Putting My Money On the Class of 2024

Iowa Congressman Steve King, a critic of the new school food regulations, made news earlier this week by introducing a bill to roll back the regulations’ new calorie limits.  Called the “No Hungry Kids Act,” King’s proposed legislation (co-sponsored by fellow Republican Tim Huelskamp) would allow schools to serve unlimited calories to children rather than capping meals at 650 calories for grades K-5, 700 calories for grades 6-8 and 850 calories for high schoolers.

Said King:

“For the first time in history, the USDA has set a calorie limit on school lunches . . . . The goal of the school lunch program was — and is — to insure students receive enough nutrition to be healthy and to learn.

The misguided nanny state, as advanced by Michelle Obama’s ‘Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act,’ was interpreted by Secretary [Tom] Vilsack to be a directive that, because some kids are overweight, he would put every child on a diet. Parents know that their kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious food they want.”

As Greg Noth pointed out on Think Progress, one of the ironies here is that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act actually expands access to food for economically disadvantaged kids through a variety of programs.  It’s also worth noting that King is currently fighting to retain his Congressional seat against a challenge by Christie Vilsack, wife of the aforementioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.  That might explain King’s politicizing of this issue, despite the fact that 39% of elementary-aged children in King’s state of Iowa are currently overweight.

But cynicism aside, the new school meal regulations have changed school lunches in significant ways and not all of them have been positively received by kids, parents or school food service directors.

Here’s a photo from the Des Moines Register which illustrates how one high school meal is changed by the new requirements (click to enlarge).

copyright Des Moines Register

The most obvious change is the increase in fruits and vegetables, a laudable development but not one that’s always popular with kids.  Almost daily, I get Google alerts to local news stories about kids spurning the produce on their trays, either tossing the fruits and vegetables in the trash or giving the food to friends.  (And I’ve certainly seen this firsthand — my district admirably sources local produce and I watch in dismay as many kids throw it right into the garbage, uneaten.)

Meanwhile, what the photo above doesn’t show is the new cap on the total amount of meat and grains which can be served weekly.   San Francisco school food reformer Dana Woldow had a piece last month which demonstrated how these grain/meat limits can really complicate a district’s menu planning, a sentiment shared by a source to whom I spoke in my own district, Houston ISD.  In a subsequent  interview by Dana Woldow with Justin Gagnon, CEO of Choicelunch (a private school meal catering company), Gagnon, too, was very critical of the grain and meat limits, arguing that they encourage districts to increase the use of fats and fillers.

Meanwhile, in a widely circulated story last week, the Asssociated Press gave the new school meals a “mixed grade” and further reported, consistent with the statements of Congressman King, that some kids (particularly teenagers and athletes) are going hungry after school meals, a situation that’s led to various student protests around the country.

So what are we to make of all this?

As someone who only sits on the sidelines when it comes to serving school meals, I always respect the feedback of those “behind the line.”  If’ they’re telling us that the grain and meat limits hamper their efforts to provide filling, varied meals, then clearly we have a problem there.

But when it comes to kids spurning fruits and vegetables, or generally shying away from healthier entrees, I wholeheartedly agree with this most recent opinion piece by Dana Woldow (yes, I’m citing Dana again!) who urges us not to rush to judgment just yet.

Back in 2010, I wrote an editorial in the Houston Chronicle praising my district for introducing new vegetables but warning that students were likely to reject those foods unless we made efforts to educate them and encourage experimentation.

And when it was widely reported last year that students in Los Angeles USD hated that district’s improved menu, I went further by arguing that students’ complaints might, in the end, be irrelevant:

. . . . [T]he hard truth is this: if we really intend to wean an entire generation of children off school food “carnival fare” (nachos, nuggets, burgers and fries) and introduce them to fresher, healthier entrees, we are, without question, going to lose some kids along the way.  In other words, it’s just not that surprising if a middle- or high schooler who’s seen nothing but “better-for-you junk food”on his tray since kindergarten can’t make the leap to black bean burgers and salad, especially if there’s no context for healthier foods in his life outside of school.

But a kindergartener who’s never seen anything but black bean burgers and salads in the cafeteria is going to be a much easier sell on healthier foods throughout his school years.  And that young child is our only hope if we’re going to reverse current trends in obesity and poor lifestyle habits among our nation’s children.  So if our choice is to continue the dismal school food status quo because “that’s all kids will eat,” or knowingly lose some kids now to Flaming Hot Cheetos and Cokes with an eye toward those impressionable, incoming kindergarteners and all the classes that will follow them, I can live with sacrificing a few for the many.

