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An Open Letter to Our Children: We're Sorry About School Lunch

I recently had the chance to sit down with a handful of sixth graders at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis. The students had been complaining that the lunches they were being served tasted bad and made them feel sick, and their teacher asked me to come answer questions, provide context, and make suggestions.

For an hour, these thoughtful students and I discussed healthy food choices, growing a garden, being pressed for time (a 12 year old girl told me she didn't have time to put an apple in her backpack in the morning), eating on a budget, and how to affect change. I've been thinking about the discussion ever since.

I struggled to answer questions about why school lunch tastes the way it does - and why it leaves students' bodies aching for more, or just plain aching - without scaring the kids. "Why do they feed us this stuff?" the kids asked, heartbreakingly, "don't they like us?" Here's my answer, in the form of an open letter to our children.

Dear Children,

Many of you have noticed that the food you're being served in your school cafeterias leaves much to be desired. You've told us that there are bugs in your food, and that nobody cares when you tell them. You've told us that the staff doesn't give you time to eat. You've told us that school cafeteria food makes you feel sick at times, and that it doesn't cure your hunger. You've told us that the food tastes like the plastic it's been wrapped in, and that it's just plain "rude," bordering on inedible. It pains me to tell you this, but we know. We've known for a long time.

To say that our decisions around the food we feed you come down to money doesn't tell the whole story, but at a basic level, it's true. Across the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends an average of $2.68 per lunch, per child. When I shared this fact with your peers at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis, they were surprised. "If I gave you each $2.68 for lunch today," I asked, "where would you spend it?" I was not surprised that only fast food restaurants came to mind: Arby's, McDonald's, Burger King, and others. The $0.99 menu has been effectively marketed to you.

But then I told those kids that much of the $2.68 covers food-related costs - transportation and labor, for example - and that, by some estimates, the amount of money that is actually spent on food is closer to $0.90. "Now I'll give you each $0.90," I told them. "Tell me what you'll buy." Blank looks. Now the $0.99 menu no longer applies. Here's a short excerpt from Fast Food Nation that explains how our government provides lunch for $0.90:

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the USDA chose meat suppliers for its National School Lunch Program on the basis of the lowest price, without imposing additional food safety requirements. The cheapest ground beef was not only the most likely to be contaminated with pathogens, but also the most likely to contain pieces of spinal cord, bone, and gristle left behind [...]

Beginning with the 2000 - 2001 school year, ground beef intended for distribution to schools would be tested for pathogens; meat that failed the tests would be be rejected; and "downers" - cattle too old or too sick to wak into a slaughterhouse - could no longer be processed into ground beef that the USDA buys for children. The meatpacking industry immediately opposed the new rules.

I am not that cynical a person; I believe that things have gotten somewhat better over the past nine years. And yet, here is an excerpt from one of Simple, Good, and Tasty's own articles earlier this year, quoting USA TODAY on December 8, 2009:

In the past three years, the government has provided the nation’s schools with millions of pounds of beef and chicken that wouldn’t meet the quality or safety standards of many fast-food restaurants, from Jack in the Box and other burger places to chicken chains such as KFC, a USA TODAY investigation found.

Your peers asked me if our nation loves our children. The answer is yes, we love you very much. But things have gotten away from us, again. The situation is complicated, there's a lot of work to do, and we don't have much money to do it. To affect change, we will need all of the great work being done by people like Michelle Obama, Chef Ann Cooper, by the person who writes Fed Up with School Lunch, and by organizations like The Lunchbox and the Healthy Schools Campaign. We will need to tell our government that you kids are our future, that you need to be fed good, nourishing, healthy, fresh food, and that our tax money should support it. And then we need to tell them again.

I'll admit it: I have fond memories of my own school lunches, and - until I went to eat with my son at his school - I wondered why he refused to eat the school's cafeteria food. I swear the food was better when I was a kid, and I strongly encourage you to invite your parents to school for lunch so they can experience it firsthand. Now my wife and I make our son's lunch every day. Until we get a few of these things figured out, maybe your parents will too. Not everyone can do this, of course, but for some of us it's the best option right now.

