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BLOG — Get educated about school lunch

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While hopefully cafeterias are not the place where most of our children’s food experiences originate, the school lunchroom is a place where kids spend a regular, if brief, part of every weekday. What is it like for them to sit down together, and what do they eat? Do they like it? Is it good for them? I also wonder what the “lunch ladies” do to prepare the food that comes through the school’s contractor, Sodexo. And what about the ingredients in those foods? I’ve decided that the answers will have to come through a series of investigations: the Lunchroom Chronicles.

First, a lunch in the life of a Mills Lawn fifth grader.

It’s 12:04 p.m. on Friday, and the buzz of a classroom of cooped-up hungry kids about to be unleashed is palpable. Half of the fifth graders, the packers, scamper into the gym-temporarily-turned-cafeteria and make quick work of heavy noshing on their home-made meals. The buyers fall into the lunch line with large laminated signs indicating today’s main course choice. Choice A chicken strips, choice B fish nuggets, choice C a cold sub, and choice D a “Peppi” chef salad with pepperoni. Optional sides: macaroni & cheese and an apple.

The kids bolt through the lunch station, dragging their trays along the metal tracks, and dive into a spot at a table with their friends. Mr. May grabs a discreet portion of fish sticks, plus one, and absconds with his tray for the only 15 minutes he will get to himself that day. I follow, asking for a half portion of both the fish and the chicken, and get a suspicious look before collecting my tray and heading to the table with my step-daughter Marya and her friends.

The kids are not surprisingly critical of the cafeteria food, but they do have their favorite items. Chicken fingers and pizza are Marya’s favorite lunches, and Raven loves the macaroni and cheese. Elaina likes the mac and cheese and eats the salads with the toppings picked off. But no one really likes the mushy green beans and cooked carrots, when they’re offered, and on the beverages, it’s chocolate milk all the way. Kennedy and Aza are vegetarians and almost always pack their lunches, and Kennedy has a habit of bringing an extra cheese stick from her bag for Raven.

Aside from just straight cheese, mac and cheese is one of my all-time favorite foods, so I’m looking forward to trying an item that many kids seem to like as well. The macaroni is a good version of the Kraft classic, where the macaroni is more substantial and toothsome, but the cheese is still American. The chicken strips consist of an undiscriminating variety of processed chicken parts, and feature that vaguely satisfying flavor of a deep-fried savory. Ditto on the fish sticks, with perhaps slightly less processing. The milk is chocolatey, and the apple is as tasteless as its putrid color advertised it would be. The ingredients list will have to come later, but I’m pretty sure it will read like a Tyson product.

One thing the students and I both notice is the challenge to socialize and chew between 12:05, when they file in, and 12:20, when the big wave of kids start lining up to exit for recess. Granted, I did see several swarms of boys threatening to explode with unspent energy, and woe to the person who tried to tell them to sit still and eat their lettuce.

A word on the salads. I love that kids who are magnetized toward easy, uniform finger foods, have the chance to eat salad at school. Salads defy every intuitive sense most American kids have about the foods they like. Salads are totally irregular and unpredictable, from the size and shred of each piece of lettuce to the moment-to-moment location of the multicolored toppings. The taste changes with each bite. Salads are fresh, and they tend to be green. While the school’s salads use iceburg with processed cheese and meat on top, they definitely get kudos for trying at all. I wouldn’t like to be the one convincing 100 MacDonalds lovers that lettuce is nearly just as good as a Big Mac and should be eaten within the hour before it turns brown.

Of course according to Jamie Oliver and the other school lunch reformers, school lunchtime could be a better experience for students. But what exactly are the calculations for the money and energy it would take, both immediate and sustained, to change things for Yellow Springs? Currently, a full lunch costs $2.50, part of which is for transporting the food and paying two employees to make and serve it. That can’t leave much for the actual food itself. If we were trying to do things organically and locally, $2.50 just might cover the cost of the milk and the apple, assuming we could get a steady, year-round supply of either in the area.

Especially after a school budget meeting like last night’s, when Superintendent Mario Basora stated that the goal to balance the budget this year will be to cut expenses by $400,000 to $500,000, we are hardly in a position to ask about improving the school lunch service. Still, it never hurts to get to know the facts. But more on that later. Next I have the pleasure of getting the scoop on the McKinney/Yellow Springs High School lunchroom experience. I hope I live to tell about it.


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