Do School Lunches Taste Like Vomit?


I am aware that some of the criticism leveled at the School Lunch Program comes from political hate groups opposed to anything the Obama Administration supports. So when the news reported recently that school children in Harlan County, Kentucky wanted to tell Michele Obama that her food tastes like vomit, I took it in with a liberal sprinkling of salt. But when my grandson says the food now being served at school is even worse than it used to be, I listen, especially since I have eaten a lunch or two at school with him in years past. Even before the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school lunches tasted terrible to me and I watched in astonishment how much of that food, over which so much money was spent and labor expended, went straight into the garbage can untouched. I salute Michele Obama for trying to do something about childhood obesity. I just don’t think either government or private business can supply really good tasting food to anything as big and sprawling as our school system. Quality fruit and vegetables defy factory production but factory food is the only way to supply that much food. That’s why so many people don’t like vegetables even when served by their favorite restaurant.

I feel sorry for children today. They so often have to bear the brunt of social experimentation that adults reject for themselves. The food thing is only one example. Many children suffer from “nature deficit disorder” because their parents, off working, are afraid to allow them real free time. There must always be adult surveillance. The kids retreat into their electronic gadgets, trying to find their own world. They don’t know where the sun comes up. Only a few can disappear into the fields to play like we did as children. Even fewer grow up working in the fields to learn how to make good food themselves. They take classes dissecting frogs and such, but teach them how to butcher a chicken? OMG!!! If they play sports, it must be under rigid adult supervision where the coaches so often bully the players. But the other kind of bullying has become a national worry right up there with obesity. My classmates and I once dealt with our school bully by beating the crap out of him. He got to be my friend after that.

It is a great idea to get kids to eat more fruit and vegetables. But just because something is a fruit or a vegetable does not mean it tastes good or is healthful. I’ve tried to eat strawberries that had to be coated in sugar to be enjoyed. What is served at school is often canned, not fresh, and either way has been harvested late so the machine harvesters can accommodate it, or stored the wrong way too long or pumped full of irrigation water until it is tasteless. Carol, whose farm family raised all their own food, loved kale. But the school lunch kale, she recalls, “was all stems! Terrible!” The milk that is being pushed for school lunches now is the 1% skimmed stuff good only for putting out fires. Sometimes the meat is not too bad but if you want a second helping you have to pay more, which of course is what richer kids do. The new breadsticks are inedible, my grandson says.

It takes handcrafted, caring work—love— to put good food in your children’s mouths. If you trust welfare capitalism to do it for you, then be prepared for some tasteless factory fiber. The whole local food and foodie movement is saying loud and clear that good food is a work of art, not an assembly line product. Some schools have actually instituted programs where the students work in gardens close by to supply some of their fruits and vegetables. This is a better way, but you and I know that takes dedicated adults and lots of overtime to run such programs. Better to give food production the status of a class subject like math and history. Then it becomes easier to manage and finance as an integral part of education. I fear that with what kids are experiencing now, they will grow up to be confirmed non-vegetable eaters like their parents.


Another thought…when did we start giving kids “what they want” instead of “what’s good for them”? Just who are the adults here?

    At lunchtime in the schools the adults with any authority to tell the kids to eat “what’s good for them” even though it’s not “what they want” are serving the corporate-industrial economy elsewhere. If kids haven’t learned to eat and enjoy what’s good for them at home where there are adults with authority (if they choose to exercise it), they surely won’t learn those lessons at school, not with any of those many foods that aren’t immediately “what they want.”

Two problems that I see:
One is the food industry has spent decades and millions of dollars convincing people there’s such a thing as “kid-appropriate” food, which is usually bland, sweet, and/or fried, with no texture to speak of. This had definitely started when I was a kid in the 60s, with sweet cereals and Wonder bread. (I was spared a lot of that crap because my mom and grandmother couldn’t stomach the stuff and didn’t want to spend extra money for lower-quality but heavily advertised “kid food.”) A lot of people my age or younger never developed a palate or an interest in food as anything except fuel as a result, so they feed their kids preprocessed crap and that’s all the kids recognize as food. If you provide healthier options, even if they’re well-prepared, they’ll taste odd to kids raised on grease and sugar and will be rejected.

The second challenge is even if the schools can bring in fresh, locally sourced veggies, they’ll still wind up unpalatable unless the cafeteria staff learns how to cook them. If the staff members have spent years dishing out reheated glop, there’s going to be a learning curve. And having cooked for crowds, I know that even a good home cook maybe challenged when trying to cook in institutional quantities, keep it warm for several shifts of eaters, and still have the food taste good and have a reasonable texture.

