Notes From the Field: An Instructive Visit to My Kids’ Cafeteria

by Bettina Elias Siegel on September 7, 2010

I blog about kids and food daily, especially school food, but I’m embarrassed to admit that last Friday was the first time in a long while that I’ve actually been in my own children’s school cafeteria during lunch.

I came that day especially to see the debut of the acorn squash that’s been much touted in my school district as one of the new menu improvements.  But when I got to the lunch room, my friend Cheryl (a dedicated monitor of what’s going on in our cafeteria) said that the promised squash wasn’t being served.  Sure enough, when I looked at kids’ trays I saw a depressingly beige/brown meal of fried fish (with a slice of cheese inserted under the fried coating — why?),  a roll (which did look like it contained some whole wheat flour), canned fruit cocktail, baked apples and a brownie.

But when I went to the serving line to ask about the whereabouts of the squash, I was told I was looking right at it — what Cheryl and I (and no doubt the kids) had mistaken for baked apples was in fact the new acorn squash.  No one in the serving line was telling the kids what it was, and there was no printed menu or sign to inform them.

The problem, of course, is that when you pick up your fork and expect to taste baked apples but get something else entirely, you’re likely to wonder what the heck is wrong with the apples.   And in fact, looking around, I saw tray after tray with barely touched (or entirely untouched) squash.

I’ve already gone on record in my Houston Chronicle editorial about the critical need for student education about any new foods that are added to the menu.  The acorn squash mix-up is a perfect demonstration of my point.  If a parent volunteer had stood up on the stage in our lunch room and explained what was on kids’ trays, and maybe even offered a little incentive like an “I Tried It!” sticker for taking a nibble, perhaps less squash would’ve ended up in the trash that day.

As for the actual flavor of the squash, I asked my daughter’s friend for a bite (which she was more than happy to provide since she refused to touch it) and was a bit taken aback.  It was sweet but lacking any hint of the promised cinnamon.  Worse, there was a decidedly greasy note going on – not butter, which would have been nice, but rather an off-putting (at least to me) oily flavor.  (But who knows if the kids would’ve had the same reaction.  Many of them loved their cheesy fried fish, which I found too gross to even look at.)

Reformers like Dr. Susan Rubin urge us to visit our lunchrooms often, to taste the food, to take pictures, and to talk to kids, because what we see printed on the school menu is often inaccurate or misleading.  Indeed, bloggers like Mrs. Q and Ed Bruske are doing that every single day in their own schools and their photos and descriptions are invaluable for showing us what’s really happening “on the ground.”

After Friday’s acorn squash experience, I plan on following their lead and becoming a semi-regular fixture in my kids’ lunchroom.   Stay tuned.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Owens September 7, 2010 at 8:36 am

Ugh. The cheesy fried fish makes my hair get big. Why?!?

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bettina elias siegel September 7, 2010 at 10:06 am

My question exactly – in this age of childhood obesity, we stick cheese under the fried coating??? My only guess is that the school district must meet very high calorie minimums (as calculated over the course of a week) and this entree would obviously go far in that direction. Still, scary.

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Ed Bruske September 7, 2010 at 8:49 am

Yes, you can’t write a great menu and walk away. The only thing that matters is what actually shows up on kids’ plates and what they actually eat. That means parents have to be cafeteria monitors, and bring their cameras to capture the images for other parents who can’t be there. You may be the only witness to the way kids are being mugged in the lunch line.

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bettina elias siegel September 7, 2010 at 10:07 am

Ed: I’ve seen the light thanks to you, Mrs. Q and Dr. Susan Rubin. I can’t encourage parents enough to get into the cafeteria as often as possible. What you read on the menu and what you see on the tray can often be very, very different. – Bettina

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Mary Lawton September 7, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Well, weeks one and two of the new school year have come and gone and this year, with each of my boys in middle school, buying lunch is somehow THE COOL thing to do. They have kicked and screamed about me making lunch for them this year, so I gave in. $1.85 for each boy each day. Here is what they have said when I ask what they ate for lunch: “tater tots and an ice cream” “pizza” “a beef taco thingy” “pizza” “a burger” “fries” “fries” fries” “tater tots” “pizza”.
I’ll ask again this week and report back. It’s making me crazy.

