Some Thoughts from a Lunch “Lady” Named Ryan

Chef Ann Cooper’s The Lunch Box organization recently shared with me a post from their blog and offered to let me repost it here.  It’s written by Ryan Andrews, a registered dietitian who, according to The Lunch Box,

was impressed with the daily need to consult his adult clients on healthy eating habits they should have learned as children. He was so inspired that he began interning with The School Food Project in Boulder, CO in 2009, and then going as far as to become a lunch lady with the district in the Fall of 2010. He was then able to work with the students at his chosen middle school for an entire school year – teaching and learning, and experiencing what school lunch struggles are like on the ground.

Ryan worked for ten months as a “lunch lady” in Boulder, CO and here are his thoughts on the experience, followed by some commentary of my own:

 Ryan Andrews, Lunch Lady

Ryan Andrews badge
Me for the last 10 months.

Summary: It’s easy to be a school cafeteria know-it-all.  That is, until you actually see what happens each day in a school cafeteria. Here are 18 lessons Coach Ryan Andrews learned during his one year stint as a school cafeteria worker.

If it’s Monday through Friday, 32 million children across the U.S. are eating a meal served at school.

I just spent the last 10 months contributing to this daily food party… as a lunch lady.  (Here’s why I did it.) And here’s what I learned.

1. We can’t let kids dictate things

“Ryan, kids want cheesy pizza, burgers, and chocolate milk.” Great. When did we start letting kids make life decisions?

When I was a kid, if I dictated how my day went, I would have eaten Cinnamon Toast Crunch for all meals and played Donkey Kong instead of doing homework.

Think modern kids have evolved? They haven’t. Check out these videos I shot with students at the school:

But some kids had constructive ideas…

2. Keep school food simple

To get serious about school food and its consequences, policy makers need to focus less on tinkering with funding formulas, surplus agricultural commodities, and % of calories from fat while focusing more on stopping kids from devouring plate after plate of hamburgers and cheesy noodles.

We’re trying to serve nutritious foods to kids. This food exists. Let’s make it happen.

3. Kids learn at school

There’s a strong disconnect with kids and food.

Example #1: I heard two students talking about factory farm video footage and how disturbed they felt after seeing a worker stomp on a calf’s head (see here). They both looked at each other with mouths agape. And then they both proceeded to get beef nachos with cheese.

I’m sure they figured the footage wasn’t real — like Transformers or Toy Story 2Kids aren’t making the connection between what they see and what they eat.

Example #2: This year we served sweet potatoes. Lots of kids had never seen them. This is fine; it’s not a requirement to eat sweet potatoes for optimal health. But – I can assure you that the same kids who cannot identify a sweet potato can list all of the value meals at McDonald’s, candy bar brands, and soda flavours.

Why does learning take a hiatus at lunch? Let’s use this time to inform kids about food. You know, stuff like where it comes from, how it influences our bodies and the planet, and how to prepare it and treat it with respect.

Let’s have DVDs, posters, pamphlets, farmers, gardeners, chefs, dietitians, doctors, flat screen TVs with slide shows, and so forth. Side note: none of this would be funded by the food industry (e.g., dairy council, beef council, soy council, etc.).

If we don’t inform kids about food during lunch – where will they get this information? Parents? TV advertisements? Diet books?

4. Kids won’t change until we (adults) change.

I’ve had countless discussions over the past year with adults about school lunch. Not one adult has been against nutritious and sustainable food options for kids.

But the same adults who want better school lunches for kids are crushing triple stack burgers during their lunch break and take medication for nutrition-related diseases. Apparently the adults don’t believe in nutritious/sustainable food enough to partake themselves.

School lunches won’t change until we (adults) make a genuine change.

There isn’t enough support to make healthful school lunches happen right now. If there were, it would be happening. Parents are unhealthy, school administrators are unhealthy, and now kids are unhealthy. Surprised?

I can assure you that if most parents, teachers, cafeteria workers (the front lines of school food), and school administrators believed in nutritious food (and physical education programs) and participated in it themselves, things would have changed by now.

5. It takes work to prepare nutritious foods (and compost)

Get ready U.S. cafeterias, it takes more time and effort to prepare nutritious whole foods, wash real utensils/plates, and handle food waste. Get used to it.

