Welcome to The Lunch Tray! To learn more about me and this blog, please check out my “About” page.
For my very first post, I’ll start with a topic about which I — and maybe you? – have some pretty strong opinions: letting children’s palates guide the menu options for school lunch.
What am I talking about? According to my beloved school lunch guru, Janet Poppendieck, back in the 1970’s one of the big issues surrounding school lunch was waste. (That’s still a big issue, of course. See, e.g., the disturbing photos of unopened, discarded milk from the First Class Breakfast program on Lisa Murray’s site here.) Accordingly, rather than force children to take the whole meal and throw out much of it, in 1975, Congress passed an amendment to the School Lunch Act allowing high schools to still receive federal reimbursement for meals so long as students selected at least three out of five options served, including milk. Eventually this idea of “offer vs. serve” was expanded so that today it applies to the vast majority of school meals served at all grade levels.
According to Poppendieck and her sources, “offer vs. serve” marked the dawning of a new era in which school lunch service began to be viewed more as a business: if children chose only three of the five offerings, schools received the same federal reimbursement at a lower cost, hence more profit. Suddenly more choices and variety were offered and children began to be seen as customers to be pleased, rather than fortunate recipients of the school food. Not surprisingly, then, this period also marked the beginning of child-centric offerings that mimicked (or really were) fast food.
Fast forward to 2010. If you put ten hungry toddlers in a room and asked them to plan a school lunch menu, you’d get pretty much exactly what was served at HISD one week this month: chicken nuggets/PBJ; chicken tenders/cheeseburger; beef tacos/beef burrito; pasta with meat sauce/pepperoni pizza; chicken fried steak fingers/fish sticks.
I have nothing against these foods per se. (See my “About” page wherein I confess an unhealthy love for a certain pizza). And HISD will tell you that what looks like fast food really isn’t — the pizza has low fat cheese or the hamburger bun may be made from whole wheat flour.
I applaud any measures that improve the nutritional content of our children’s school lunches, but here’s my problem: meals served in our school cafeterias are as much a “teaching moment” as what happens in the classroom. So when a child walks into a lunch room and sees the aforementioned array of fast food-like items, he or she doesn’t have any idea that they’re somehow nutritionally superior to what’s offered at the Pizza Hut or McDonald’s down the street (except for the fact that maybe they don’t taste as good).
What he or she learns instead is that pizza, hamburgers and chicken nuggets must be perfectly acceptable lunch options to be consumed on a daily basis - or why else would the school serve them? This is especially true of our most vulnerable children who are dependent upon HISD for one or two meals a day and don’t have anyone in their homes who are modeling more healthful eating. Are we surprised, then, when these same children go on to make poor eating choices in later life, compromising their own health? (BTW, I don’t lay the problem entirely at HISD’s doorstep. The prevalence of children’s menus at restaurants teaches exactly the same thing to children. For an interesting critique of that phenomenon, see this article from yesterday’s New York Times.)
On the other hand, there may be parents out there who think there’s nothing wrong with giving kids what they want. Or you may believe strongly that children are simply going to reject anything on a school lunch tray that’s unfamiliar to them – beans and rice, or a veggie and chicken stir fry, for example – resulting in that much more food waste and hungry kids.
Tell me what you think.