When I was in school in the late 60’s and 70’s, our school lunches were made by cooks who made most dishes ‘from scratch’. Even the yeast dough pizza crust! I think this was where the love of the kids and the pride in their work came in. We ate lunch at school because it was good food! My mother figured she couldn’t send as good a meal with us for the price.

Many schools don’t have ‘working kitchens’ anymore. The kitchens are set up to reheat frozen pre-made items. This said, we still paid full price for our kids school lunches. We still felt they were getting a pretty good meal for the price. They didn’t always like what was served, but we taught our children to eat a variety of food and not to be wasteful, many families do not.

I hope that we can find a way to bring in more local, healthy food to lunchrooms. I’m not sure how we help children overcome the food prejudices they learn at home.

In 1970, the first check I ever wrote from my own checking account (from working as a carhop at an A&W root beer stand) was for $1.75–a week’s worth of school lunches, which I loved! I remember the hard melamine trays with portions of a meat, veggies, roll and dessert.
These days, I’d pack my own lunch!!

I have to agree with the fact that you can not find a decent restaurant meal . I used to go to town and never come home with out having dinner first . Now that has changed , Id rather have a sandwich at home . What ever I can find at home is a whole lot better than what you get at a fast food joint . Obesity is often caused not by the amount or quality of food we have today , but rather the garbage the we eat and call food .

I wonder what Amish kids think of their school lunches? They likely eat locally-sourced food, probably raised on their own farm, or out of their garden if they’re “town” Amish, the same fare that their “English” counterparts would have had not so many years ago.

thetinfoilhatsociety September 6, 2013 at 9:54 am

Because my career choices often meant I was on the road during meal times, I always packed meals for myself. It was much cheaper, and most importantly, it was there when I needed to eat.

Now I pack lunches because it’s nearly impossible to find restaurant food that is palatable.

As a postscript, the NSLP (National School Lunch Program) was started in 1946 by President Truman as a direct result of the number of WWII recruits that were rejected due to malnutrition. Now, the military brass is concerned because 1/3 of the 25% of recruits who otherwise qualify are rejected due to obesity. Looks like the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

I am sort of tired of people whining about how terrible food service at school is. My wife was a teacher and the variety offered was wide. A healthy meal was quite possible, but the kids wanted grease, salt and sugar and would dump their lunchroom meals and head for the ven ding machines. Cedarfen has a much more plausible post. When I went in the service in 1972 all I heard around me was “Mom made better meals”. BS. I never had such variety and actually had MEAT! Yes, when I look back a lot of it was not cooked well, but you try to make something great out of reconstituted egg powder. By the way, I grew up on a farm. I had potatoes, bread, potatoes, pancakes, potatoes, salt pork, and potatoes. I never had a steak until I went into the Navy. We never butchered a cow, since we had to sell it for cash. Occasionally, we would butcher a pig, but most of it was ground up.
My siblings and I got our lunchroom meals under a government assistance program. If we had not had that, we would have had two slices of bread with peanut butter. The lunch room program has provided a choice of good, varied food for generations.
Look back at the surveys done by the military at the start of WWII and see how many of the recruits were actually stunted and malnourished due to “good ol’ down home cookin”. The southern recruits were particularly poor quality, with many of them suffering from nutritional and parasitic conditions.
In 50 years we have gone from malnourished, stunted adults to adults whose main concern is being too fat. I would say the modern food industry’s problem is that it has been far too successful. Yes, much of the processed food is unhealthy and people are tempted by marketing to eat far too much sugar and fat, but much like the anti-vaccination idiots, most people have no memory or very selective memory of how wretched diets used to be for most people.
I raise my own vegetables in my own garden and buy meat directly from the farmer. However, my peach crop is a disaster this year, and I have a few pitiful apples. I can go to my local grocery and buy grapes, starfruit, kiwi, strawberries, blueberries, etc, etc. The variety is amazing and the nutrition is excellent.

    Your memories are more like mine Chris N. I remember that the main food for the older people in Northern Pine County MN by my moms farm was potatoes, cuke pickles, beans, canned tomatoes, milk, and bread. Blueberries in a good year and choke cherry wine. Meat was fish, venison or water fowl if you could fish or shoot and butter came out for guests. Younger people got a job in town or the mines so they could afford something better. I live farther south now and we have amazing gardens, but still lots of work to put up food for a whole family and afford taxes and everything else without another income (which I have fortunately). I know I ate well at home as a kid, and my grandma was a great baker, but we had very little variety in our meals and the kids today would probably turn their nose up at it.

