Adventures in School Lunch

by Wendy Copley on March 15, 2011

Tuesday, I ate school lunch for the first time in well over twenty years.

When I was a kid, I ate school lunch — what we called “hot lunch” — every day. My school had a full kitchen and lunches were prepared on site. Some of the foods obviously came from cans but other things were made from scratch by the ladies who worked in the kitchen. I have pretty neutral memories about eating hot lunch as a kid. Some things — like the canned peas and spinach — were gross. Other things — like the home made pizza and Peanut Butter Pixies (a dessert kind of like a peanut butter cup) — were delicious. And I was always baffled by the canned pears, which we never ate at home.

There were other things besides the food that I liked about eating hot lunch too. The smell of fresh-baked bread wafting up the stairs from the cafeteria as we lined up to go downstairs for lunch. The cool divided lunch trays. The facts about U.S. presidents and jokes on the back of the milk cartons (“You are what you eat” “In that case, call me ‘Pizza'”). The time one of my friends stuffed an entire canned pear in her mouth and then started laughing and turned as red as any person I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been curious about Wyatt’s weekly school lunches since he started eating them at the beginning of the school year. I’ve asked him lots of questions about them, but it’s hard to get much info out of my tight-lipped six-year-old. The few things I did know were:

  • His school doesn’t have a kitchen so the food is brought in from a centralized kitchen for his school district.
  • Everything in the lunch is disposable.
  • “Mom! I love eating school lunch! Everything they give us is junk!”

Since I had to go to the school to give him medication at lunch time on Tuesday, I decided to jump on the opportunity to eat school lunch with him so I could see it for myself. Based on the information I had from Wyatt (see comment re: junk, above) and the lunches that Mrs. Q featured on her site, Fed Up With Lunch, my expectations for the meal were pretty low.

This is what I had:

My School Lunch

There were three entrees to choose from: cheese-filled bread sticks with marinara for dipping, a beef soft taco, and a chicken Ceasar salad. I chose the bread sticks which were the day’s vegetarian option. The sides were a tangerine and blueberry waffle grahams. Every lunch includes a choice of white or chocolate milk. I chose chocolate milk, along with every kid who walked through the line.

Inside of the cheese stick

Here’s the inside of one of the bread sticks. It looks gross, but it was actually very tasty. The bread was warm and seemed to be freshly made. The marinara sauce was also very good and tasted fresh and tangy. Because of the way they were packaged (nothing printed on the wrappers) I suspect that these items weren’t purchased but were made in the central kitchen.

Maybe it was because I came in with extremely low expectations, but over all, I was surprised by how edible my lunch was. I liked my entree, my tangerine was fantastic and my chocolate milk was exactly what you expect from chocolate milk. The only thing I didn’t care for were the waffle grahams. (More on those below.)

My son's lunch

Wyatt chose the beef soft taco for his entree. The rest of his lunch was the same as mine.

The first thing he ate were the blueberry waffle grahams. Waffle grahams in various flavors appear on the school lunch menu several times per week and until today, I’ve never known exactly what they are.

Blueberry Waffle Graham

Despite being labeled as whole grain and “super wholesome” on the package, they are basically just a cookie. The ingredients list starts off like this: whole wheat flour (yay!), sugar, soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup, natural blueberry flavor bits (which have their own list of crap ingredients, none of which are “blueberry”)… You get the idea.

Blueberry waffle grahams

I didn’t have time to eat my waffle grahams in the cafeteria, but I pocketed them and tried them at home. They were so sweet that I couldn’t take more than a few bites.

My son eats his taco

After the waffle grahams, Wyatt ate the beef soft taco. Despite a valiant effort to open it himself, he ended up asking me to open the package for him. I noticed his teacher opened packages for some of the other school lunch eaters too. Wyatt liked his taco and said it was good. I didn’t get a taste so I can’t comment, but check out how long that ingredients list on the package is. Yikes!

He also asked me to help get his tangerine started for him, so I punctured the peel and tore out a little chunk of it so he could peel the rest himself. His teacher did the same for the some of the other kids too. The bell rang before he had time to finish peeling it though so it ended up in the trash.You might notice that that means he didn’t eat any fruit or vegetables for lunch.

Once the bell rang, the kids all jumped up, threw away their trash and zipped right out of the cafeteria. They moved so fast that I barely even realized what was happening. I can tell you this though: no one — not one kid that I saw — finished their lunches. They were all eating when the bell rang and then they stopped in their tracks and threw what was left away.

Some other thoughts:

  • The kids are in the cafeteria for exactly twenty minutes.  If you bring your lunch, you can sit right down at your class’s table and eat, but if you buy your lunch you need to go through the line to get your lunch and then find a seat before you can dig in. I’ve always suspected that time was tight for lunch, but now that I’ve done it myself, I’ll tell you that twenty minutes is not enough time for lunch! I’m a competent adult who can peel my own fruit and open all my lunch packaging myself and I only had time to eat my tangerine and 1 1/2 bread sticks in the time allotted. Wyatt ate his cookies and most of his taco. We chatted with the people around us a little bit, but we were mostly eating the whole time and neither of us could finish our lunches. Though I feel like the lunches I pack are already well-suited for quick eating, going forward I will definitely be keeping the short lunch period in mind as I pack Wyatt’s lunch!
  • The packaging! Oh my goodness — the packaging! This was the part of school lunch that I was most bothered by. I’m sure that making the whole lunch disposable makes things easier — particularly when the school doesn’t have any food prep or clean-up facilities — but it’s shocking to see how much waste these lunches generate. There was someone going around and collecting the cardboard trays that we used to bring our food to the table, so I suspect that these are reused or recycled, but everything else went right into the trash.
  • Wyatt’s lunch cost $2.00. As an adult, I paid $3.00 for my lunch. The quality of the ingredients in the food was admittedly low, but I think this is a good price for what we got. Could the food be better? I could definitely be much better and it should be made with real, whole foods! Could it have been worse? Absolutely. I’d still like to see significantly more (any?) fruits and veggies going in the kids’ mouths and significantly fewer processed foods in the cardboard boxes, but for $2 I think the food at least tasted OK.
  • The cafeteria line was not what I expected at all. We used to push our trays along a long metal counter with lunch ladies serving food from a steam table on the other side of a glass partition. At Wyatt’s school, there are two serving boxes — one hot and one cold — that are each about 3 feet long. Kids choose the items they want from the boxes and they can take food or not. Wyatt’s teacher helped the kids, prompting them to take their fruit and milk and keeping them from choosing multiple entrees.
  • OMG! I found the recipe for Peanut Butter Pixies on the USDA web site!
  • Everyone was happy I was in the cafeteria. The kids at the table were excited to talk to me, Wyatt’s friends from other classes and the principal came over to say hi and the woman who is in charge of the cafeteria came out to introduce herself and chat with me for a few minutes. I really enjoyed talking to her. She obviously really loves the children and she urged me to come back for lunch often. I was actually a little embarrassed by all the attention.
  • Best of all, Wyatt was happy I came to have lunch with him. He was so proud to be the expert on school lunch and show me how everything worked in the cafeteria. It was also nice to see him in his element. I tried not to be too bossy and mom-ish and interfere with his normal lunch-time activities so I could get a real feel for how this part of his day works and I think it worked!

I’m so happy I took the time to go to Wyatt’s school and eat lunch there. I still strongly prefer to pack his lunches myself and I don’t have any delusions about the quality of the food he’s being served at school, but I don’t think I’ll feel quite so guilty about that weekly school lunch day going forward.

Have you ever had a lunch date with your child at his school? How was the lunch? Is it something you’d like to try?

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