When Did the Sandwich Become a Punishment?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on February 21, 2011

MSNBC has a story up today about a practice that’s old news for school food services directors, but may not be widely known by TLT readers — i.e., quietly giving “alternative” meals to  students who come through the lunch line without the ability to pay.

One of the biggest challenges faced by school districts is getting students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch to actually sign up for those federal benefits.  When students do so, it means more money in a district’s coffers for the betterment of everyone’s school food. (The reasons for students’ nonparticipation vary — you can read my post “Why Hungry Kids Sometimes Still Go Hungry in American Schools?” for more information.)

So what does a school do when a hungry kid comes through the lunch line with no meal card?  Some schools serve the full meal — but then eventually wind up raising prices for paying students to subsidize these give-aways.  But other schools, as MSNBC describes in its story today,  instead offer a bare-bones “alternative meal” to non-paying students in hopes that this practice will create an incentive for financially disadvantaged families to finally fill out their paperwork.

What was especially interesting to me is that the dreaded “alternative meal” usually consists of a plain cheese or peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk or a juice, and sometimes a piece a fruit — a meal that MSNBC describes as “bland” and “unappetizing.”

While I don’t mean to minimize the plight of financially disadvantaged students, I couldn’t help but think how much I’d rather have my child eat a simple sandwich than some of the highly processed food my own district regularly serves.  And I know I’m not alone.  When I had my op-ed about school food in the Houston Chronicle last summer, many readers wrote in to say, hey, whatever happened to the good, old-fashioned sandwich?

When our Food Services Parent Advisory Committee has asked our district why we can’t serve more sandwiches as part of the regular menu, we’ve been told that the logistics surrounding the assembly and delivery of individual sandwiches to 300 campuses would result in a dried out, unappetizing end product.

But logistics aside, “Wilma,” TLT’s anonymous school food professional, once informed me that sandwiches, when served in her own district, have been a non-starter with kids.  She told me they linger sadly on the lunch line with only one or two takers.

What’s going on here?  Has the prevalence of what I call “doctored junk food” (nutritionally enhanced pizza, burgers, corn dogs, nuggets and Frito Pie) on school menus rendered the cold sandwich somehow “uncool” among kids?  Is it poor execution by cafeterias?  When did the sandwich become a punishment?

Let me know if you have any insights to share.  (TLT readers who are school food professionals – that means YOU, especially.)

[Thanks to friend Andrew Golub for the early morning tip about the MSNBC story.]

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Lauren February 21, 2011 at 9:28 am

Fascinating. At my high school, they actually kept a loaf of sandwich bread and a tub of peanut butter at the end of the line, where they kept the other condiments and salad stuff. We could also ask the lunch ladies for an Uncrustables sandwich, but most kids thought those were disgusting, actually (way too much pb&j).

I actually do not know what my district did about nonpaying students. But sandwiches in my school were often a welcomed alternate to the “hot” crap the menu listed (schools should start calling them “Lukewarm Lunches.” A “hot lunch” is completely false advertisement).

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Michele Hays February 21, 2011 at 9:48 am

At our school, this issue is further complicated by food allergies…and I don’t think the lunch program pays for the sandwich money. I think we’re using sunflower butter right now.

We fought to get sandwiches on our line, and we finally have them – but they “don’t want to take orders in the morning in case the kids change their minds” and then don’t make enough for the kids who want them.

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Jenny V February 21, 2011 at 1:51 pm

I’ve been out of elementary school for 16 years, but I still remember the PB&Honey sandwiches they served at my school and gag a little.

The peanut butter was all in the middle (not spread to the crusts), really thick, and hard. Not crunchy; just hard. They used honey instead of jelly (so this sounds like a matter of preferring processed foods: I wanted the HFCS grape jelly instead of the weird goopy yellow honey). Also, they used white bread, so it got soggy in the middle and stale around the edges. Then, they wrapped it in a plastic bag, which made the whole thing smell like plastic.