With respect to the new meal regulations, Dana echoes this same sentiment:

It is the 5 and 6 year olds who are the real targets here. Even if these youngsters are seeing a lot of fast food or junk food at home, they have no expectation of seeing such delights in the school cafeteria. For them, the only school food they know is what they are seeing this year, and while it may look unfamiliar, at least they don’t have the mindset of older students who feel that their rightful heap of chicken nuggets has been snatched away.

It will likely take years to see the full effect of the new school food rules. As today’s kindergarten students move through their school years, the hope is that they will choose fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria every day as a matter of course, because they taste good, they are healthy, and that’s what the rules are. They won’t know that the rules were ever any different.

So before we throw up our hands and say kids just won’t eat fruits and vegetables at school, or they must have their fries and nuggets lest they starve, let’s agree to meet back here in 2024.   That’s when this year’s entering elementary school class will graduate from high school, and (unless Congressman King has his way) they will never have known anything but the improved school meals mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The sight of fruits and vegetables on their tray will simply be a given.   They will not expect daily desserts, a crutch often used by districts in the past to meet the old regulations’ calorie minimums.  They will have no memory of the “good old days,” when districts like mine could offer for lunch in a single week: breaded chicken sandwiches; cheeseburgers; chicken fried steak fingers with cream gravy; beef taco nachos; beef taco salad; pepperoni pizza;  and “Frito Pie” — with the latter two entrees served with mashed potatoes.   Or as Dana charmingly puts it:

. . . being introduced to jicama sticks or kiwi fruit is just like meeting a new teacher, or venturing onto the playground with 50 other whirling dervishes, or participating in show and tell – it is one more exciting part of “big kids school”, one that may be a little scary at first, but that becomes more familiar with time, until eventually it is welcomed as a friend.


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  1. says

    Wow, Bettina – thanks for so many mentions!
    One more thing about Rep. King – a few months ago, he voted to cut $33 billion over 10 years from the food stamp program (now called SNAP.) Since eligibility for SNAP automatically qualifies students to receive free school meals, cutting funding for the program would result in millions of low income kids being denied free school meals. That doesn’t sound like the action of someone who believes “kids deserve all of the healthy and nutritious food they want.”

  2. says

    As I was reading through this post and looking at the infographic from The Register, it occurred to me that you don’t see much discussion about *why* the kids are rejecting the veggies, aside from the, “Well…they’ve never been exposed to them before,” argument. No offense, but if that tray in the picture was in front of me, the broccoli and mixed canned veggies would be the last item I’d eat. Why? Because the quality and preparation are more often than not bland and tasteless.

    If there’s one thing I remember from school food lunches, it’s that most of the veggies came out of a can. To this day, I won’t eat canned green beans and I rarely buy canned fruit because it tastes blah (or in some case, just nasty). Even in the cases where fresh or frozen veggies are available, you have to do a little more to them than just steam them and throw them on a tray. How about a sauce, some seasonings, or reserve some calories for a semi-healthful dipping sauce or dressing? How about mixing the sides into the main dish so they’re not so easily overlooked and discarded? I don’t think there’s anything saying you can’t use the allotted calories to make a casserole or a stir-fry or some other multi-ingredient dish.

    We not only need to provide our kids with healthful options, but we need to make them taste good too so it’s something they actually want to eat.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Justin: I made the same exact point in the Chronicle op-ed I cite in this post. Plain steamed vegetables are a hard sell even to some adults. Why not mix them in with the pasta sauce or chili? If there’s a school food professional out there who wants to answer . . .

      • Maggie says

        Can I address this in 2 ways?

        The new regulations have made this an interesting concept. Keep in mind we now must offer specific vegetable sub-groups during each week. Vegetables can certainly be an ingredient in the main dish. The quantity must be sufficient for the age/grade group and you must consider if you are also offering that particular vegetable sub-group on a different day of the week, if you don’t include the same vegetable sub-group in the alternative entrees on the same day.

        What I mean is this – if you put broccoli (dark green vegetable sub group) in the pasta sauce and have a second entree without a dark green vegetable in that dish, you would need to plan that week’s menu to include the appropriate quantity of dark green vegetable on another day so that a student who chose the alternate entree (that didn’t have the broccoli), would have access to a dark green vegetable at some point that week.