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bettina elias siegel September 7, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Oh, Mary. How I’m dreading the middle school lunch room. In fact, I’m planning some “field trips” to some middle and high schools for my “Notes from the Field” feature on TLT. From your reports and those of other middle school parents, I’m sure I’m going to be horrified.

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Maggie September 7, 2010 at 2:01 pm

“If a parent volunteer had stood up on the stage in our lunch room and explained what was on kids’ trays…”

An excellent idea. Or see if it is possible to provide additional hours for additional food service employees to assist.

As a food service worker, it is this part of the equation that is often a large part of my frustration. I’m fortunate to have a well equipped kitchen, workers with cooking skills (or, willing to learn), but faced with a rushed serving time, noise too loud to speak to students to do such education.

Oh, and be sure to check with your custodian before you hand out any stickers! If stickers end up where they shouldn’t…yeah, well…let’s just say that the food service department will not be in good graces.

Since this might sound a bit blunt without tone of voice, or expressions, I want to clearly say that I am on the same “side” as anyone wishing changes, but may have a different perspective of some of the situations.

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bettina elias siegel September 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Maggie: This didn’t sound blunt at all, and I’m thrilled to have a school food service worker reading and commenting on The Lunch Tray. Too often we parents yammer on about what’s wrong with school food but we don’t have nearly enough information about the challenges faced by the people preparing it. I’ve tried very hard, both on The Lunch Tray and in my position on HISD’s Parent Advisory Committee, to see both sides as fairly as possible, but there’s no substitute for real world experience. In fact, please let me know if you’d be interested in guest blogging here. I’d love to read a post from you, and I’m sure other Lunch Tray readers would, too. – Bettina

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Maggie September 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Bettiana, that’s a kind & interesting offer. However, my perspective would be pretty limited. At this point, I think I’m more comfortable as a “commenter” than a “blogger”.

Still, I’ll be happy to participate when there is something I feel that I can maybe add to from my perspective. For example, this post caught my eye, because I could see the same thing happening in my school – a new food, no or very limited chance to explain, and the feeling of frustration – on my part – that would follow.

You mentioned in your FAQ that you’ve read Janet Poppendieck’s book , “Free for All”. You are miles ahead of most in understanding the situation, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t say any of it better than she does!

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bettina elias siegel September 7, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Maggie: That’s fine – comments are great, too! And yes, Free for All is the best book out there on school lunch, as far as I’m concerned. Thanks again for being a Lunch Tray reader. – Bettina

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Em September 7, 2010 at 5:50 pm

It’s mad! I love squash, but I probably wouldn’t have eaten it either. Nobody likes to be fooled.

But I’ll tell you, those programs where kids get out and garden, and then get to help fix what they’ve grown (Alice Watters’ Edible Schoolyard is the most famous) give me some hope.

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bettina elias siegel September 7, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Em: In a few weeks I hope to have a guest post from a leading gardens-in-the-schools program. It should be great. – Bettina

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Bri September 8, 2010 at 3:41 pm

This is craziness. You can’t just sort of have a new vegetable spring out from the bushes in ninja gear and ambush the children, yelling “Suprise! I’m not an apple!” And to do such unholy things to an acorn squash, which should be a relatively easy and delicious sell for children…
We’re in the midst of our own sort of “acorn squash” moment — a much-touted and highly anticipated snack menu makeover at my kids’ preschool. Guess what? Not so much made over. Check it out: http://redroundorgreen.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/a-new-school-year-a-new-healthy-snack-menu/

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Mark September 9, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Great post. And I must say that I have a 4 year old and I’m about to embark on the same journey – regular visits. I can’t wait to read more experiences.

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bettina elias siegel September 10, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Mark – do keep us posted on what you find in your own school’s cafeteria. It’s great to compare notes. – Bettina

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Donna September 12, 2010 at 8:33 am

They were touting that fish patty as the living end at the last PAC meeting. Not sure it’s fried. Also, I believe it’s a solid piece of fish rather than compacted scraps. I could skip the cheese, too, but it may be a better offering than other fish sticks. Did the kids eat it?

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bettina elias siegel September 12, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Oh, didn’t realize THIS was the fish in question. Did they mention the cheese at the meeting? (I don’t know why I’m so hung up on the cheese – I like cheese, per se, but there’s something about it stuffed in fried fish that just wigs me out for some reason.)

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