6. Nutritious school lunches cost more money

Cheap food is an illusion. The real cost is paid somewhere. If we don’t pay at the cafeteria cash register, then we pay with our kid’s health, the planet, the animals, and/or public funds.

Where will we get this money?

My genius ideas:

a) Nix dieting and supplements

American consumers spent $61 billion on diets and supplements last year. That’s $200 for every man, woman and child. So, instead of buying a low-carb diet book and/or the latest appetite suppressant, buy vegetables and beans for your local school.

b) Nix the new cell phone and/or car

The new ride looks pretty sweet, but it doesn’t help to prevent heart disease. Are you willing to forgo the upgraded cell phone plan or new car payment so your kid can have a few extra bucks for nutritious food? I am.

7. When kids are hungry, they’ll eat

Funny – when I was serving beans, rice and bananas to kids in Uganda (see photos below), I don’t remember any of them turning me down. Why? If kids are hungry – they will eat.

Nope, no picky eaters here

8. Serve one entrée

The more choices, the more exhausted we get. Ever used a thesaurus? Good luck making a final word selection.

Let’s keep it simple and serve one entrée each day. This means less food prepared, less potential waste, less dishes to wash, and less money dedicated to the kitchen staff.

Kids don’t stand in the lunch line thinking about the long-term repercussions of their food choices (health, planet, animals, etc.). The smart option needs to be the only option. If it smells good, looks good, and tastes good – the kids are most likely going to eat it.

9. Let’s fundraise for school lunch

We’ve all experienced it: The middle schooler selling candles, candy or wrapping paper to raise money.

What about a fundraiser featuring baked goods the kids made (with decent ingredients)? Or a farmers’ market with produce grown at the school garden? All proceeds go to buying nutritious foods for lunches.

Another way to make extra money – let eco-friendly companies advertise on compost bins and recycling containers in schools.

10. Get some garden and farming action started

Our disconnect from food can decrease our respect for food. When a veggie burger doesn’t taste quite like a Big Mac, kids throw it out and complain. If we valued our food more, it would yield less unused food, reducing our excess.

What if school lunch prep and clean up was part of class time? If kids helped in the process, this could increase respect for the food (and food prep). Food wouldn’t just be an object that magically appears, and food servers wouldn’t just be robots who dish out pizza.

11. Handling money during lunch is a pain

Worrying about exchanging money each day distracts from what lunch is about – eating quality food. We want kids to have time to eat (instead of waiting to pay for lunch). And we want a staff dedicated to preparing and cleaning up from the meal, not counting quarters.

Students should pay one flat fee at the beginning of the school year (based on if they are low income, regular income, etc.). And that’s it. They can get lunch each day (or not).

12. Serve familiar (but slightly better) foods

I’m cool with serving a tempeh ginger stir-fry, but kids aren’t. We need to be careful with food descriptions.

If we have hamburgers and veggie burgers, the kids are going to buy hamburgers, even if they can’t taste a difference. Veggie burgers have a negative reputation.

If it tastes good, kids won’t know or care. It’s up to the lunch staff to make it more nutritious/sustainable.

Continue serving common foods, with a few tweaks:

  • Burritos – made with beans and grilled vegetables
  • Nachos – made with beans, salsa and avocado
  • Pizza – made with whole grain crust and vegetables, non-dairy cheese
  • Chili – with beans and veggies
  • Lasagna – with whole grain pasta and veggies
  • Burgers & hot dogs – plant-based
  • Falafel and hummus

13. Lunch needs to follow recess

This simple change can decrease food waste by 30%. Kids won’t be rushing to get out and play, and they’ll be a lot more relaxed after some activity.

14. No lunch trays

When trays aren’t used, kids take less (they can always come back for more). This means less food waste and water used for washing trays.

15. Give away extra food

Each day, extra food that cannot be served again could be dropped at a food bank or homeless shelter.

Stores are allowed to deduct the fair market value of goods donated. Schools can do this too. Schools can donate extra food thanks to the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (excluding self-serve foods from salad bars).

16. Nix drug-like foods

You know how addicted you are to _______ (fill in the blank with your addictive food of choice)? This probably started in childhood.

Even the brightest students started to get a glaze in their eye when we served foods like pizza and hot dogs. When I distributed “seconds” of biscuits and carrot cake, I thought I was going to be ambushed.

