenhouses have become part of the effort to deliver local fresh food to schools through the winter.

Accompanying these programs there should be more experienced efforts employed in selecting good tasting vegetables and fruits. Everyone has his or her own taste, but I’m sure that those of us with long gardening experience will agree that most commercial sweet corn is harvested too late or served too stale. Peas are often picked too late, even from gardens where machines aren’t involved. Commercial peaches and tomatoes are picked too green. People complain to me that store-bought potatoes increasingly have an off taste now. I don’t know why, perhaps from being stored too long. Select varieties (Red Norland is my favorite but there are others) direct from the garden or even after four month storage, are so good. Likewise the taste of apples varies widely. I’ll bet a MacDonald hamburger that if children had access to the new Honey Crisp apple, they’d prefer it to candy.

Sometimes I wonder if society made the right choice when it put school at the center of a child’s universe. I can’t help but remember in my school days, town children walked home at noon to eat lunch and we farm kids carried our lunches in what we called “dinner buckets.” My lunch included a thermos of milk (raw, straight from the cow), a banana or apple, maybe a homemade cookie, a piece of home fried chicken or a ham or pork sandwich from our own meat, or, my favorite, a home-made sausage sandwich. On a down day, the sandwich might be peanut butter and jelly. My wife carried her lunch to school too even though her school had a lunch program. “I just couldn’t stand that food,” she says.
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  1. Exactly! When I was a kid we had “lunch ladies” who cooked food right there on the premises. I’m sure it was commodity food, but it was real. I preferred my mom’s cooking and packed my lunch. But it’s gotten worse.

    My kids were in school for a few years before we started homeschooling, Appalled by their lunchroom, I got myself on a school district committee to work with the food service. No food was cooked on the premises.The lowest bid came from a company that also provided food to the city jails. There was absolutely no changing anything. The company pretended (that’s the only word for it) to offer more fruits and vegetables. Their new “salad bar” meant browning lettuce, the finely chopped stuff used in taco places, along with bright orange dressing and shredded carrots so dry they were practically white. Their “fruit station” included canned fruit drenched in syrup, along with generic whipped topping. Instead the kids lined up to spend pocket money on Doritos, gummy snacks, and ice cream—–part of a daily fund raiser for the school. Asking that this be stopped was equivalent to PTA terrorism: if you hate the snacks, you hate the school.

    It’s a daily dichotomy for parents who send kids to school, a values-challenging environment. Free curriculum and electronics are supplied by Big Pharma, Big Oil, and Big Ag. Lunchrooms and class snacks violate any rudimentary sense of real food. What are we supposed to tell our kids, adults want the best for you but don’t believe what you’re told?

  2. I agree that the foods available to school kids are atrocious. Your other commenter said her school food supplier also supplies the prison. That is the story I hear over and over. The food is lowest bidder. Little is actually prepared fresh and is largely microwave or oven ready convenience foods. It is appalling that our school administrators would find this acceptable.

    However, the problem is much broader and deeper. I know that most of the parents and many of the people running the show rely on fast foods and convenience foods in their own homes and lives. Parents sending their kids off to school each morning rarely pack a fresh, nutritious, lunch nor do they serve their children a wholesome breakfast. Look into a lunch bag and you’ll find Lunchables, sandwiches made with meats that have been processed and filled with ????, snacks with high fructose corn syrup. Oh, and check the bread used in that sandwich. I make bread regularly and never use more than 5 ingredients unless it’s to add whole grains, fruits, nuts or herbs. I challenge you to find a sandwich bread without sci-fi ingredients or HFCS. I don’t even want to get started on breakfasts. Usually it’s more highly processed ‘food’- sugar cereal, pop tarts, donuts…..

    Dinner time in many of these homes goes like this: mom or dad gets home, each person in the family grabs a can or 2 (spaghettios, soup), a frozen dinner, hot dogs or ramen noodles from the pantry or freezer and calls it good. I’ve witnessed it personally and see the priority is not with offering good nutrition, but finding something that Molly or Bobby will quickly eat without complaining. This seems to be the prevailing attitude in schools as well. I have a family living with me right now and it’s a battle at nearly every meal, but it is getting easier. The kids are beginning to find that home made is good stuff. And sitting together as a family to eat is a nice, sharing time. There is much ground still to be covered in my personal battle with just 2 kids, I can’t fathom how such changes would be accepted at school where /most/ of the kids eat this way.