In the meantime, you can help by actively choosing the food you eat, by going for that carrot instead of those fries, by putting an apple in your backpack, and by telling your parents, teachers, principals, and lunchroom workers what you think. Don't let any of us off the hook. You deserve our full attention. Make sure you get it.

With hope,
Lee

Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at lee@simplegoodandtasty.com.

This article was proudly submitted to Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday.

Comments

ICK! haven't eaten institutional food since college, where even though we complained about lack of choices i was mostly vegetarian so i stayed away from the worst of it, it sounds like.....

my grandmother was a baker for the school cafeteria. yes, believe it or not, up until about 30 years ago they actually baked FRESH BREAD in a school cafeteria. both of my parents and both of my siblings are teachers, and they try (tried) to stay away from buying food at the school except for the 'home cooked' favorites.

i am very interested to see jamie oliver's upcoming show, looks like he goes to a school to enlighten the kids and teachers about what they are actually eating....should be interesting!

Excellent post - and very sad. Great idea to write it as a letter to children. Thank you for meeting with the children and writing about it.

My uncle works at a progressive school in the cities and even there the food is horrible. Yesterday, I was at Abbot and saw they have a McDonalds inside the building.. it is as if our institutions are trying to make us sick and unhappy. I'm going to be looking at some of the positive things youth are doing around food in my new documentary series (www.theperennialplate.com).. we have to look towards the change.

Thanks for the letter.

great letter, but its so sad and true. our kids get a packed lunch. i know some parents cant afford it, and that is devastating, but for those who can, it would be great if they stopped paying for the crap in the caffeteria and made a simple lunch. maybe if every family that isnt living in abject poverty made lunch for thier kids rather then letting them eat the stuff at school our public school food would be forced to improve.

I had a school lunch today & it was great! Where else can you get a well balance meal for $3.15 that includes a cup of milk? I wish people would taste test before they criticize all of the school lunch programs. Not all school lunches are bad, but when you generalize to all districts like this article does it creates an uphill battle for change. Some districts, like the one I work at, are exemplary! I cannot create a meal at home for half the cost or quality that I get at work. So, Hats off to the “High – Quality” Districts!

No, it is really comes down to cost. The crap that they are feeding kids is the cheapest calories that they can find. It's not that the 'lunch ladies' don't want to serve better food, it is that they don't have the money to do it.

If they had $1 more per kid per day for better ingredients it would cost around $180 per kid per year. The average cost to educate a child in Minnesota is about $6000 per year. That's 3%.

What do you get for the money spent on better food in schools ? Better test scores, better attendance, and fewer discipline problems. It is a pennies on the dollar investment to improve the effectiveness of our education spending.

The feds are going to reauthorize the school nutrition bill by October 1st. Now is the time to contact your elected Representative and Senators to tell them that better food for school kids is important. Even if they are Republicans. Espescially if they are Republicans. Just as important, they need to get junk food out of schools.

Appleton Wisconsin's alternative high school is a poster child for better food in schools. Do some research yourself and send an email to your elected federal (it wouldn't hurt to let your state representatives know too) and tell them why you think better food for school kids is important.

Greg

Greg Reynolds
Riverbend Farm

I work at a school where 98% of the 675 students get free or reduced lunch. I see a real home packed lunch maybe once or twice a month and it's never what I would consider "healthy." I see a Lunchable maybe once a week. A healthy lunch from home really isn't a reality for my students. For some of our students lunch may be the only hot meal of their day.

We do our best to feed our kids as healthy of food as we can. At lunch there is a huge salad bar and two fruit choices. Some of the kids choose fruits and vegies everyday and some never take any. When the kids tell me they are still hungry and I see their tray devoid of any fruit or vegetable I tell them they need to take those healthy foods and make better choices. St. Paul Public Schools has also implemented a program to serve locally raised foods when it is available and in season. We also recycle our food waste to pig farms.

Every child has the option of eating breakfast at school for free everyday. There is a hot option or reduced sugar cereal or yogurt. My school and others in the district were approved for a grant that gives every classroom, including teachers, an extra snack a day of a fresh fruit or vegetable.