17. Nix drinks

Yeah, I said it. This includes milk, juice, soda, etc. Kids can use the water fountain or bring a reusable water bottle. This will save cups (less waste) and likely improve health.

Liquid calories aren’t satiating. Kids can easily guzzle hundreds of excess (and often nutrition-free) calories every day.

Choosing unflavoured milk over flavoured milk is a step in the right direction. But in America, about 1/3 of cow’s milk isn’t consumed, giving it the second highest loss rate of any food. Who knows how much this loss rate goes up when you factor in school lunch programs?

Further, the environmental demands of dairy production can be substantial. Lactose intolerance will continue to be an issue, there are increasing concerns about hormones and drugs in milk, and dairy isn’t necessary for improving health.

Oh, and memo from the dish room – cheese isn’t worth it. High temps cook the cheese on pans. Nix dairy for the sake of the dishwashers.

18. Meat is a downer

Preparing, serving, and throwing away leftover meat gave me a negative karma punch each day. I didn’t think I would be overly distraught about serving meat – but I was. For each burger and chicken wing I served, it was another reminder that kids have minimal connection to where food comes from and how their choices impact others.

If you care about kids’ nutrition, get involved

Why did I get involved in the school lunch program?

Two words: Ann Cooper.

Ann cares about kids, nutrition and the planet. So do I. When Boulder recruited her to help with school lunches, I had to get involved. If you care about kids, nutrition and the planet, consider getting involved with a local school lunch program.

Volunteer. Work. Donate. Do what you can.

*  *  *

I’m always interested in reading the accounts of school food service workers, who often have a much more realistic take on improving school food than the armchair commentator (and I include myself in that category.)  So many of Ryan’s suggestions are great ones, like limiting entree choices and incorporating nutrition education into the lunchroom.

But Ryan’s plea for generous souls to kick in their cell phone or car money for school food reminded me of a quote in Janet Poppendieck’s excellent book, Free for All: Fixing School Lunch in America:

I found the individuals and groups working for school food change – both paid staff and parent and citizen activists — to be so extraordinary, so dedicated, patient, persistant and creative that there seems to me little likelihood that more typical communities will achieve such improvements under current federal rules and within current funding constraints. . . . It shouldn’t be so hard.  One should not have to be a superhero, a magician or a saint to get healthy, tasty food into the school cafeteria. . . . Counting on saints and heroes is not good public policy.

In other words, it would be great if every American did kick in an extra $200 a year for better school food, but should we really have to rely on private, ad hoc donations to adequately fund a public, governmentally-run service like the school food program?  Call me a dreamer, but I like to think that it’s Congress’s responsibility to provide those funds, instead of making schools hold out their hats or run a bake sale just to feed their students adequately.

At any rate, what did you think of Ryan’s post?

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  1. says

    Thank you for reposting! I missed this first time around. I don’t think Ryan is counting on saints and heroes. I think he’s throwing out suggestions to inspire people to get involved. Schools DO rely on fundraisers. Why not one for a very specific reason like “this goes to buy fresh fruit” or whatever you want to fill in there. I think his point about the cell phones or car is simply to gain some perspective on the situation. Lots of complainers…who is willing to sacrifice to improve the situation. However you feel about the specifics of his solutions, his background and experience gives his voice more credibility than other angry uninformed voices out there.

  2. Kim M. says

    How do we get access to the videos Ryan linked? I tried sighing up for a basic account on Vimeo but it still won’t allow me to view the videos linked in this post.

  3. says

    It’s a really interesting post, and one that has lots of sound reasoning. I particularly find the thoughts about limited (or eliminated, in the case of beverages) choices compelling. Part of the reason kids learn to be good eaters, when they’re young and eating at home, is often that they have limited choice. If you offer kids the option — grilled chicken or chicken nuggets? Peanut butter or veggie burger? What do YOU want to eat, sweetie? — you’re not usually empowering them to make good choices; you’re empowering them to feel that they have the ultimate say over everything that goes into their mouths. Of course, they do (unless you’re into force-feeding), but there’s where Ryan’s handy point about why there are no picky eaters in Uganda comes into play.
    We should NOT be giving multiple choices, and we should NOT be offering lots of beverages. Those are not sound nutritional principles. However, many parents are so afraid of the behavioral backlash that will come with shocking their kids with this particular brand of reality that they will not stand for it. THEIR kid go hungry because of a less preferred meal? The horror! It’s short-sightedness on the part of the adults who surround the kids that really impacts how we handle lunches in schools.
    Lastly, though, I don’t agree with Ryan’s anti-dairy thought process — non-dairy cheese on pizza? Sure, melted cheese is hard to clean, but if we could get HIGH QUALITY cheeses into schools (another problem altogether), I don’t think small amounts of real cheese are a bad idea. Non-dairy cheese, to me, is not “real food” and doesn’t teach the kids much. If you want them to learn not to eat cheese for some reason…don’t serve cheese or anything that resembles it. If you think cheese is okay…serve cheese. No in-between messaging required.