        That’s one concern. Here’s a different look at it from my own situation.

        At the school I’m at (elementary school) we usually try to keep components separate, if possible, (example – for tacos – cheese, lettuce, sauce, other toppings – “on the side”) so if there is a part they don’t care for, it doesn’t prevent them from choosing the entire item. If I mix the broccoli in the pasta sauce, will they turn the sauce down completely because they don’t care for the broccoli? I guess that is where the “If they are hungry enough, they will eat it” statement comes in, but in reality, there are a surprising number that will choose to skip an item rather than take something that contains something they don’t like.

        I’m torn, I really am. If they won’t take the food & eat it , they might be hungry. But, I know, I know…we can’t be “held hostage” by what the students like…they need what is good for them and they should learn to eat it and they will if they are hungry enough. I hear that, I do! It is just sometimes harder in reality than in theory. And I know, that’s where all the hypothetical taste tests and cooking classes and school gardens and meal times long enough for education and encouragement and the staff to cover all that come into play.

        Oh, here’s another question – Would you like the vegetables hidden completely in the other dishes? Or still visible? I’ve read discussion in the past (not sure if it was here or not?) that if we try to disguise the vegetables we are suggesting that there IS something “wrong” with them, rather than embracing them in their more natural state. Who has the “right” view on that, and which view does the school cafeteria follow?

        I know that I view the situation & ideas via my specific situation. There are so many different variables in so many different places.

        • Bettina Elias Siegel says

          Maggie: Drat – I wasn’t thinking about the fact that the kid who turns down the veggie-filled entree is therefore also missing the veggie component of the meal. This is HARD!

          And just for the record, I’m not advocating hiding vegetables in that Jessica Seinfeld sense. It’s more that the pile of unadorned, steamed [fill in vegetable] seems likely to flop, and I’m searching for other ways to approach it. As are you, I’m sure! :-)

    • bw1 says

      “No offense, but if that tray in the picture was in front of me, the broccoli and mixed canned veggies would be the last item I’d eat. Why? Because the quality and preparation are more often than not bland and tasteless.”

      Then maybe you need to adjust your expectations that everything you put in your mouth will result in waves of ecstasy. OK, that’s a little hyperbolic, but the point is, the choice you’re describing illustrates the emotionalism and deficient impulse control of our spoiled, jaded culture.

      There was a time when people didn’t give a second thought to whether their kids would like what they put on the table, and kids wouldn’t think of turning their noses up at anything offered. Then the greatest generation made the monumental mistake of resolving that their kids would never know the adversity they had known, without ever pausing to consider what role that adversity had played in their own character development.

      If you cringe at the thought of saying “shut up and eat it” to your child, then the school lunch program is not the long pole in your child’s nutritional problems tent.

      • says

        That’s not hyperbolic. It’s snarky and quite rude. If you bother to read a few more posts on this site before rushing to judge, I think you’ll find that the majority of folks on here care a lot about providing solid nutrition for all our children–not to mention the poorest of the poor, who are the ones entitled to free lunch. This isn’t a site about “waves of ecstasy” gained by eating every morsel. If you want to judge and shame folks like that, go find a different blog.

        If you think “shut up and eat it” and lack of enough “adversity” in their lives is an excuse for feeding the next generation gray, mushy, hours-old-held-in-a-hotbox vegetables with fewer vitamins and minerals than lightly steamed fresh or frozen, then I’d like to question your priorities as well. We are indeed a country that wants the best for our kids that we can provide with the resources we have TODAY…not in the 1940’s. What’s so wrong with that? There are plenty of ways of introducing challenge and adversity in our children’s’ lives–we don’t need to starve them or feed them tasteless nutritionally devoid mush to do it–especially when studies show it hurts their ability to learn and better themselves.

        Current government standards for the school nutrition program allow for around $1.25 per meal, including labor costs for both the paying and free customers. I’d challenge you to feed your family on that budget for a week and see if they don’t start turning up their noses at the monotony or metallic taste of canned green beans. See if they don’t start getting draggy and lethargic from lack of good nutrition.