    The start of WWII, of course, followed over a decade of Great Depression. Surely the Great Depression was a huge factor in malnutrition at that time. To ask a fairer question, what about recruits for WWI, especially recruits from more agrarian parts of the country (i.e. disregarding the urban poor and perhaps the war- and reconstruction-crushed economy of the South)? I just find it very hard to take the fact that there was malnutrition at the tail end of the Great Depression and use that as an argument against homegrown food.

I, also, as a kid hated school lunches which were so much more tasteless than anything we got at home, although cooked at school by our own cafeteria. So I have also been horrified at what they feed the kids now and I have always supplied my kids with lunch to carry to school. So to my amazement, around the end of June, I was informed by my 17 year old son he missed all the vegetable he got at school all year since the Obama program started and he wished we had more at home. Since I don’t pay for him to buy a school lunch, I immediately wanted to know where he was getting so many vegetables he could complain about the supply at home. He said none of the kids would eat the vegetables and most wouldn’t eat the fruit supplied. So he had having his friends give it to him those items from their lunches because the cooks threw it out if no one ate it. He said that the kids in his school would only eat things fried in grease or coated with sugar. He said none of the kids he knew ate vegetables or fruit at home an they all said they hated them. My son, who gets very good quality veggies at home, told me the vegetables at school were the best part of the lunch and in his opinion it was a huge improvement on what was served before. He said before canned corn and potatoes were veggies and fruit cocktail or juice was fruit. So there may be other sides to the ‘bad’ school lunch issue.

This reminds me of the milk choices I saw for school breakfast. The students had their choice of 1% milk, strawberry-flavor milk, or no fat/no flavor milk. “No flavor” is truthful advertising.

The other thing I think about though when reading this post is I think back to my days in middle and high school and I remember a bunch of kids where school lunch would be the best meal they would get. School lunches were better they what there parents could afford to buy and offen lunch on Friday was the last meal they would eat until lunch on Monday. So school lunch might not be the most tasty food there is but at least it keeps the kids from going hungry.

    Remembering my school dinners years ago, of course there was lots of waste and inedible ones but mostly lots of clean plates.

    I am wondering what the true cost of those meals, inflation and cost of living corrected. I bet this will throw another insight into Gene’s interesting observations about mass produced food and . Mass production means low cost per unit.

    Does anyone have any insights on these old costs?

    Many kids in our community get free lunch and they would go hungry without it. That they prefer grease and sugar, comes from what they are use to at home. As bad as they are, they do give kids something so they can concentrate better in school.

Should anyone really be surprised that Gov’t that is totally inept at everything else fails when it comes to making school lunches decent enough to eat and it didn’t start lately when I went to high school many Moons ago the food was terrible so I had a milk and two ice cream sandwiches from a local dairy for lunch every day.

From Papua New Guinea where we do not have school lunches: Kids fall over at morning assembly from hunger, they sleep in the class from lack of home sleep. They take a dollar to school and buy lunch from the vendors. Looking from here it appears that America has lots of competent people out of work. Could each kid be given 3 vouchers; main dish, sweet dish and drink. They will buy the food that they want and the community would operate the cafeteria as a neighbourhood project with strict guidelines as to suitability of the food and drink offered. The vouchers would give an instant feed back on the accepabiliy of the various offerings.

Just another example that the government can’t do anything right. Gene didn’t you mention in “Living at Nature’s Pace” something about when school lunches first came about, parents felt it was there job to feed there children and not the Government?

    Oh yes, Stephen, that was often said. I remember before school lunches, the “city kids” mostly walked home for lunch and we “country kids” ate from our “dinner buckets.” I sometimes complained about what my Mom fixed too. I especially hated peanut butter and sweet pickle sandwiches but I sure ate whatever she packed, or there would have been hell to pay.
    Andy Good, no I don’t know any cost figures, but if you find some, don’t forget the money Mom saved by packing lunches. I irritate everyone these days by pointing out that if they packed their lunches (I mean adults too) how much money they would save.
    Thank all of you for most interesting insights. I ate boarding school meals for four years and oh how we bitched about shoe leather (roast beef from steers that must have been ten years old anyway) and hemmorhage (I still don’t know what that was), but in fact we about knocked down the doors of the refectory at mealtimes. I learned to love fried baloney. Gene Still do.

With all the wonderful food produced in Ohio it is criminal that children in schools aren’t getting fresh food to eat.

Is it any surprise that industrial education involves industrial food? How can we return to the best school — a log bench, with a student seated on one end and a farmer on the other?

