Notes From the Field: Kids Eat Chicken That’s Not a Nugget; Jaws Drop.

by Bettina Elias Siegel on October 4, 2010

I got to the lunch room late last week, so my “source” had already eaten much of her lunch:

The entree was a new item on our menu this year:  BBQ chicken.  That’s right – an actual whole piece of chicken, unprocessed, unbreaded and quite tasty.   As you can see from the photo, it was a big hit with this child and with most of the kids I talked with.

One drawback of the chicken is that, like all the food, it’s served with a flimsy “spork.” According to my friend Cheryl Sorak (on lunch room duty that day), many of the kids were unable to eat it without a knife yet didn’t want to pick it up because it left sauce all over their hands.  [Ed. Note: More musings on the spork in an upcoming post.]  Cheryl had spent the lunch period handing out extra napkins wherever she could, and she wondered if Food Services could include a Wet Nap with this entree in the future (are you listening, Houston ISD/Aramark?).

As for the sides, my source really liked the mac-n-cheese (in the now-empty container above,) but she pronounced the mixed vegetables “totally without flavor.”  The girl next to her was far less diplomatic:  “They’re just nasty!” was her less-than-kind assessment.  And no one was touching the diced pears, for whatever reason.

It was great to see one of the improved menu items – the BBQ chicken – met with such enthusiasm by the kids.  Proof positive that kids will accept something other than the ubiquitous nugget or other standard Kid Food.  I hope we see more whole-food entrees like this in the future.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Maggie October 4, 2010 at 2:22 pm

LOL. Had to laugh about the vegetables. I can say that years of observation support the conclusion that mixed vegetables are low on the list of “acceptable” vegetables. Mixing anything together seems to be the issue. Even if corn is good, and green beans and peas are OK, if there’s carrots mixed in & touching…yep, nasty is likely to be the review.

Got to say, however, that we have been getting good acceptance this year with steamed fresh slim baby carrots. (Yeah, I know, still not fresh out of the ground and all that. We’ll keep trying.)

On a more positive note, that is great news about the chicken. We’ve had poor acceptance of “chicken with bones” to quote the students, but should try it again. *sigh* I wish there was some sort of funding bonus for serving new “good” menu items. I truly hate to even mention finances, because it can be misinterpreted to read that I only care about the money, but the sad fact is that it does have to be part of the picture. Our department is not only self supporting, but “pays back” the general fund for utilities, custodial, cafeteria supervision. With the financial cuts the district has had to make in the past couple of years, sadly, I don’t think we (food service department) can count on their support. We are part of the district, not a contracted company.

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bettina elias siegel October 4, 2010 at 5:43 pm

Maggie: As always, it’s so useful to get the perspective of someone on the food services side of things. And you shouldn’t hesitate to mention finances because that’s really the big issue, isn’t it? If we had more funding for food, the task of feeding kids a healthful, less processed meal would be far easier to accomplish. Are you listening, Congress? Sigh. Apparently not. – Bettina

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Maggie October 4, 2010 at 6:18 pm

That was a bit of defensive statement on my part, wasn’t it? Ugh.

I’m afraid I’ve been in too many discussions with folks who aren’t as well versed about some of the background issues. Even mentioning the finances can leave the door open for comments along the line of “you don’t really care about the students, the nutrition, the…fill-in-the-blank…it’s just about the money.”

But I do know you realize, it does, at least in part, have to be about the money. How to manage that mix – not catering totally to student preferences, yet serving foods they’ll eat that are “good” for them (because we DO want what is good for them) because if they don’t choose the school meals at all, the funding goes away, the program suffers even further…I think that’s one of the big questions. Where is that balancing point?

Just to throw it out there, I think, along with more money (always useful!), education and support from the class room, home, (or time for us to do some education/promotion in the lunch line or cafeteria), time for students to actually eat, calmer & quieter cafeteria atmosphere, those would all help too. Which, I suppose, in the end, also would need…more money! As you said…*sigh*

I do think that some of the other pieces could come with time – local suppliers and that kind of thing. If people see a market, I think they will work to fill it. Which reminds me, we are supposed be getting some local squash this week.

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Joanne Roach October 5, 2010 at 7:12 am

Not to ignore the brilliant fact that the lunch tray above features a cut of meat which actually looks like it may have seen a chicken before (yay!) because it is a big step forward, or to ignore Maggie’s very pertinent comments about funding and ignorance (which is, let’s face it, often a hindrance to many more steps forward), but can I just ask something else related to your post please?