    • Karen Frenchy says

      Bri, I agree with you on everything and I share your thought on non-dairy “cheese”. Real cheese is not bad. As usual, it’s a matter of portions & quantities.

    • says

      I don’t think we’re looking at all options when we talk about “eliminating choice”. The big problem in schools is not choice, it’s the fact that cafeterias have to GUESS to figure out how much to make of the different items they’re serving. There will always be inherent waste and excess in that model.

      I know our demographic is tech savvy with involved parents, but I think our model could work in schools at large. Parents and kids PRE-ORDER entrees ahead of time, which allows us to get closer to exact counts for food production, and offer a much greater variety. And 80% of our students order with their parents, while 12% order by themelves, and 8% have their parents order for them exclusively.

      Instead of eliminating choice altogether, this gives parents and kids the opportunity to engage together and discuss their options, choices, and preferences. Eventually they will need to learn to make their own food choices, and a model where those choices can be made with the guidance of the parent is preferable to no choice at all.

      • says

        Justin, I would agree with you in theory — but the problem with the choices in the school lunch world is that they generally end up undermining the best food choices. If the choices were truly nutritional EQUALS — like a bean burrito on whole-wheat tortilla with fresh veggies, OR a vegetable stir-fry over brown rice — then your model makes wonderful sense. It’s just that it doesn’t usually shake down that way. The bean burrito might be one choice, but it’s stacked up against pizza or a corn dog or chicken nuggets or whatever. So the kids learn to make a choice, but they’re learning a FALSE choice, and not being put in an environment in which they must try new, healthy, whole foods. And don’t get me started on the parents — because many parents will just say “I’d rather let her choose the chicken nuggets than starve.” Many of them are not going to help make positive food choices. They are going to shrug and let the kids rule the roost.

        • says

          I think we’re talking about two different kinds of lunch programs. In our program, we are never in a environment where the kids “must” try new, healthy, whole foods. We’re competing with parents who are still buying lunchables, packing flaming hot cheetos, and dropping of bags of Subway and Burger King if they don’t like what you’re serving, or just brown bagging from home. If we’re talking about universal lunch, or perhaps a school where there is a very high Free and Reduced volume and the child either eats or goes hungry, then yes, you can theoretically force healthy foods on them. But Ryan’s “if they’re hungry enough they’ll eat” philosophy one works if hunger is the only other option.

          Eventually, our kids will need to make their own choices with food anyway. Maybe that won’t come until middle school when they’re out with their friends, or as late a college when they’re in the dining hall. But eventually they need to develop this as a life skill. I believe there is no better environment to do this than alongside the parent.

          But the reality is that not all parents agree on what they consider healthy, and what they are willing to serve their child. Some parents may be willing to do pizza once a week, and some never. Even still, others demand it be offered every day. By setting up an environment where the parent can control what is ordered and use that as a teaching opportunity for the parent. The child may not like this, and may ask why they have to the Veggie Burrito when their friends are getting pizza. But this is no different than asking why a friend gets to see a PG-13 movie at 8 years old, listen to music with explicit lyrics in middle school, get a smartphone or Facebook account, or watch Glee or the Simpsons or any other television programming that one parent may be totally fine with and another vehemently opposed to.

          • Bettina Elias Siegel says

            Just jumping in here to say, Justin, I never thought about the concept of pre-ordering in the public school setting. Would that really work? Would the administrative costs in a district like mine, where there are over 100,000 elementary kids, be too high? And don’t large districts pre-order their food too far in advance to allow for this?