  3. Industrial, mass education will always = industrial, mass food production. Great column, Gene. Great comment by Laura above, too.

  4. My schools and my parents had the same philosophy re: fruits, veggies, and meals– this is what we are having, you are the child and do not get to be a decision-maker, and if you do not like it, you can go hungry. Believe me, after missing a meal or two, we ate the fruit and veg. Think kids have too much power today. I see carts at Kroger filled with disgusting fare and know kids must have vitamin deficiencies.

  5. Lunches in school have been a real problem for anyone who values the importance of healthy and great tasting food for a long time now and it shows very few signs of getting much better. I have often said to anyone who will listen ( usually the choir ) or anyone who wants to understand ( usually those not affected ) that the whole system is messed up and very few care or have a simple cost effective solution for school lunches. To start with very few parents ( or kids )have time or bother fixing lunches, which really should be nothing more than last nights leftovers. If the “first” meal was great, the leftovers should be just as good. Too bad most schools can not even provide a $39 microwave for kids to warm up their fabulous and nutritious “home”lunch. I will bet if you showed up at a school board meeting and proposed that all the microwaves in the school be removed from the Administrators/Teachers Lounge until the kids get one in the cafeteria you might get their attention, and certainly incredulous stares. The point is how can we fix the big problems, if we can not even understand and correct the easy ones.

    As far as “fresh food” in the way of produce and fruit, I have always said to anyone who will listen………Its not about how much you can grow, its about how much you can put up ( can and or freeze). It is not cost effective nor possible to always have fresh food all year long, but it is very possible when you sacrifice TV and Tee Time to preserve what you grow and or gather. I have nothing against a greenhouse, but Hot House produce may look great ( if you are a rabbit )and most fresh fruit is limited to apples and such. As for me I actually prefer the taste and beauty of properly preserved food i.e. salsa vs tomatoes or apple sauce over cold storage apples. Once again it comes down to starting with the most simple solutions versus tackling a big one. You can not fix the big problems overnight, but you can pack some leftovers, that you found great pleasure in preparing for dinner the night before, and dine like a King, while everyone around you mouths their “fast food mystery lunch” from school.

    Its no different than the municipality where most people live. Its illegal to have a Clothes Line in your front yard and 3 chickens in the back, but its OK to spend untold millions and millions on technology that will not save us or ideas that will not teach us.

  6. I’m intrigued by the idea of throwing as much money behind school lunches as is thrown into McDonald’s tastiness and advertising campaigns. Our values show up in the end results one way or the other. For all the hang-wringing, it seems that we don’t really care what kids eat. Lowest bidder? Way to send a message.

  7. It’s not completely hopeless. Our small school doesn’t provide lunch at all– but most of the student’s lunch bags contain relatively healthy fare. My daughter whispered to me the other day, “That’s Chelsea, Mom– she brings junk food for lunch!” My kids have a home cooked breakfast every day, and we all eat the same food at the same time for dinner.

    Although we are in the middle of a huge metropolis, our school has a small, one acre farm (I am the manager), and we try to eat or sell everything we grow. I am often approached by parents who want to learn how to can, make soap, make cheese. My feeling is that we are on the verge of a revolution, a rejection of the corporate, and a return to the pleasurable and delicious delights of growing and cooking your own. It is coming, I feel it coming.

    Thanks, Gene, for your constant inspiration. As an aside– after your post of nearly a year ago about bats in your barn, two of our classes spent the year constructing bat houses of different designs. Great fun was had by all. This year, we are growing more wheat (“Sonora” a variety traditionally grown in California that can be dry farmed) and are hoping to build an adobe pizza oven. For sure we will be milling up some pancakes, too!

  8. I’d rather support the cafeteria to provide improved meals for all than encourage packed lunches when there are so many millions of kids who are on food stamps (47 millions recipients this year). My grandfather’s lunch bag had a piece of bread, an onion, sometimes a boiled egg, and an apple for most of his winter school days. And a long walk in the snow in wooden clogs filled with straw and warm ash, when the concept of snacks didn’t exist.