I loved sandwiches at home and at restaurants, and I generally was happy with other food in the cafeteria. But those sandwiches were just nasty. I avoided them whenever I could.

I don’t know if that’s a typical experience, but perhaps it sheds a little light on why sandwiches are unappetizing to kids now.

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bettina elias siegel February 21, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Jenny – I didn’t think it was possible to truly ruin a PBJ, but sadly, you’ve proven me wrong!

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Maggie February 22, 2011 at 6:27 am

I kept trying to type some thoughts and got confused – which question to address?

Are sandwiches popular? How to address issues of non-payment? How to encourage families to submit applications?

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bettina elias siegel February 22, 2011 at 9:39 am

Maggie – I know. Many big issues here, including, as school food advocate Dana Woldow discussed with me in an off line email, the real stigma likely created by giving nonpaying kids something different from everyone else. But my point was just the narrower one — I think a lot of parents seem to feel that the simpler the lunch, the better, yet it seems that kids are just not cool with the sandwich-and-fruit sort of lunch. I was just wondering why.

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Maggie February 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I think that some students might be OK with a sandwich for lunch. I’m not sure that parents would think it’s a good value – I suspect the parents would pack a lunch if that is the type of meal they preferred. (and there are a number of students at the school I work at who do bring a packed lunch each day).

I did think it was interesting that the sandwich was considered punishment. Could it also be seen as better than sending the child away with nothing?

It’s not a comfortable place to be, caught in the middle of these situations. As has been noted in other posts, non-payment is a complicated issue. In the school I work at, the students are allowed to charge…well…pretty much forever, and they get the same meal, not an alternative. Which, really isn’t “fair” to those who do pay, is it?

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal February 22, 2011 at 9:18 am

this speaks to Ed’s point in his article yesterday. Why does a school meal have to be restaurant like, would it be cheaper, healthier and more accepted by kids if it were more like a lunch box. Raw vege sticks, a sandwich, and drink?

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bettina elias siegel February 22, 2011 at 9:41 am

Jenna: I haven’t seen Ed’s article but I have had feedback from Wilma and others that kids don’t like the sandwich/lunch box type lunch. I wonder if that’s universally true. And of course, if you just scratched the current menus and went for something simpler, I wonder if kids would eventually catch up? (Of course, no school food services director would want to take that risk.)

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal February 22, 2011 at 9:51 am

i don’t always believe school food directors when they play the acceptability card. if you offer one new menu item among 6-8 other choices, how do you really know if it’s accepted. i believe that indicates an item isn’t preferred over other already familiar items. but preference and acceptability are two different things. there is no USDA rule that says we have to feed kids food they prefer. obviously school food directors have to find food kids will accept or participation drops.

when i test a new recipe at dinner, i don’t offer it with 4 other choices. i get every family member to taste it and decide.

i think in the cafeteria, a lot of healthier or alternate menu items crash and burn not because they aren’t acceptable, but because they aren’t actually tried! what are the regs on serving kids? 10 per minute? so each child has what, 30 seconds to select food in the line. put yourself in their shoes. something new and unfamiliar is on the line. you need to grab and go so the cafeteria manager doesn’t holler at your to hurry up. do you have enough time to consider a new item? embrace a new item? or it is faster to pick up familiar item?

remember, most schools don’t have a lot of budget to broadcast menu changes to parents and students. and even those that do, probably have a low “connection” rate, meaning most parents and students are ignorant of new menu items.

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Maggie February 22, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Jenna, the time issue is a indeed a big challenge. I’m pleased you’re aware and mentioned it. I’m not sure there’s an actual regulation as to how fast the line should move, but I’d guess most schools don’t have much time to spare. In the case of my school, I don’t have any input into the meal schedule. It’s up to us to make it work with the schedule we are given. And I’d love to see a situation where I have quiet & calm students, ready to hear what we are offering and make a choice. Instead, we have 65 to 90 students at a time, who have been dropped at the door by the teacher, and are much more interested in talking (who can blame them!) than anything else.