        One last thing…you mention the “long pole” of my child’s nutritional problems, which directly addresses ME and my family. For the record, I have an infant who is just beginning to feed herself. I’ve been lucky to have the financial means to offer her a wide variety of fresh, healthful options to eat. I’ll also have the means to pack her a healthful and nutritious lunch as she gets into elementary school and to teach her how to cook for and feed herself as she grows older. I’m far from a short-order chef, and there WILL be nights when if she doesn’t like what’s being served, she’lll go to bed wishing she’d eaten more anyway. Many families don’t have nearly the same resources.

        For me and many others, this isn’t about entitlement or privilege or pampering our kids. It’s about doing the best we can with what we have for resources and challenging our schools and government agencies to do the same.

        • bw1 says

          “There are plenty of ways of introducing challenge and adversity in our children’s’ lives–we don’t need to starve them or feed them tasteless nutritionally devoid mush to do it”

          This statement indicates that you didn’t understand what I said. Making kids eat non-pleasing vegetables is not a means to the end of introducing challenge and adversity. A willingness to introduce challenge and adversity is a means to the end of kids who don’t reject vegetables unless they’re covered in cheese sauce or prepared by a five star chef.

          It’s not always easy or cheap to reconcile “good for you” and “tastes great,” and a kid who’s raised to make food choices on the former rather than the latter will be better positioned to make sound food choices throughout life.

          The problem isn’t a failure to make vegetables taste better, the problem is a generation of kids whose eating decisions reflect an expectation that they’ll never have to eat anything that doesn’t appeal to them.

          • says

            This thread was never about covering veggies with cheese sauce or otherwise hiding them to make them “kid friendly.” I think you’ll find that most people who read this blog regularly disagree with that methodology as well.

            The thread was about the difference between mushy ill-prepared broccoli (probably without even salt and pepper) that’s been packaged-up and sitting under a heat lamp for hours while it’s shipped to a school and more or less served from a closet.

            • bw1 says

              Are these, or are they not, YOUR words, Justin:
              “Even in the cases where fresh or frozen veggies are available, you have to do a little more to them than just steam them and throw them on a tray. How about a sauce, some seasonings, or reserve some calories for a semi-healthful dipping sauce or dressing?”

              You continue to miss and talk past the point, which is that the problem lies not in our food, but in our selves. In terms of the kids’ perception and experience, there’s no difference between your semi-healthy dipping sauce and cheese sauce. They’re both esthetic embellishments designed to make it more pleasurable to consume the vegetables. They both send the message of “eat this because it’s tasty” rather then “eat this because it’s the right thing to do.” A LOT of our social pathologies could be reduced if people returned to raising their kids to choose actions more on what’s right and less on what’s pleasing to them.

              I ate an awful lot of mushy, ill-prepared broccoli as a kid, and it didn’t kill me, nor will it kill these spoiled kids.

              • says

                On the contrary, I’m not missing the point at all. I understand exactly what you’re saying and I firmly disagree with you.

                By your logic, if dirt were nutritionally adequate to support the body, we should just eat dirt and be happy with it and not want anything that’s more appealing or that constitutes variety. And if the patch of dirt you were allotted to eat happened to be high in sulfur compounds or gravel or something less desireable to choke down, too bad. It’s nutritious. Eat it and be thankful. You only need vitamins…you don’t need to feel happy about it.

                Personally, I think you’re way too hung-up and bitter on the “we’re raising spoiled kids” aspect and you’re missing OUR point. This blog is primarily dedicated to child nutrition–not aesthetics. It’s about providing children with a variety of healthful foods and preparing them in such a way that they WILL learn to make sound nutritional choices on their own.

                I doubt very much that well-prepared, well-seasoned broccoli is spoiling our kids. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a parent, scientist, or psychologist who would ever back you up on that theory.

                • bw1 says

                  This statement:
                  “By your logic, if dirt were nutritionally adequate to support the body, we should just eat dirt and be happy with it and not want anything that’s more appealing or that constitutes variety.”

                  Demonstrates that, in fact you DO still miss the point. In no way have I said there’s anything wrong with WANTING a variety of appealing food – read my response to Leann below. I’m probably more of a “foodie” than anyone here.

                  WANTING it is fine; SEEKING it is fine, when circumstances allow. The problem is learning a pattern of CHOOSING based only on what one WANTS, to the detriment of what one knows is right. When appealing, healthy food is available, GREAT. When it’s time for a special occasion of indulgence, appealing UNhealthy food is all right. But when it comes to a normal daily meal, kids should have the good sense to base their choices on what’s right, and not on what their baser instincts might drive them to want.

