Monday, March 30, 2009

School Lunch

I am sitting in an old administrative building in West Salt Lake this afternoon. The seven of us sit in a circle. Three seasoned lunch ladies, two school district admin staffers, the district supervisor for childhood nutrition, and myself...a mom. They are planning next year's menu for the Salt Lake City school district. It's not pretty.
I am not really a welcome addition to the group...I am an outsider. Invited with much hesitance after my many concerns regarding the quality of the school food, after having been a volunteer in my son's lunch room for the past year.

I think that I was imagining a young, healthy group of people. After all, this is the group that decides what to feed our children. But the average age of this group was 50. Most of the women were overweight and smoked, with one being morbidly obese. The director, on the other hand, could not have been older than 25, with no children of her own. Her test, as to the quality of the food, was that "she ate it every day". They were all very quick to defend the school lunch program, and the way things were currently being done.

We began by looking at a handout, with the current menu for all the elementary schools. It had the cost of the item in one column and next to that, the percentage of kids who buy it. Pizza was #1, (of course), and haystacks were dead last. I was shocked to see the cost of the items. Here are a few of them:

  • Pizza $0.49

  • Chicken Nuggets $0.20

  • Corn Dog $0.17

  • Country Fried Steak $0.37

The school charges $1.35 for lunch.
Next, we went over what items should be taken off for next year and if there were any suggestions for new menu items.

One of the lunch ladies spoke up "I have a great idea, that I know every kid's gonna love this." We listen. "Noodles with tomato juice". I try not to gasp. "My kids love it and it's my husband's favorite. You just pour tomato juice over the noodles. You should have a hot dog on the side too." Someone wants to bring back mac-n-cheese. Another wants taco bowls. But then someone reminds her how they had to do the Heimlich maneuver on a kid last year cause he choked on the shell...they're too hard.

Then, the lunch lady with the least amount of teeth made a suggestion. "I can not get my kids to eat their carrots. We should have ranch dressing in a cup, so that they can dip them." I nod enthusiastically. I have witnessed this first hand at my son's school. The carrots (their daily monotonous ONLY vegetable option) get routinely chucked because they are not appealing to the kids. And of course, everyone knows that ranch is a part of the holy trinity of magic sauces that make any food edible to a child; ketchup (the Father), ranch (the Son), and BBQ sauce (the Holy Ghost). A heated debate ensues where we are told how much more that would cost (a few cents per child), to have to pay for the labor for someone to pump ranch in to the individual containers. They just can't afford it. Yes, because currently the lunch ladies have the back-breaking job of NOT cooking the food, but reheating it in a microwave...Oh, and putting the "optional entree baskets" out on display. You are right, they are overburdened.

Then we move on to the hot topic of sweet-n-sour sauce, which is currently served with the chicken nuggets. In my house, on "chicken nugget day", I have to PACK KETCHUP in Dalton's backpack, for the nuggets. Another lively discussion ensues about how kids "should have variety". Says who? I don't know about your kids, but mine could eat the same cereal every day for a year and be happy. The saying in our house is, "you don't mess with a good thing." And sweet-n-sour is NOT a good thing. So, after much back and forth, ketchup finally triumphs and it looks like an email will be sent to all school lunch workers, asking for their feedback on whether to give sweet-n-sour the boot. My guess is that the district has already bought a truck load of the stuff, and is not happy about the idea of chucking it.

The point of this is that there are way too many cooks in the kitchen (pardon the pun) and none of them are very good cooks, to make matters worse. It looks like the forecast for school lunch is fried processed inedibles with a side of greasy, reconstituted, inedibles.

And so begins the journey to see what our other options are. Some schools (funky charter ones) have opted out of the Public School Lunch Program. They have hired outside catering companies, or even the mothers, to put together new menus. It has been done...there is hope.


Sara said...

There is hope, and good for you! Keep it up.
The things you listed are so disgusting, and none of which we ever have at the house. Yes of course we have them on road trips, or "special occasions"'s feeling lazy.

Hopefully as the years progress, and you keep working with these people, there can be good school lunches....too bad Dalton has to be the pioneer.
Ugh! No wonder you "voiced" your concern so often. GOOD FOR YOU!

Ashley said...

Thanks for the comment Sara. I've spoken with some other school moms who are as fed up as I am. We may take it on and see if we can opt out of the system, like a few other schools have. It seems daunting, but would be well worth it in the long run. (Think about how many PB&J's I will avoid making!) I'll keep you posted.