Saturday, December 3, 2011

That Conversation: School Lunch Programs

I substitute teach during the school year. This is my tenth year. Every so often the position I fill draws lunch room duty. I have this experience, what my son tells me and my experiences as a parent, what I see in the media, and my own experience growing up with school lunches. I also have over 25 years in food service management. Invariably, I have "that conversation" with whichever other adult is sharing lunchroom duty. It is obvious to us that kids dislike their lunches, are probably not developing good eating habits, and waste a lot of food.

What is also obvious to me while standing outside any high school class room while classes are changing and watching the ebb and flow of student to their classrooms, is that a lot of the students are overweight. When I was in high school, there was scarcely more than a girl who two in my high school as heavy as most of the girls I see walking the halls everyday. Yet additionally, eating disorders are becoming more and more common.

So how did we get from there to here, especially since most of those scrawny kids of my high school days are the overweight, diabetes and heart disease-prone middle-aged adults of today? And a better question yet, is how do we change it?

There are a lot of different parts to this equation. I don't think it is the teaching of nutrition in which we are deficient. I think it is possibly the execution of the plan. It seems that every lunch program I come in contact with has at its head, someone who is not particularly flexible given the criteria of their jobs how they can deal with the statutes, health regulations and requirements, and budgetary concerns. They are either incapable or unable to become flexible to meet this challenge of feeding kids food the kids like and will eat, while controlling an ever-shrinking budget to get that job done.

The effect is a lot of government USDA food surplus coming in heat-and-serve containers dropped into steam tables in schools across the country, feeding our kids over-cooked vegetables and gooey globs of varying shades of brown mush. The school cooks aren't really cooking. Only goodness knows the varying degrees of different preservatives and hormones ladled onto school lunch trays every day across our country.

I can hear these cooks everywhere muttering, "You try and feed 600 kids in a seating in twenty minutes on $.65 a student!"

Yes. I think I'd like to try.

In that very sentence, uttered on a very basic level, is the heart-felt plea of the problem. We shuttle the kids through a lunch line as quickly as we can and encourage them to hurry up and finish. I think most students have maybe 10 minutes by the time they reach their seats to "enjoy" their lunch.

I think that is wrong.

I have a bunch of ideas I would like to see implemented.

I think serving family style might be a start. I know a lot of you are thinking, "Ew!" but kids are swapping germs all the time anyway, so why should lunch be different? Lunch is an ultimate teachable moment with opportunities for manners, etiquette, nutrition and social skills.

Every high school with a Pro-Chef or Foods class should have their students in the thick of things developing hands on experience in their cafeterias, cooking, serving, menu planning, and cleaning up.

Since when should school kids and adults alike not have a decent lunch period of a least 30 minutes table time. We need to arrange our school schedules better. I know there are increasingly difficult curriculum requirements being placed on our students and teachers, but whatever happened to conversation?

If we're going to continue with the cafeteria style line-up, how about going a la carte? Provide sensible choices, priced individually and let the students choose. They do this in hospital and college cafeterias; why not high school? Students and their parents will quickly understand the relationship between the economics and their eating habits. I can't believe that checking out a child's tray for their choice and touch screening the ala carte item after it is chosen can be that much more time consuming that herding them through and pulling up their student codes before hand. Many lunch programs already have a way to charge for an extra carton of milk. A la carte choices will show a direct link between the popularity of foods and their consumption, not only to students and parents, but the cooks who prepare them.

On this point, the school lunch preparers would do well to spend some time while students are clearing their trays watching what goes in that trash container.
Sometimes off every tray, it is the same item. If the students continually are not eating it, why serve it? At that point who cares it you met your $.65 a day per student goal?

We also need to work harder to bring local foods that are additive-free back into our schools. There are still too few suppliers and too many hoops for them to jump through.

Every school with a horticulture class should be responsible for a school garden. We need to bring the eat what you grow concept into our schools, too. The foods class can work in tandem with the horticulture students learning various food preservation techniques. These are life skills.

Lastly, our cooks need to actually cook food again for our children. How about it?

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