    When they moved to Paris suburb, my grandmother was one of the cooks in a school near my place. I didn’t get to eat there, but she was bringing home leftovers all the time. I remember that school used offal frequently as a way to provide meat to kids, and stay within the budget. I never had ox tongue as tender and in such a delicious gravy than the one she cooked at that school (she was responsible for all the sauces, among other things). But the point is that they had several cooks just at this one small school in a small town. At the time, cooking from raw ingredients was the cheapest way to eat. It still is even now, I know, since I cook from scratch every day. Not to mention there is no comparison between local and supermarket/food industry products, in quality, healthiness, freshness, and in taste, as you mentioned.

    I don’t know what kids eat these days, and I guess it varies a lot, but I watched this Gordon Ramsey series about Californian school meals, and I couldn’t believe the garbage they made kids eat, or drink (soda during lunch, HFCS artificially flavored, colored and vitamin-enhanced milk), at an age when their bodies are developing and need the best food. Kill yourself with unbalanced and obese diets all you want if you are an adult, but these are our next generation, keep them safe or that healthcare budget alone will soon consume the whole tax revenue.

    • To all of you responders, What interesting observations and so delightfully right on.. You all reassure me once more that sanity still exists. Chimel, your details about your grandfather going to school with warm ashes in his clogs, oh my, is that so remarkable. Gene

  9. I also find it interesting that parents claim they have no time to pack a lunch for their children. Growing up in a family of 5 kids, with both my Mom and Dad working full time, 7 lunches were packed every day (our school did not offer lunch). It took planning, organization, and ingenuity, but we ate well. Packed simply in a brown bag. School provided milk, and never sold any snacks. How did we lose this frugal and practical ethos?

  10. The Schools themselves are too darn big. big enrollment necessitates industrial scale cooking. It would be much easier for family style lunches if the schools themselves were human scaled.

    With more, but smaller schools, the problem might have a chance of solving itself.

    • This is just no true: In Toulouse, France, they have only one centralized kitchen for all the public schools (several dozens schools, 25,000 kids). They use local organic produce as much as they can, to the equivalent of one fully organic meal a week. All bread, fruits, yogurts, fresh pasta and butter are organic since 2008. They also have one “gastronomic” meal every month.

      Here’s the menu for elementary schools for the next 3 weeks:
      They also have organic bread at every meal.

      Starter

      “saucisson” (dry cured sausage, usually sliced on bread and butter), sardine in tomato sauce, vegetable soup (organic), green salad, pizza (organic), tricolor salad (grated carrot, red beet, celery root), red beet salad, quinoa/carrot/celery/shallot salad, potato-leak soup, green salad and coleslaw, country pâté or boiled egg, salad of mixed green young shoots, green vegetables soup, grated carrots (organic)

      Meat

      Cubed hake (fish) with bellpepper sauce, duck and herbs sausage, veal in Marengo sauce, fish filet “meunière” (breaded in flour, with brown butter, parsley and lemon sauce), omelet (organic), cubed fish in curry sauce, pork sausage or omelet, veal roast, roasted chicken, breaded fish, veal “blanquette” (cubed, in white gravy), cubed fish in cream sauce, chicken and turkey kebab, fried breaded cheese “steak” (meatless), ground beefsteak (hamburger, no buns)

      Vegetables

      Pan-fried 3 cabbages, mashed yams, vegetable pancake, salsify in Bechamel sauce, gratin dauphinois (potatoes scalloped in cream and butter), shoestring vegetables (“julienne”), green lentils (organic), rotini (organic, fresh pasta), carrots “Vichy” (fresh young carrots cooked in carbonated “Vichy” water, butter and parsley), spinach in Bechamel sauce, flageolet beans (green dry beans), cauliflower and parsley (organic), quinoa (Mexican recipe), green celery in tomato sauce, French fries and ketchup

      Cheese/dairy

      Edam, cabecou (soft goat cheese, organic), plain whipped yogurt (organic), viennoise (chocolate cream pudding topped with whipped cream), gouda, egg custard, Cantal cheese, blue cheese (“Bleu des Causses”), camembert, whipped yogurt with real banana (organic), fromage blanc (whipped cottage cheese, so without the disgusting curds ;), brie cheese (organic), roquefort cheese (strong blue sheep cheese), vanilla whipped yogurt (organic), plain yogurt (organic)