                  I am NOT advocating unappealing food, just raising kids so that, if an when they may encounter it, they’ll cowboy up and eat it rather than substituting junk food.

                  YOU stated the problem – kids choosing junk over vegetables because the vegetables are not, by reason of less than stellar preparation, appealing. In case you haven’t noticed, the economy is in the toilet and we can’t all have everything as appealing as we’d like, especially when we’re having it at the expense of the forcibly confiscated fruits of the labors of others.

                  The vast majority of the children on this planet would kill to have that mushy broccoli, and here we waste enough food because of our jaded esthetics to feed another country nearly our size. In the global context, every American is what the Occupy movement calls a one percenter.

                  So yes, while I enjoy good food and want my kid to appreciate the finer things in life, I also want him to have the humility, perspective, and self-discipline not to take them for granted, feel entitled, or turn up his nose at a nutritionally sound lunch if an when it happens to fall below Cordon Bleu standards. It won’t be his only or, hopefully, last meal, and so a few minutes of esthetic discord won’t kill him.

  3. says

    There is also room for optimism in that many kids who are “picky eaters” will end up learning to experiment with new foods at some point in time, and will end up liking them. My own brother was one such person, a dedicated burger and fries kid, until he decided to try “macaroni” at a seafood restaurant one day. After trying it, and being told it was in fact calamari, he decided he still liked it, and from then on tended to eat more from the “adult” section of the menu.

    I agree that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater – possibly a transition, where we add new stuff to the menu, but allow one day a week to be “pizza day” or “burger and fries day” or “hot dog day”. Offer up a variety of foods (difficult in a cafeteria setting, but not impossible – just look at what various buffets/cafeterias serve in Houston for an example), and the kids will eventually learn (because, in fact, they will not allow themselves to starve – the survival instinct will kick in.)


    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      I agree, Ed. And for sure things like pizza still appear frequently around the country, albeit with whole grain crust and other modifications. I used to decry the endless array of junk food-type items on menus, even if improved somewhat, but now I’m coming around that you have to meet kids where they are and go from there.

      • says

        I think this is an important point – “junk” foods like pizza *can* be made healthy, the recipe just needs to be re-worked. Whole grain/gluten-free, low-fat cheese, low-sodium tomato sauce, non-cured meats, fresh veg – it is really an efficient lunch (and you can do things like calzone to change it up a bit.) Same with casseroles and other “one-pot” dishes, and even the Frito Pie can be re-worked (if someone can make spaghetti out of quinoa, then almost anything is possible!)


        • bw1 says

          “I think this is an important point – “junk” foods like pizza *can* be made healthy, ”

          But that only addresses one facet of their being “junk” food.
          “Junk food” has always had two meanings – one is nutritionally defined, and the other culturally. No matter how many nutrients you pack in pizza, it’s still “recreational” food and it still reinforces the concept of eating for gratification rather than for sustenance. Out there in the world, the resulting pattern of food choices is a nutritional nightmare.

          I disagree that kids who are allowed to become picky eaters will outgrow it. I’ve seen way too many 20- and 30-somethings who, no matter what imaginative menu options a place has, slavishly order chicken fingers and french fries, sticking reflexively to adult portions of the narrow offerings found on the kids’ menu.

          • says

            Calling healthy pizza a “recreational” food is just a bogus put-down. It’s bread and tomato sauce and other assorted meats, cheeses, vegetables, just like non-recreational food, whatever that is. What bothers me is that the school offers pizza as a choice (pepperoni or cheese) every single day of the school year. There should be variety enough to get kids used to eating a lot of different foods. Some day they might have a sandwich or a panini or a pita pocket or flat bread with tomato, cheese, veggies and meat in it–same ingredients as pizza, just prepared and presented differently. Or a pasta dish with hmm, tomato sauce? I had a glass of wine and a gluten-free pizza at a nice restaurant last night with cheese, mushrooms, and sausage (no sauce). It was a long way from Chuck E. Cheese. Don’t be a food snob. This is what your culturally defined notion of junk food says to me. Pizza is bread dough with stuff on it. Most people like it. The healthier and fresher it can be made, the better. Personally, I would love to see more soups in school. Currently, they are offered only one day a week at my oldest child’s mid high school.