Parents need to let there kids be kids. My mom and dad let me do so much stuff when I was growing up that freaked out so many people because they deemed it as unsafe. I’ve never thought of it as unsafe, I never broke a bone or anything doing any of it. I bet that if I had a son that was five and I let him drive the riding lawn mower like my dad let me do when I was five and someone got wind of it I would get a call from social services in under an hour.

    Peter, move to Tennessee. We let six-year-olds hunt with deer rifles. Not particularly proud of that one, but I do agree with you for the most part.

      There’s nothing wrong with a six-year-old hunting with a deer rifle, if she’s trained in gun safety and has an experienced adult showing her the ropes. I grew up playing in a horse pasture down the road with an irrigation ditch running through it – our mother may have known the risk she took allowing us that freedom but she somehow was comfortable with it, and all six of us are still alive and doing well. Never had a hunting mentor as a child, though; had to figure that stuff out on my own.

How to solve this problem? Pack your kids (and grandkids) lunches yourself.

Not enough money to feed your kids? A) Don’t have ’em, Stop having ’em. B) If all those with enough money to feed there kids properly did so, we’d have enough resources to properly feed those kids who otherwise would go hungry.

Doesn’t seem very hard to do to me.

    Deb, I think you’ve hit the problem nail right on the head. Whatever happened to parents packing their kids’ lunches, anyway? I don’t remember ever eating a school cafeteria meal; we were too poor to afford them. My mom got up at 5 am every morning, made us oatmeal or Cream of Wheat for breakfast, and sent us off to school with healthy lunches. All on a wafer-thin budget. If I’d have had kids, they’d have a home-made lunch with them every day, by gum.

    Honestly, I question the entire premise of school-provided meals. They are educational institutions, not restaurants.

A good school cook or a good food school policy are as important as a good teacher. Working with local farmers to get fresh local products is not expensive or hard to achieve. I totally with the reduced fat milk. If anything, the few calories of fat difference in a glass of milk between 1% and whole milk is a positive one for kids who are growing up. Keep the 1% garbage for the obese parents! Heck, have the kids make their own bread from whole grain or mozzarella sticks from milk.

The idea that Michelle Obama’s school food tastes like vomit is entirely a local issue caused by using bad products and having bad cooks. It is also trying to politicize the debate, since Michelle Obama only endorsed what the USDA nutritionists put together. She didn’t design these horrible menus or produce such horrible meals. Knowing her stance on organic fresh veggies, you can be certain that the kids would not let her go away if she had prepared their school lunches.

I read a great book recently called “Shop Class as Soul Craft” by a man named Matt Crawford. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it. It’s an inquiry into the value of work, as in human labor, in which he utilizes the art of motorcycle mechanics as the platform for his investigations. It may sound odd but I think this issue of food cultivation fits into his major thesis in that nothing of value comes from anything in which care is not invested. And that is the ingredient missing in this example of school lunches — the goal isn’t value, it’s numbers. The numbers of products produced, the number of products sold, the number of kids fed. “Value” isn’t part of the discussion and doesn’t appear to be part of the discussion in any aspect of our lives at the moment in part, I believe, because we don’t know how to measure it…it really defies quantification which makes it difficult to integrate into our increasingly siloed perspectives (see “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for a fascinating inquiry into “Quality” and “Value”). And that leads me to the other major problem I’m seeing across industries including public education — true knowledge can’t exist in siloes and nor can it exist in vacuums without context. Why are we teaching physics out of a textbook when we could be teaching it from an internal combustion engine? Why are we teaching biology in a classroom when we could be teaching it from a garden? Why are we teaching economics from a Power Point when we could be teaching kids by having them start their own business experiments? The problems we see in our schools, including eating nasty lunches, are microcosms of the greater problems facing our current American culture. I can’t think of a better place, however, to start tearing down barriers and filling vacuums.

My father managed school cafeterias for most of his career. He’s a good cook, but trying to cook for hundreds of children a day using food from industrial sized Sysco containers and cans is a recipe for blech. And kids know it.

So while the intentions of Michelle Obama were good, the whole system is set up to deliver mass produced, mushy blandness.

There are so many things wrong with the school lunch, and it is so intertwined with the entire modern approach,at every level, to both food and public education that it would take many books to do it all any kind of justice in simply defining the problems.

I’ll suggest just one problem that runs through all of it: standardization. One size does not fill all. At its simplest, how can a meal based in large part on calorie content be appropriate for both my 4′ something tall 75 pound daughter and my 6′ tall 150 pound son?

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