      Dessert

      Kiwi (organic), seasonal fruit, chocolate shortbread, peach compote (stewed fruits like apple sauce, with no sugar added), “Tropézienne” (sweet brioche pastry filled with butter and egg custards, yes, with an “s”), apple-pineapple compote, cookies (organic), apricot jam (organic), rice pudding, apple tart (organic)

      Hamburger and fries only once, no pick and choose cafeteria-style, fish 5 times in 3 weeks, Bechamel, Marengo and other sauces several times a week, and salsify!!! To most of us, it sounds like the kids have a gastronomical menu once a day, not once a month… ^-^

      The meals are free for kids whose parents earn the equivalent of a full time job at McDonald’s ($1,300 a month), it cost $2 per kid over that, up to $5 for the highest revenues.
      There are altogether 8 revenue brackets, 3 different prices depending on the number of children per family, and those different for kindergarten and elementary schools, and a separate price for teachers. Altogether 49 different combinations. Thanks for computers…

      Secondary schools and higher usually have their own kitchen and canteen or cafeteria, and some subcontract to the private sector. In either case, the law governs many dietetic choices: In all school canteens or cafeteria, salt, mayo, ketchup, and French dressing are not accessible as self-serve items, they are either part of the dish or not. Fried meat or fish, or sweetened desserts, cannot account for more than 4 times in 3 weeks. There must be at least 10 raw vegetable starters and 8 raw fruit desserts during that period. Soda is totally absent of elementary schools.

      • Hi Chimel,
        That is truly amazing. I don’t think the current American food growing and delivery system could pull that off. We used to have a Belgian friend in a nearby large city whom we would visit and give extra eggs, meat, and produce. Her reply was “thank you; in Europe, we had good food all the time”.

        Rural and neighborhood school consolidation is major issue in rural communities here. I may be mixing apples and oranges.

  11. Oh boy! I hope I don’t go overboard but I could write pages on this subject.
    I work in an elementary school. Our school is of a moderate size, only about 250 students. I started working in a different school 23 years ago. They had just introduced “snack” sales as a way of (supposedly) getting the food program “out of the red.” Imagine that, the lunches were mostly not eaten by the kids but there was a brisk business in snack sales. I was shocked and horrified and tried my best to insist that the kids eat some of their lunch before they bought the junk. At that point in time they were even selling candy and ice cream in the cafeteria. Eventually the candy sales were stopped but selling “nutricious” snacks continues to this day in all our school district. That still encourages kids to buy something else instead of eating the school lunch they were served.
    A couple of years ago an effort was made, thanks to a group of activist parents, to improve school lunches. Now there is a fruit and vege bar and the children are expected to serve themselves and make good selections. But…..yesterday the fruit was more of those hard, tasteless red, red apples cut in random slices with the stems and cores still intact. Also, canned fruit cocktail. I am sure those apples were not even washed thoroughly or at all and certainly were not organic. I would love to see the kids tasting Honeycrisp apples. They would not only eat them, they would love them. We also serve canned beans of various colors. The kids might choose them, but then they throw them in the trash! The vege choices included canned “baby” corn.
    I could write much more but I better stop now!
    I really think we are all “food hostages” and will have to fight back hard to regain control of our food in this country.

  12. Sorry, I can’t believe I spelled “nutritious” incorrectly. And I am the spelling police at my house!

  13. I seem to remember that the school lunch program was originally developed because we had food surpluses after industrial farming became the norm. I don’t think it’s ever really been about nutrition,despite occasional claims to the contrary. There are a few schools that fight back with school gardens such as Barbara’s, but we need lots more like that. Maybe as budgets get tighter, more schools will begin to see that local food can be less expensive, but sadly, I really don’t think that many school administrators are going to make changes just to improve nutrition.

  14. Maybe “they” won’t change, but “we” can pack our kids’ lunches and teach them to pack them and boycott the school lunches. We can also value food, growing and/or choosing it, preparing it, eating it, and teach our children to do the same. Good food is our best medicine and is basic to the quality of our lives.

  15. I’ve spent some time in Europe, and I think it must be mentioned that probably the majority of kids in France, Italy, Spain, Greece have palates trained toward less processed food than North American kids. While there is plenty of junk food and soda there, and they happily consume it, at home they’re not getting a lot of frozen pizza or microwaved macaroni.

    I watched a dvd from the library a while ago: “Food Beware – the French Organic Revolution” – which profiles an elementary school with a menu very similar to the one Chimel describes for the Tououse area. Worth a watch if you can get it from your public library.