          • says

            I forgot to address the slam on “eating for gratification rather than sustenance.” This is ridiculous. Yes, kids should not eat flaming hot cheetos (something I saw in a school provided sack lunch the other day!). No matter how much they like them, they are junk food, and should be eaten very rarely and never provided as part of a healthy meal at school. But gratification is a normal part of eating. Otherwise let’s just give every one a ration of high protein prepackaged biscuits and water and be done with it. Food should taste and look good, not merely be healthy and virtuously non-gratifying. This comment is like a weird nutritional puritanism. I love brie cheese. It gratifies my tastebuds and is also healthy (in moderation, I suppose I should say…I know most people think lowfat or nonfat dairy is better for you, but I don’t agree). I don’t eat it because it sustains me, I eat it because I like it. Yum!! Poor kids receiving free lunch should get to feel the same thing, the knowledge that the food they enjoy is not only healthy but delicious.

            • bw1 says

              ‘It’s bread and tomato sauce and other assorted meats, cheeses, vegetables, just like non-recreational food, whatever that is.”

              Yes, but it carries a cultural context as a highly commercialized element of pop culture. It is consumed by kids and teens in much the same cultural context as beer is consumed by adults. I’m not a food snob – I can guarantee that I regularly enjoy some lowbrow, redneck garbage foods at which you would turn up your nose – but you’re denying the reality that foods have cultural contexts.

              Nor am I advocating food puritanism, but it’s important that kids learn that, to misquote Jagger, you can’t always eat what you want. In order to eat healthy on the budget of most Americans, you pretty much have to eat some things you don’t like, and to eat healthy on what our debt-ridden government can realistically afford to spend, you DEFINITELY do. Kids should be raised so that, when they are faced with the choice of two foods for a regular meal, one of which ONLY tastes good, and one of which is ONLY good for them, to overcome their emotions with principle and choose the latter, eat it, and live with a few minutes of esthetic dissonance for the sake of their health. They should also be prepared to keep themselves healthy when ALL the food choices available to them are unpleasant.

              I’m not saying schools should serve mushy vegetables. What I’m saying is that, if and when they occasionally do, for budgetary reasons, or because of a truckers’ strike, or because of a disaster in the region from which they get their produce, it won’t cause a properly raised kid to disdain them in favor of junk food.

              People raise their kids these days as if things will always be rosy and the food will always be good. History teaches us the folly of that assumption. My uncle was raised the way I advocated above, and he learned the value of it when he became a POW – a very real prospect in most kids’ future given that our government’s current taste for foreign meddling doesn’t seem to be waning. He was happy that his parents had told him to shut up and eat things he didn’t find appealing, because it left him with one less hurdle to survive. If you think that’s too improbable, I’ll bet a lot of people had to eat a lot of unpleasant food in New Orleans after Katrina.

      • says

        BTW, pizza, burgers etc. didn’t necessarily start out as “junk” food, but rather as an efficient means of eating (that didn’t require a lot of dishes and utensils.) Our “food-industrial complex” made them “junk” in an attempt to drop prices and improve shelf life.


  4. says

    This is going to sound terrible, but I almost feel like these older kids are already lost. Especially, if the best these cafeterias can do is serve up steamed, mushy vegetables and shrug when it gets tossed out into the garbage. There are about a million ways to make vegetables tasty. Why not roast that broccoli and shave some parmesan on top? Or make a light curry sauce for the vegetables? Or make a buttermilk ranch dressing for a crudités? These older kids might not be used to vegetables, but they might try if someone was more creative with the ingredients. And if not, well good luck with your diabetes and heart conditions later in life! I know that’s harsh but until we address the problem of systematically feeding our kids calorie-leaden trash food instead of teaching them about the value of quality fruit and vegetables, we are in trouble.

    Any vegetable can be a gateway drug to healthy eating, if we introduce it early enough and frequently enough. Like everything else with kids, it takes time, patience and repetition. Let’s not give up because it’s hard.

    • Maggie says

      There’s more than a few of us who won’t give up because it’s hard, but honestly, sometimes even a simple idea takes a bit more on a larger scale.

      Just for fun, here’s my thought process , just off the top of my head, for roasted broccoli. Which is a great idea!

      Now, translating that to a school setting… I’d start with 28-30 pounds of prepared broccoli. I’m going to go with the idea of purchasing it as florets but if you had local sources, you’d want to buy fresh, untrimmed, that so that would add labor time. Even so, the pre-cut items will often need to be further trimmed into equal pieces for even cooking.