Some school districts are doing their best to meet your demands. I rarely eat school lunch because I prefer to cook and eat organic food. However, I like some meals, some are really good, especially the rotisserie chicken. Check out the St. Paul Public Schools menu and come try that meal next time it's served.

Please don't judge every district the same.

Thank you for your terrific thoughts and comments. Emily, Daniel, and Stephanie, thanks for weighing in and for your support. Greg, thanks for clearly articulating the problem and providing action steps - please read these, folks, and contact your representatives. An investment of so very little can make such a huge difference to our children, and to all of our future. We need to be aware and involved.

Laura and Jackie, thanks for articulating another side of the story - the fact that there are great people (and even some good districts) working to make change. I applaud your schools (Jackie, where are you? I do find your love of school food a little bit hard to believe) and you individually.

And yet, the subsidized breakfast at my son's school includes things like "fortified" Frosted Flakes. As long as we offer these things, who is going to choose fruit? As long as we have soda machines in our schools, who will drink milk or water? I am thrilled that there is some good food out there, but there is no denying that the system is broken, and that money, awareness, forward thinking, activism, and change are needed.

Having this conversation on this site and all over the country is making a difference. Let's keep it going.

Here is some good news on this front: http://www.iatp.org/iatp/press.cfm?refid=107269

And for all the details on the survey: http://www.agobservatory.org/library.cfm?refID=107270

Shame on you Lee for not giving these children ideas on how to address their concerns.
1st - Save their parents money and start packing wonderful, wholesome, fresh, organic bag lunches from home. No more excuses that they didn't have time or there were not bag lunch items in the home refrigerator. Bag lunches from home only. Why would you ever want a child to geat awful food.
2. It sounds to me like the old saw "not only is the food awful, but the portions are too small."
3. Anyone who thinks Jamie Oliver is out to save American children needs to think again. He is going to make millions performing on his TV show. Lee is perhaps jealous that he didn't get there first.
3. Have these children write letters to the CEO's of the major food manufacturers in AMerica. ConAgra, General Mills, Tyson, Hormel, Arthur Daniel Midlands, etc. and have those kids express their concerns.
4.In the last 10 years, the revolution in school meals programs has been nothing short of awesome. Shame on you Lee. You have done nothing to help these children learn to be responsible and take action. You have just gone for the cheap shot. And cheap it is. You could not accomplish preparing wholesome, healthy meals everyday for millions of children because your ego is too big for the dollars that are available to prepare a meal.

I have been in the school food service for more than 25 years and have seen a lot of changes. I know that there is always room for improvement and your food service program is only as good as the people running it. To lump all the schools together is not justified. How many schools have you been to for lunch or breakfast? Just this one? We are a small portion of the student's day. I am happy to say that a smile and a hot breakfast or lunch may be the highlight of any student's day and I am proud of my participation.

Shame on YOU, Anonymous #1. I appreciate your suggestions, but attacking me personally is ridiculous, and doing it without showing your face is cowardly. Cheap shot, indeed.

lee- i dont know where jackie eats such a mythically delicious school lunch but my kids school is in minneapolis, where i was a public school student as well, and the lunches have never been tasty looking to me, not in the last 25 years ive seen them, nor are the free, federally provided breakfasts even remotely healthy.

even the free milk is sweetened and flavored, probably to make up for the disgusting taste of feedlot-raised cow milk that has been ultra high temp pasturized to make it last longer. yuck.

who cares if jamie oliver makes millions? good for him. he is an a bussiness man, but he does advocate mostly real, healthier food for children. we live in a capitalist culture and country, why shouldnt people doing good deeds make a dollar or a million?

When the kids tell me they are still hungry and I see their tray devoid of any fruit or vegetable I tell them they need to take those healthy foods and make better choices.

I have a big problem with this statement. When it comes to academics and general discipline the school districts are first in line to state that they have the right to be a parent in absentia but when it comes to food they are hands off.

Listen: there should be NO choices available to the children which aren't healthy. That means no fried foods, no pizza (yes, it can be healthy but it's not generally in schools), no processed snack foods, and no sugared anything (that includes juices loaded with HFCS).