    In my part of Canada, we don’t have school lunch programmes. Kids bring their own from home (that’s what mine do), or they buy from the school cafeteria (high school only). Yes, there are a lot of kids bringing unhealthy lunches. There are a lot of kids bringing no lunch, whether from choice or lack of parental ability, I don’t know – probably both. I recognize that brains need energy from good food to function well in the classroom, and I realize that school might be a good place to get some nutrition into kids who would have no opportunity at home for such food.

    That said, I think it’s a two edged sword to depend on the government to provide quality nutriition to all school children. Is there a point perhaps at which the government might be bold enough to say that parents do not have authority over what their children eat? We’re already heading there with raw milk, home canned food etc.

    We always want the best we can get for the cheapest we can pay – ground beef a buck a pound? I’ll buy a bunch. Doesn’t matter whose cow, or where it got processed or if it’s even from one cow. Same with school lunches. I really like the tiered payment system Chimel described, but I can just picture how parents paying the top dollar must chafe about it, and complain that most parents should be paying one amount, a low one.

    There are other ways to do this, but they require work, parental involvement, the school and district being on board. Barbara’s school in the comments above, with a farm in it’s midst – wow! How great is that!

    My own daughters high school, up here in Canada – the cafeteria cooks are all high school students in the apprenticeship program, with a home ec teacher and a chef on staff to train them. They get high school credit, the basic certifications to enter the restaurant industry and the student body gets a cafeteria with an amazing menu, wholesome, balanced, cooked from scratch. The food is paid for by the students who buy their lunches or breakfasts there. In the same school, we have a parent run breakfast programme which provides a juice box and a bagel w/cream cheese to any child who asks for it. Those who can pay are encouraged to do so, and parents are also encouraged to donate to the programme financially, but if a kid needs food, they just have to ask and it’s theirs. The elementary and middle schools in the district do not have vending machines. The high school does, and 5 years ago, opted out of the soda, caffeine products and “pure” junk food – the choices now are juice, water, green iced tea, granola bars, dried fruit packets or nut packets. The kids don’t complain, though they did when the switch was first made. All of them rave about the cafeteria food – it is VERY popular. Today’s breakfast choice was a breakfast bun (egg and cheese) $2.75. Lunch options included: grilled cheese sandwich $2, honey mustard chicken salad $3.75, sweet n sour pork on rice $3.25. Dessert options – maple pecan muffin $1, fresh baked cookie $.50. There were also vegetarian options – hummous and pita, mac n cheese, greek pasta salad.

    Our district is what you’d call middle class income predominantly. We’re a mix of rural and bedroom communtiy for the nearby city. We have perhaps 10 percent of our local population living on welfare, many of them with children in school. The government has cut back heavily on funding to schools in our province. It took a lot of effort on the part of the school, the teachers, the parent association and the local college (who sponsor the chef for the apprentice training) to get this cafeteria programme up and running, and it runs on a very tight budget. But it happened. It could happen in other schools, if the will is there. Just don’t rely on the government to solve the problem, because we just might not like their solution.

  16. Well in Toulouse’s case, the government has nothing to do with this program, except for designing the food safety and dietetic rules and passing them into law. The program is entirely funded by the city, and most parents participate in the meal cost too.
    In recent years, French regions, departments and cities have evolved toward more financial and operational autonomy, so I doubt the city gets any money from the government, at least for this school lunch initiative.

    I think the cost or so-called technical unfeasabilities are really just bad excuses or laziness. When there’s a will… That “will” is probably what the government’s role should be limited to: Motivate and support the schools and cities and villages to offer the same quality of nutritious meals to all kids. Like providing menu templates, online training resources, etc.

  17. Exactly right, Betty!

    I like the quote from Carlo Petrini of Slow Foods, “Pleasure and change go hand in hand.”

    When we started our school farm project (I began as a volunteer), the idea was to make it a seduction– beautiful, fragrant, delicious, irresistible. We are lucky in our climate, since we can grow year round. The kids got it from the start, but it took a few years for the school and the parents to notice. But now, our volunteer roster is steadily growing, people who appreciate the delicious food we grow, of course, but also those who feel the pleasure of putting in a few hours of heavy manual labor outside, connecting with the earth and the seasons. And the school now considers our farm central to our identity.