            Meanwhile, I think you and Bri both make excellent points about choice in the lunchroom. I agree that if parents could be involved, as in a pre-ordering scenario, then choice can be a learning process. But in a big public school lunchroom where kids are free to get what they want, it’s a different story. I get so dismayed when HISD offers something innovative like a brown rice and veggie dish on the same day as pizza or a burrito! I mean, why not just dump it all directly in the trash???

          • says

            I don’t see any reason why a preorder methodology would not work in a large district. Yes, it has never been done, but that doesn’t mean it CAN’T be done. What is the average size of the elementary schools?

            I agree that giving the kid the choice of pizza and a veggie burrito at the point of sale is not going to do you any good, especially with elementary. But put out a menu with pizza, a teriyaki chicken bowl, and a veggie burrito with pico de gallo and at give the parent the opportunity to order ahead of time and you at least stand a fighting chance to begin cutting into pizza sales…

          • Maggie says

            RE: Pre-ordering challenges – just my thoughts from my situation, just at first glance. I’m not disagreeing, just tossing out some thoughts.
            The school I’m at serves 500 (elementary) for lunch daily. (I’m not in Bettina’s area)
            So, fielding & tabulating 500 replies daily…(or whatever time frame) via some means of communication (phone, e-mail?) is going to take some time & personnel .
            Time frame for ordering products for the meals, anywhere from 1 1/2 weeks ahead to 1 day ahead, but once we have an idea of what we normally use, that is not the biggest issue.
            In practice, I think the question that would top my list, in my situation, would be getting the right meal to the right student. Even assuming we get a reply from each parent/family (big assumption), how do we efficiently match that exact meal to the specific student?

            I have to say, there are days I wish each child carried some sort of card/scanner tag that shows exactly what they should have or not have – kind of “big brother-ish”, but it would solve the concerns about food allergies and sensitivities, family preferences/choices and other concerns.
            (I’m kidding, I think!)

          • says


            Phone/email compilation would be very manual. You’d have to leverage technology more heavily. We built our website in-house, and it allows parents to order online by 9am the school day before. For districts with F&R students, the district orders from them centrally from the same menu as the Paid students. Another idea we have is to give F&R students an account where their parents can order online (or at a kiosk in the school office, library, or any internet connection), and just click “Submit” with the billing going to the school instead of having the parent pay online. If they forget to order by the deadline, the system could automatically order one for them.

            The beauty of all of this is it doesn’t matter how the order gets in – parent ordering online, district ordering on their behalf, paid, F&R – it’s all aggreated and spits out production counts, which reduces waste and allows for more choice.

            As for order fulfillment, there is currently a daily manifest that prints out with the student name/entree pairing. This would admittedly be slow with 500 kids, though we do have some schools with 1300 students that just use multiple lines (A-G here, H-R there, S-Z there). But there’s no reason you couldn’t develop the system to use PIN identification, biometrics, or card swipe. Schools are doing this all over the country right now, only they’re using it to track what the CHILD selects and deduct the money from the account. Why not use the same identification system to determine what to GIVE the child from what they’ve already paid for?

            It’s not that these ideas couldn’t work…it’s that it requires us to shatter the current paradigms. If a school wants to offer pizza and veggie burritos on the same day, what if the child can ONLY get pizza if the PARENT preorders it? Anyone who doesn’t preorder only has the option of a veggie burrito. Then at least the parent is the one in control and has to opt IN instead of leave it all up to the child.

          • Maggie says

            Thanks Justin, for the further info. I think we would have some distance to cover, both in technology, and in “selling” the concept to administration, parents & changing the physical set up for serving.
            Again, thanks for the info. Sometimes it is hard to see how new ideas work in the real world, your examples help!

  4. says

    As long as we are creating wish lists of changes for school meal programs, how about extending the lunch period so that kids actually have time to eat their meal after waiting in what can feel like an endless line to get it? Whether recess comes before or after lunch, kids still need enough ime to really savor their food, not bolt it as they tend to do these days. Consider that many teachers expect kids to also use the bathroom during the lunch/recess break, so that there is not endless demand for the bathroom pass and a steady parade back and forth during instructional time. I get it that this would likely mean extending the school day by 10 or 15 minutes, and that costs money because then the staff need to be paid for a longer day, but this is the dream wish list, right?

    • Karen Frenchy says

      Dana, I agree with you. It would be great for the kids if they had a longer lunch breaks and not too early. Knowing kindergarteners in my school district eat their meal at 10:30 or 10:45 AM bothers me..

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