When you want to treat all areas of student governance the same, including what they eat, then you can truly meet your burden as a parent in absentia. Until then, you're just under the hypocritical threshold when you unequivocally state that you are doing such great things for these kids by what you OFFER to them to eat.

It might be interesting to engage Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty and his Real Food Initiatives www.realfoodinitiatives.com in this discussion. He left a successful restaurant career to dedicate time to school lunch programs.

In my kids' school, it took parents coming together and getting involved at the school level. We now have locally baked whole wheat breads and local produce on the menu.

Problem as I see it is most parents are apathetic re: school lunch. Most are just happy not to have one less meal to prepare.

Don't think that true?

Well, I have yet to see a School District propose a School Lunch Funding Levee. I've suggested it to a number of the food service directors and the response is "oh, no one would go for that." Personally, I'd vote for it if the levy $s raised went to good, clean, local proteins only. (sorry greg) This would free up remaining lunch budgets for higher quality veggies. And inject tons of cash into local food systems. Increasing demand and tax bases for the districts. Maybe a new farmer/rancher would be created - Hey that sounds like "green jobs!"

p.s. I have school lunch with Thing 2 about once a month - he eats his home lunch and I have a St. Paul school lunch - they aren't terrible - until I really think about what I'm eating - yuck.

I've hung back too long, here, and need to jump in to the fray to defend my friend and colleague.

I have eaten lunch at my children's school -- one of the supposedly better suburuban districts, that has (thankfully) found a milk supplier that doesn't use rBGH and a local bread baker that uses whole grains. (However, most of the milk sold is ultra-pasteurized and flavored with sweeteners -- Emily is right -- and the bread is only offered one or two days per week.)

But almost every day of the week includes the USDA-sanctioned chicken scraps (otherwise known as nuggets, strips, patties, tacos, drummies, and something called “popcorn chicken") and beef (in the form burgers and meat sauce) that is of such poor quality that it can't be sold to retail establishments. USA Today, probably the most mainstream newspaper in America, recently wrote that McDonalds, Burger King and Costco, for example, test their meat for pathogens "five to 10 times more often" than the USDA tests the meat made for schools. "And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef."

Now, the USDA has recently declared that this has to change -- and hooray for that. But I pack my kids' lunches every day, not only because I'm concerned about the nutritional value of school lunches, but also whether or not they're even safe to eat. In my conversations with food-safety attorney Bill Marler last year, I learned a lot about how institutional food is processed -- and it's not a pretty picture. (The best article I've read about this subject is this NY Times piece that ran last October, featuring Minnesota resident Stephanie Smith who almost died after eating an E-coli-infected burger.)

There are a lot of passionate points being made in these comments. And the fact that you're all here reading about this tells me that you care about children and you care about food. Can we all agree that school lunches can be more nutritious, more delicious, and yes, safer for kids to eat? Then let's start there and work together to make it so.

Good discussion; I'm learning from everyone's comments.

For me, I continue to be surprised at how many options my kids have for lunch. When I was in school, we had one meal choice until high school, where we had two choices plus an a la carte line.

Now, my kids have lots of options at school. They often choose fruits, veggies and salads. Thankfully, they opt out of the "greasy" meals like hamburgers and pizza.

(When they were younger, I packed them lunches. Now, they're old enough to make their own choices, sometimes packing their own & other times opting for school lunch.)

This makes me wonder about two things:
1. How much does all this variety cost? If schools reduced the number of options, would it improve funding for higher quality? I wonder.
2. What is the parents' role in raising kids to make healthy food choices? It's not all the school's responsibility -- encouraging healthy eating starts at home.

Thanks Lee for sparking the conversation!

Working as a middle school lunch lady - 400 kids in school, usually 220 kids eat lunch. Two thirds are reduced/free lunch. We have three main dishes, lunch salad, lunch sandwich, three raw veggies and two fruits available. We have one full time administrator (who has no culinary food service training), one cook, two part time cooks, and two cashiers.