    “They” may not change, but “we” can!

  18. Is it reasonable to expect that a nation that eats only as convenience dictates would make an exception in its schools? I think not. Because America does run, remember, on Dunkin Donuts, the world’s reigning purveyor of convenience (and its first cousin, obesity).

    One could quip “as go meals at home, so goes meals at school,” but that would be only half true. Because Americans don’t eat at home. They eat at Dunkin Donuts. And so, too, many high school kids, leaving as they do their god-awful school cafeterias for a thirty-second car ride up the street to a doubly god-awful Dunkin Donuts. And easily 60% of them already overweight.

    And is there any wonder why kids can’t spell….

  19. Gene, I read some of your books a good few years ago and your name has stuck with me. Today it occurred to me to google you and find out what you’ve written lately. I was excited to find you have a blog, and lo! The most recent post was about the very battle I spend every day winning! So, I have a good story to tell you, albeit with a cautionary conclusion. Please forgive any typos; I do scout for them carefully, but iPad keyboards are tricksy.

    My kids go to a small private school in Pennsylvania and I help run the garden-to-table lunch program there. For $5 a serving, we provide freshly cooked whole food meals to 200 or more students, faculty and staff members each day. We make everything down to spaghetti sauce and salad dressing from scratch, we chop every onion and shred every carrot we use.

    We use primarily organic ingredients, and as many local ingredients as we can get our greedy little paws on. Our school garden is a major part of our curriculum, and our students grow a number of our vegetables. We have close working relationships with several local farms, including some with national distribution – but we get it straight from the farm! The availabillity of local produce varies by season, of course. For the first and last few months of the school year we can get enough local lettuce to suppy all our needs but we have to rely on national suppliers through winter. But come January, we will still be using apples we’ve stockpiled in our cooler, corn, zucchini and peppers from from our own school garden that we froze over the summer, local milk, cream, yogurt, beef, local eggs, honey, and breads.

    Last Halloween, our first day back to school after Hurricane Sandy, we made chili. The day before, while the creeks were still settling back down into their banks, my coworker went in to the kitchen to soak beans and move ground beef from the freezer to the walk-in to thaw. Sweetwater Bakery provides all the bread for our Wednesday soup days, but they were unable to bake the day before because of the storm. Fortunately we had enough leftovers frozen from previous weeks that we didn’t need to run to the grocery store for some inferior bread (as every other bread in the planet is inferior to Sweetwater, IMHO.) Alongside the chili and buttered bread we served salad with a choice of three homemade dressings. We provided specialized meals for children who had dietary restrictions, ranging from anaphylactic allergies to dietary choices. We served it to sixth through twelfth grade in the cafeteria, and delivered it to individual classrooms for kindergarten through fifth grade and some of the administrative staff. We also packed up over 30 quarts to go. Most of those had been preordered by parents as part of a kitchen fundraiser; some were sent out as outreach to members of our community who are sick or struggling or recently had babies.

    Since our sudents are permitted unlimited extra helpings, all in all we made about four hundred servings of fresh, locally sourced, organic chili in four hours after the chaos of Hurricane Sandy. We tanked our children up on warm, hearty, protein-ful foods made with love before sending them out to beg for candy on Halloween night.

    And now for the cautionary part. As unbearably proud as I am of our program, I cannot deny that we are a wealthy school and our program is a luxury. We charge $5 a meal, but in truth our real costs are more like $7 a meal. We make up the balance through fundraisers and impassioned pleas to the school budget. At that price point, only about half of our labor is paid. We rely heavily on volunteer labor and offer meal credits for parents who volunteer. Even those of us who are paid work more hours than we are paid for (very voluntarily, mind you – every one of us began as a volunteer before we were hired, have a passion for the cause, and see no reason not to continue to be a volunteer as well as an employee.) Many of the local foods we get are through barter – eggs or honey for meal credits. Some local farms and businesses flat out donate their products to us, which is a critical budget fixer for us. Even being a wealthy school (and what private school is not, when it comes down to it?) not every family is wealthy. Some cannot afford to eat our lunches. But if we took advantage of the federal subsidized lunch program, we would have to compromise to such an extraordinary degree that we simply would not be the same program any more. Speaking for two families who can’t afford to take advantage of our lunch program, neither would buy lunch if it looked like a conventional school lunch program despite qualifying for subsidy. So we have no incentive to bastardize our ideals.