You mentioned the flimsy plastic spork. I was actually genuinely shocked to see on Jamie’s American Food Revolution (being aired here in the UK right now) that many children are not given a real metal knife, fork and spoon to eat with. I find that really disheartening. Plastic sporks are not cutlery. They do however skill the next generation up to be really good at eating from drive thrus.
Also I have noticed that everything seems to come in individual portions in individual little plastic boxes. Do any of these boxes or sporks get recycled? Or does it all get chucked in the bin with the uneaten food? Which I would really find horrifying. Not only because of the environmental concerns, which are enough in themselves, but also because of the astonishing hypocrisy of telling enthusiastic school cooks that the financial cupboard is bare when they ask for better ingredients or more salary time to prep food, while millions of wasted pennies get scraped into landfill along with the canned mixed veg.

I get that people get attached to the flight trays. It has been taking a long time here to gradually bring real plates in and retire the flight trays. Thank god we are more or less there, but I know it takes a while. But food (probably itself taken from plastic packaging) spooned into other little plastic packages and then put in compartments in another plastic tray just seems so sadly removed from the meal you would want on your dinner table.

Does all this packaging get thrown away? And how representative of American schools is the portrayal of the school with no real cutlery on Jamie’s show? I’d be really interested to know, as we have a national system here and I know in the US you have different school districts doing different things.
Thanks!

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bettina elias siegel October 5, 2010 at 8:16 am

Joanne: You’ve read my mind because I’m just finishing a draft post on . . . the SPORK. I address all the concerns you raise above – look for it this week or next. And to answer your question, I don’t have firm statistics, by any means, but based on photos of lunches around the country, Mrs. Q’s blog, etc., I get the sense that the spork is ubiquitous. I am assuming it’s all about labor costs – cheaper to buy and toss sporks than to hire people to wash silverware (and plates). More to come . . .

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Joanne Roach October 5, 2010 at 9:59 am

Thanks for the reply Bettina.
So it’s an anti-spork movement next then?
There’s something you don’t say every day.

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Maggie October 5, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Financial and even ecological trade offs can be tricky. Initial cost of dishwasher is a consideration, if one is not in place. Replacement costs of trays/plates and silverware. Cost of chemicals and cost of used water treatment. Labor cost is part of it too, yes. Also, will someone be hired just for dish washing? Depending on the labor pool, how many people are looking for a job like that? A couple of hours, no benefits, not exactly a “great” job.

I know, yet again, a whole bunch of things that shouldn’t even have to be a concern when we are trying to figure out how to get good food to school children.

We use foam trays (a side note, they are much quieter than the reusable trays, so it does make some difference in the noise level) and plastic spoons and forks (not sporks). I’m wondering if school regulations would have to be re-written to allow for knives of any sort?

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Joanne Roach October 7, 2010 at 6:12 am

Hi Maggie, I hope that on no level you took my comment as a criticism of in house kitchen staff, who are my total champions. You’re right that the trade offs are there, but they shouldn’t have to be. You’re in a position where your team is having to make the trade offs, because of poor decision making elsewhere, which is unfair.

The thing is with all “cheap” food provision is that it’s not really cheap, it just seems like it at the point of production. We all pay for it one way or the other. On the issue of disposable equipment, taxpayers will be having to pay to sort out the waste and pollution issues from the disposal, as well as the CO2 issues from producing all of this plastic. We always pay anyway eventually. So surely a healthier society puts that money into providing a well funded kitchen service with the staff time to do things thoroughly in the first place rather than making kitchen staff scrimp, save and use disposable shortcuts, and then spend the same money on cleaning up the mess.

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Maggie October 7, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Oh no, I didn’t see any criticism there at all! I do so much appreciate this blog, since I feel like I do have the chance to be able to say things and not have them taken the wrong way.

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Joanne Roach October 8, 2010 at 10:00 am

Oh good! I am glad, like you I find it’s sometimes easy to get taken the wrong way. It’s lovely that people get so passionate about food, but it does sometimes lead to people who are really on the same side arguing with each other over small details when the big picture still needs so much effort.
It will be interesting to hear your feedback on any changes which take place in your school food and see where the similarities and differences are to here. I find all this stuff fascinating. All the best x

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