Acceptability – yes – tough call. I guess we don’t need to serve what they’d prefer, but if we don’t…where is the fine line between serving the “perfect” meal and that financial stability? I know you’re aware that the funding is on a reimbursement basis – if the students don’t buy the meal, the department doesn’t get the funding.

And…what’s the answer if they simply won’t take the food? A hungry child? I don’t want to be held hostage by their preferences, but again, where’s that fine line between what they “should” eat and what they “want” to eat?

Can school food service, the way the program is currently set up, help students learn to make new choices?

There’s got to be an answer out there, and we’ll all keep looking for it!

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal February 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm

maggie – i don’t think school food service groups can solve the problem without the assistance of the teachers and administrators in the form of some amount of classroom nutrition education and teachers who do more than “deliver” 90 students to the cafeteria line. i know one teacher in my school who lines her students up by what they want from the line, tells them what’s healthy and asks them to take it “today it’s carrot coins, hope you try them” if all teachers would spend a few minutes doing this, it could help a lot.

having lunch aids that offered positive instead of negative prompts would help too. instead of “be quiet and eat” it would be “feed your brain that celery.”

if school administrators weren’t too busy to plan and would approve parent volunteer lunch monitors then parents could fill some of the lunch room void by left by over-extended cafeteria staff and teachers, explaining to kids what lunch options were and encouraging the healthier choices as well as providing more prompts in the cafeteria as students have their tray.

menu reform is only part of the solution. nutrition education and involvement from the principal and teachers is a solution as well.

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Maggie February 22, 2011 at 7:37 pm

I’d absolutely love to work with teachers who would explain the menu to the students and give them some positive input about the menu! However, as I understand it, the teachers are as over-extended as it is. And they are ready for their well deserved lunch break too!

I don’t want to be a “negative Nelly”, but every single person in the school seems to be overextended just dealing with their area. You and I (and others) can see the connection between food and learning and can see how it would help to make it better. The rest of the world is not always there with us yet.

Volunteers are a good thought. We have one parent per day that assists in the cafeteria. Sometimes they show up, sometimes they don’t. In order to volunteer on a regular basis, the volunteer must have a background check. There is a fee, but the school will try to work it out if the person can’t pay. I’m not sure if it would be possible to get more than one volunteer per day. I don’t think they do much encouraging or talking to the students. But, truth is, I don’t get time to go and see what is happening either. That’s sad too.

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Diane Pratt-Heavner, SNA February 22, 2011 at 11:52 am

For many schools, the problem of unpaid school meal charges stems more from students who are not eligible for free or reduced price meals, but consistently fail to bring their lunch money (sometimes parents forget to pay, and sometimes – particularly in this economy – they struggle to pay).

In either case, the unpaid meal charge quandary is an emotional one for school nutrition professionals – they know the impact a meal (or lack of a meal) can have on a student’s ability to focus in school, and they never want children to go hungry.

But when unpaid meal charges get out of hand, the problem can quickly threaten the financial stability of the school nutrition program. Many school districts have been forced to establish policies on unpaid meal charges – ranging from providing alternate meals, to allowing students to “charge” a certain number of meals before receiving an alternate meal. In Winona Area Public Schools (MN), the PTA established a “Feed the Kids Fund” to support students who aren’t able to pay their lunch fees.

Some parents are outraged by alternate meal policies, but it is important to remember that tight school foodservice budgets leave schools few options for covering the cost of unpaid meals.

Diane Pratt-Heavner
School Nutrition Association

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bettina elias siegel February 22, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Diane:

Thank you for sharing the perspective of school food professionals on this difficult problem.