Think about the last time you had friends over for dinner - you served 200 right? How many people helped you make the meal? Think about it - one cook, two part time cooks - to unpack the truck, cook the food, serve the food, put food away, clean the dishes, and clean the kitchen - for 200. Daily.

Cooking healthy and/or organic/whole requires more staff. More trained staff.

Know any school districts who have extra money to hire trained full timers?

Which is why all our food is frozen. Put it in the oven, put it in plastic, and serve. We hate it.

The USDA website says that school lunches are designed to be served from the freezer because most schools do not have adequate kitchens. The solution becomes the problem.

(We have seven ovens. Two work.)

Our last line ends at 1:10. We pull the two steam table lines, count the tills, put away the "a la carte" items, the fruit and sandwiches, clean all the serving dishes and cooking dishes from the last line, store everything, clean all the surfaces. How long did it take you to clean up from your last dinner party? We stop getting paid at 1:30. Two or three of us stay past to finish cleaning.

If we got real food in we couldn't cook it. Not enough time. Not enough people. Not enough training. Not enough refrigerated storage.

Each month our "kitchen" makes between $4000-6000 selling potato chips, fruit snacks, juice boxes, and bottled water. The administrator's administrator talks about nutrition. But her bottom line is the monthly profit. That is what her monthly meetings are about.

Four of the five lunch ladies do not get health insurance or benefits.

We know good food. We want to serve good food. What falls off the truck is what we have to serve. Serving mediocre food to children is a difficult job. It makes us sad. We do what we can. We would love some help from the top. We are changing as much as we can from the bottom.

Lee,

Now you know the ugly side of Minnesota Nice. If public shaming doesn't work and you don't shape up we will start shunning you. If you still believe your lying eyes, we will have to banish you (probably to Iowa, but Nebraska is not out of the question).

Read the NYT link from Shari's post. It is a true story. Now tell me how good the USDA commodity food for school lunches is. I was handed the same article by a school food service worker. She was hoping for a miracle so she could afford to buy local bison or beef. Budget constraints force them to use a lot of USDA surplus commodities.

Mary and I have gone to Olivia's grade school for lunch. Only once and we didn't eat. The hot lunch did not look so good. The other kids' bag lunches ranged from home made to Lunchables.

Face it, people in this country eat a lot of, ahhh, industrial products that look like food. And it shows. Cheapness and convenience have serious and expensive consequences.

Greg

I dunno, Greg. Couldn't be a Minnesotan. We're not like that. Thanks again for good information and context - and especially for being such a great leader on this issue in town.

School Lunch Lady, thank you so much for taking the time to lay out the issues, the heartbreaking work you do, and the reality we face. Several others have been right to point out that it's not right to throw a whole group of people "under the bus." Thank you for the small things you do to improve kids' lives and health, for doing the best you can with what "falls off the truck," and for caring enough to do good work and educate the rest of us.

I am thankful to be part of a site and community where this kind of discussion takes place, and to be surrounded by smart, thoughtful, caring, and opinionated people. We don't need to agree on everything; we need to be able to disagree and work together anyway. Hopefully we're getting there.

Greg -- I am so happy we're getting our CSA from you this year. You rock!

Here is an easy way to let your senators and representative know that you support a Child Nutrition Act with more funding for school lunches and support for a farm-to-school program. Slow Food USA has a letter you can email. You supply your zip code, and the e-mail is sent to the correct people automatically. You can personalize the letter in any way you wish. E-mails, when lots of them are sent, do influence our legislators.

Write your legislators about getting better food in schools:
http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/campaign/time_for_lunch/

Packing a lunch is a good individual solution. The School Lunch Program is public policy.

The children who eat school lunch every day are often the reduced/free lunch students. What those students eat matters.

Requiring their parents to provide a nutritious packed lunch misses the point.

The School Lunch Program is a public policy to provide a hot, nutritious meal to any child who needs it.

Of all the programs my taxes could support, an excellent School Lunch Program would be an inexpensive, worthwhile contribution to the public good.

School Lunch Lady's comments brought me to tears. The people working in school cafeteria's are dealing with a sad reality and many aren't getting the administrative support they need to make changes.