    We could bring our costs down quite a bit if we had a larger community to serve. Labor is our biggest cost and required kitchen facilities are a close second. It doesn’t take a whole lot more to cook for 400 instead of 200. In our case, our market size is a function of the size of our school, so we’re kind of stuck with it. But this is where public schools have an advantage over us: even small local school districts are far larger than our small school. And, as I’ll address later, governmental assistance doesn’t have to take the form it has in the last few decades, and could foster efficiency healthfully.

    So what we do is not something simple that any bunch of lazy dummies could do if they only weren’t lazy dummies. It’s not that lunch ladies decided they’d rather sit in the break room and watch Days of our Lives and throw pizzas in the microwave at the last minute instead of spending the morning cooking real food. Cooking real food is a very expensive process. The public sentiment these days demands severe reduction in costs in every possible aspect. Take your average public school (urban, suburban, rural, poor, middle class, even wealthy) and look at the needs of its constituents. Even in a wealthy suburban public school, a great many kids would not be able to afford a $5 lunch every day. What do you do about that? One option is, well, what the government does already – subsidize it. Then you get people who don’t want to pay for other peoples’ kids’ lunches whining about entitlement and slashing costs and pretty soon you’re back to microwave pizzas at the government’s current reimbursement rate of $2.86 a meal. Or else you say, fine – whatever – the heck with the people who can’t afford it, we’ll only make lunch for the ones who can afford it. Then you create the problem we have at our school, where the amount of labor and kitchen facilities required to cook for a smaller market drives costs up even higher until your facility becomes a boutique cafe instead of a common cafeteria. And we’ll never keep our costs down if we have to hire a nutritionist to weigh everything and document every meal to prove to the government that we got exactly this much vegetable and that much meat and so much dairy in every single serving every single day. Heck, if I had to “balance” every meal like subsidized kitchens do… I might consider farming the work out to Kraft too.

    I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist in those last few paragraphs. I am actually very optimistic. I truly believe we can get back to a place where we act on our proclaimed values instead of paying them lip service between stops at McDonald’s. But we won’t get there if we never get past “why don’t those Lazy McLazysons stop beng so lazy and stupid and see that kids need real carrots?” We need to open our eyes to all the systemic roadblocks and accept that if we want the end result, we need to address the problems, not just complain about the result. We’ll never serve homemade chili, real bread and freshly cut salad for $2.86 a person. We’ll never form partnerships between local farms and schools as long as that $2.86 forces schools to buy into corporate manipulated government commodities. We need to address it as a national community and pledge to work toward it together because if we do it piecemeal, it will continue to be inefficient and expensive and it will fail.

    That doesn’t mean we need national distribution networks to distribute commodities cheaply – that’s what got us into this mess already. And it doesn’t mean we need the government telling us what our meals need to look like, we’re not idiots. we feed our own families. It means we need overwhelming national support for individualized local efforts, so every school can do what works for them within their own needs and constraints. We have mixed up what tasks should be federal and what should be local. The federal government is strangling schools with restraints that sound good in theory but are treacherous in practice, then sending cheap commodities with the nutritional content of cardboard as a salve. Meanwhile, local schools are struggling to make up the difference between what the government provides and what they *really* need. The government needs to give more and control less, provide more to pave roads between local schools and local farms and stop subsidizing the roads between schools and corporate food producers. And the “no government is good government” whiners need to realize that we really do need to all work together, or we all lose. Because their kids can’t get good, healthful lunches either if we don’t work together like grown ups.

    • My faith in the innate goodness of humans has just been rejuvenated. Thank you, Tara!

  20. Roughly forty years ago, Mrs. Buller made Beanie Wienies for lunch at my Jr. High School every so often. The Beanie Wienie part was just beans, hamburger, chunks of hot dogs, in a tomato based sauce, which was ladled onto thick, crusty rounds of whole wheat bread, baked that morning in however many coffee cans it took.

    I am used to paying around $10 for an entree at a restaurant. I would not hesitate to pay that for Mrs. Buller’s Beanie Wienies.

    Heck, I bet I could figure out her secret in a couple of tries myself.

    And if it matters that much to me, I should make more of an effort to make sure kids today are getting at least as good as I got. And a really good salad to go with it.

  21. I’m movin’ to France!

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