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Dana Woldow February 22, 2011 at 8:15 pm

This may be too much inside baseball, but in my school district, some of those unpaid meal charges are coming from students whose “temporary” eligibility expired. When the family fills out the free meal application and lists $0 as their income, the student can get 8 weeks of temporary free status; after 8 weeks, the family needs to fill out another application (and so on, every 8 weeks for the whole school year.) If they don’t, the free status expires and the student reverts to “paid” status, meaning that instead of $2.72 for lunch, the feds reimburse just 26 cents.

In our district, when schools try to collect money from families with charges, they are sometimes told by the parent that they “already filled out the form, and the child qualified for free, so how can he possibly have unpaid charges?” Families whose children got “temporary” eligibility often are confused by the second application that they are sent in the mail, even though it comes with an explanation that they must fill it out for their child to continue to qualify for free meals. Because their child will continue to be allowed to take lunch even if they are on paid status but don’t pay, some families just don’t bother with the second application, although, to be fair, some do fill it out again.

I’m just saying, schools could probably do a better job of following up with families who did fill out the form once, but never bothered to fill out a new form when the eligibility expired. Even better would be for schools to help their families understand that it is listing $0 as income that results in the need to fill out a new form every 8 weeks. If the family lists even $1 of income, the child could qualify for free meals for the whole year!

Naturally, no one should be advising anyone to lie on a free meal application, but I truly believe some families are unclear on what constitutes “income.” If your sister in law asked you to babysit her kids one Saturday and then she gave you $10, that is “income” even though it isn’t a “real job.”

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Maggie February 23, 2011 at 9:41 am

This made me so curious, I just had to ask my boss. (I don’t work directly with the applications and verifications) What hadn’t clicked for me when I read the post (and I can see it now!) was how the zero income part works. I didn’t realize that with the zero income that the district is required to follow up on that (in the case of your district, means sending a new application), because of the logic that it is impossible to live with no income at all, so…thus…zero income wouldn’t be a permanent status.

Makes sense to me now – always like to know more than I did before.

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Wilma February 23, 2011 at 11:03 am

Dana, I completely agree about the temporary free issue. I will say, though, that it is difficult to follow up with those students/families who are about to drop off the temporary free status. Frequently, the phone numbers listed are not correct, or have been disconnected. Letters sent home to the parent are ignored or lost. Parents don’t understand why they must fill out ANOTHER application. When one person is doing all the follow ups, households will fall through the cracks.

Districts now can choose to approve a household temporary free for the entire year depending on how they write their temporary free policy. This is up to the district’s interpretation of a long-term hardship, and can vary from district to district. It is a new ruling (within the past 2 years or so) that has made it easier to keep students on the benefit when they truly need it. The idea of temporary free is that you can’t live off 0 income forever. There HAS to be some sort of support coming in. I try my best to work with the family to find ANY sort of income. Typically once I get off the phone with them, we’ve identified some income (like Dana mentioned) that will allow them to be approved for free.

As for the sandwich menu item issue: First, I think a large part of the “punishment” appearance of the sandwich is due to the fact that it is very similar to the “punishment” menu item for students who have over charged.

As for districts using cheese or pb&j sandwiches for alternate meals; you have to understand that the food service department still has to break even. If we gave out free food to everyone, we couldn’t afford to operate. The alternate meals served are not claimed for reimbursement in our school, so we have to keep the cost as low as possible. It is a courtesy meal; districts are not required to provide anything to students without means to pay. I don’t see it as an incentive for parents to complete the paperwork for free meals as much as it is a way to give the student something to eat when they have no money and are starving.

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Maggie February 23, 2011 at 8:25 am

A new application every 8 weeks? That’s …umm…different? I learn something new everyday about how things vary from district to district or area to area.
Thanks!

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Gayle June 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm

What ever happened to good old fashioned punishment When the child misbehaves there is NO priveleges, sports, fun activities, friends, TV, cell phones, i-pods or anything. They sit in their room, do their homework, go to detention at school and be mader an example. Our country came up with some pretty good people who were diciplined, (even had some physical dicipline). What are we affraid of?

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