      I’m thinking that will take 14 or 15 sheet pans at least (about 2 pounds per 18×27 inch sheet pan to avoid crowding so it roasts, not steams, right?). So far so good, I’ve got that many sheet pans. I’ve got 2 convection ovens, with room for 5 pans each. Depending on what else is on the menu, I should have enough rolling racks/carts to put the pans of veggies on while the are being held prior to cooking and enough cooler space to hold the cart. (maybe…the kitchen & storage was built to serve around 300 students. They’ve added classrooms to the building, but not any space to kitchen or cafeteria.)

      I’d guess it would be better to flip that broccoli during cooking, so it’s going to be more labor intensive, I need to be sure I’ve got a staff person who can do that at the time of day when it needs to be cooked. We serve for one and a half hours, will I need someone to batch cook the broccoli & garnish with the parm? How long can it be held and be of good quality? Otherwise, we’re right back to “bad” vegetables.

      Normally for our school, all staff (all 3 of us for ~ 480 students) is involved in serving with no real down time, so that’s a challenge if someone needs to be doing labor intensive cooking during serving. The ovens are right behind the serving line, so there isn’t much room for someone to be serving and someone else to be cooking. That’s a challenge too.

      I’d have to think about what else to put on the menu that day. If I need the convection ovens for another item, would the timing work out? When would I need to start cooking that item, how long could it be held? What day can I put the broccoli on the menu to match with delivery schedules for the fresh product. Or, do I have enough cooler space to keep the product until the day we need it?

      Nothing there is insurmountable, but it all needs to be considered.

      I offer this only as a view of one person, in one kitchen. Just one view for consideration…it might be a snap in some situations, but in another situation, if a “kitchen” in a school doesn’t have any real ovens, it might be completely impossible.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Maggie: This is why I love when you visit and comment. It’s so important for the rest of us to understand the real world conditions in which you work. And to remember that some schools aren’t nearly as well provisioned as yours and wouldn’t even have the oven capacity, etc.

        • Christine says

          I understand the challenge completely. Although I never worked in a school setting, I’ve had the challenge of cooking for hundreds in kitchens of various sizes and cooking anything, even Cisco broccoli florets can be done. My point is, if we kids to eat vegetables, we have to try to making the vegetables more appealing.

          In the above scenario, I would have the ovens cranked to 450 degrees with sheet trays already warmed up inside. I’d dress the precut broccoli florets in olive oil and salt and pepper, toss them on sheet trays and caramelize on one side for about 15 minutes. I’d then transfer this to a hotel pan and repeat until all the broccoli is cooked. I’d use the food processor to shred all the Parmesan and then I’d top broccoli with parm before it goes out into the cafeteria. Unused parm would be wrapped up and stored in freezer for future use.

          I know it’s not easy. But what worthwhile pursuits are easy?

          • says

            This assumes, of course, that the budget allows for $20/pound block parmesan cheese as opposed to the stuff in the green jar. :-)

            In all seriousness, I’m glad my original comment stirred-up such a discussion. People have pointed-out that school kitchens operate with a fraction of the resources as a restaurant kitchen (or even a hospital kitchen, for that matter). These kitches and the number of staff members they have were designed to reheat things. Switching them to full cooking mode…even for something as inoccuous and “easy” as roasted broccoli, is a huge financial and time challenge–even if all the equipment is there (the ovens, the pans, etc.) and the raw food is available.

            But that’s sort of the crux of the problem, isn’t it? Legislating nutritional standards isn’t going to get us to better food. There needs to be some money and a financial plan behind it, else we’ll just end-up with the same lackluster food that was served before.

            I especially liked the post about being torn between mixing the veggies into the entree and keeping them separate. I think it’d be a curious experiment to see if kids actually decline the entree altogether or whether they accept it and pick-out the foods they don’t like. For the record, I’m against the idea of hiding the veggies. We owe it to our kids to be honest about what they’re being offered. I only suggested “mixed” dishes as a way to make it more interesting and tastier than slabs or dishes of bland individual items on a tray.

            • Maggie says

              Thanks Justin. I’ll shred that parm in my Robot Coupe…oh wait…is a there few extra thousand dollars in the budget? Oh well. :-)

              I know that compared to many, I have it pretty good as far as equipment. And I even know how to cook. 😉

              Christine, I appreciate your enthusiasm. I do share that, honest. Bettina has often mentioned the writings of Dana Woldow. I would add my praise for Dana. Her writings cover the very real situations found in school food service operations…balanced and fair to all parts of the issues.

              From my viewpoint, the kind of “idea person” I’d love to work with would have a goal in mind, rather than a specific instruction – in this case, for example, a desire to help kids learn to eat & enjoy vegetables. Starting with the end in mind and having a willingness to work through the possibilities and the challenges …that might be beneficial for all involved.

              • says

                Maybe we can get the government to start stockpiling parmesan cheese like they’re doing with the pork.

                …and we can contract out to BPI to grind it up for us using their shut-down LFTB equipment at a discount.

                How’s that for problem-solving? :-)

                • bw1 says

                  Food cost is NOT the driving factor. With the possible exception of the most esoteric top tier restaurants, the biggest component of food service operating costs is labor, and in the case of school cafeterias, that goes double because it’s usually union labor. The second biggest piece of the pie is energy. When you have a pizza delivered for $10 or more, the pizza joint’s food cost is about 50 cents.

                  A friend of mine spent years as a manager for one of the major national institutional food service subcontrators. During that time she completely reformed one district’s lunch program, with wholesome scratch cooked meals, achieving 95% participation and in her second and third year returning enough surplus to the district general budget to cover the salaries of, respectively, 2 and then 5 full time teachers. She said that prisons were the most coveted contracts to manage because they were the only place you could rely on the kitchen staff to consistently show up for work.

                  By the way, her reward for that improvement? The superintendent gave her an ultimatum to sign a fraudulent federal grant application for school lunch facility improvements when he planned to use the money for athletic facilities or quit.

                  That’s why, if you REALLY want to achieve anything, you need to take back resonsibility for feeding your kids from inherently unaccountable government.

              • says

                Thank you Maggie – I like what you have to say too! I think one of the hardest lessons for school food reformers to learn is that many good ideas which seem like they would be easy to do, and inexpensive, rarely turn out to be that in reality.

                Christine, that roasted broccoli sounds delicious, and I make something similar at home, but for our schools which are literally serving meals out of a closet, there are no ovens that heat as high as 450, just a retherm oven that maxes out at about 300, and is not really meant to be set higher than about 250 to reheat the frozen partially thawed meals which is all these kitchenless schools can handle.

                Cooking veggies at one site and then shipping them out to another site to be reheated and served is what turns kids against vegetables in the first place, so preparing it at another school for ship out doesn’t really work either.

                Lucky for us, many of our school kids do enjoy eating raw veggies, even without dip or dressing. I nearly fell over the first time I saw them chowing down on cauliflower, but at some of our schools, that is hands down the most popular raw veggie. Go figure.

                • says

                  I will clearly admit my ignorance on the subject of implementing cooking suggestions into a real school cafeteria setting. I have a fine dining background and I’ve cooked in a variety of settings and I assumed, apparently incorrectly, that cafeterias had functioning kitchens.

                  My suggestions were not meant to offend anyone. I admire all the work that’s being done on the students’ behalf and I’m just happy to be part of a dialogue to create healthier eating at home and at school.

                  And FYI, I’d buy domestic parm 😉

                  • Bettina Elias Siegel says

                    Christine – I think I speak for everyone when I say no one was offended by what you wrote. I think it’s so important to get creative ideas for school food from all sources, and equally important for those in the school food world to tell us whether the ideas fly or not. Please continue to share your thoughts on TLT! :-)

                    • Maggie says

                      Nope, no offense here. Even though I work in a school kitchen and had a pretty good idea of what happens in our district (even dealing with just a dozen or so different kitchens makes for interesting challenges) I really didn’t understand the situations in other areas.

                      I read Janet Poppendieck’s “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America”, and also became more aware of the wide variety of challenges across the country as we started to follow the process of the implementation of the new regulations.

                      Now, as I look at what we do in our district, I can’t help but think about things on a larger scale as well.

  5. says

    Yes! Every vegetable I see in school lunch is either served plain steamed or raw and served with ranch dressing. Very, very boring. The most creative use of vegetables I’ve seen in my child’s school is black bean and corn salsa. The pizza never has vegetables. The sauces never have vegetables. The fruits are never cooked, unless it is applesauce. Soup would be a good place to serve a lot of vegetables efficiently and tastily, but I never see any soup other than Chicken noodle or Clam chowder on the menu. Frustrating. :/


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