I agree w/ some of the other commenters- limit the choices @ lunch. Kids don't need to pick from 4-5 options. Give them a hot option, sandwich or salad. Sometimes I think we burden kids with too many choices.

It's not just a public school issue. My kids' private daycare/school offers miserable hot lunches. Not only do they serve everything in styrofoam containers, the hot food is ALL processed! They make a feeble attempt at including healthy items by throwing lettuce in a cup and sometimes serving fruit, but I often see those items in the trash. The kids prefer to eat the bag of chips or junk food item included with every meal.

I have spoken with the school director about offering healthier food and replacing the styrofoam, but they don't manage the food program- it's run from the main school. I am looking forward to Jamie Oliver's upcoming show and hope that it raises awareness among other parents who want to get involved. If they do, perhaps we'll start seeing more people demand real change in the school lunch programs.

I am almost in tears. Fine, I am in tears. Every time I eat lunch with my son, I am so sobered by how little kids eat at lunch. I wonder how they can learn at all with such little nutrition. There has to be a better way to solve the "feed many" problem without sacrificing nutrients for cost. thank you for writing this.

Lee,

Thank you for your letter and thanks to the Lunch Lady. I grew up in poorer school districts where the lunches were miserable, but because they were cheap or free, it's what we ate. Many children, especially in the inner-city, don't have the choice to bring their lunch to school. I disliked the school lunches, but bringing lunch actually cost my family more money. Even more sobering, the subsidized school lunch was their first meal of the day for some of my friends. (School breakfast wasn't available then, but I'm sure they would've appreciated it.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that children don't necessarily have a choice about what they eat, so thanks for caring!

As the sorry state of school lunches is finally coming into the public eye (thank you Lee, Jamie Oliver, and others!),I believe that parents are truly in need of a simple and affordable way to be sure their children have access to a healthy lunch. We can't wait around for the school districts to get the 'clean up your act' message. Our kids need good nutrition today! Packing a lunch box is the only sure solution available right now. And that's why I created The EasyLunchbox System: Compartmentalized containers and cooler bags, that when used together, help families quickly pack healthy lunches without wasting time, money, paper, or plastic. Supporting the waste-free lunch movement, EasyLunchboxes.com offers a reusable, superior solution at a much lower price than other companies.
Great for large families and those on a limited budget. Although I'm very concerned with my family's health and nutrition, as a busy mom, I like to spend as little time as possible in the kitchen. I'm all about fresh, healthy and FAST. Please consider packing your kids' lunchbox at home - visit my website to learn how easy it can be. -Kelly Lester, Mom and CEO http://www.EasyLunchboxes.com

This is a great discussion. My mother-in-law works for a food service department at an elementary school in Indianapolis. Somehow they are able to serve fresh fruits and vegetables on a regular basis and they actually still cook the meals, with multiple staff persons. It is amazing that there can be such discrepancy on this topic. Food plays a major role in each of our lives, it is sad that our kids aren't able to or given the chance to make healthy food choices.

Thanks for your work Lee and others.

On behalf of my students in Queens, New York, I want to say THANKS for this letter of apology. I can't wait to share it with them tomorrow! They know firsthand just how terrible school lunches can be. They are constantly served repetitive, flavorless, reheated, carb-heavy lunches, and they're (understandably) not happy about it. Check out their daily lunch reviews at the class website we've created in hopes of stirring up something better: http://schoollunchfoundguilty.wordpress.com

FoodTeacherAmy, what a great school (except for those lunches :-)) and class. You are one of my new food heroes. I love that blog. Way to go!

Nick, thanks for your note too - this is your fault in a way. :-)

Thanks for reaching out to the students.
Our kids boycotted the school lunches last year for a week and we had the people in suits show up the next day to "improve the situation".

Slowly it does change-and this year we are fortunate to have a farmers market at the school run by students.

We need to give youth the tools and education to organize around better food issues-it is an equity issue-no surprise. And Local communities are the gatekeepers for how youth are treated. Speak up, Act, Organize-or your youth or they will continue to be spoonfed carbohydrates and subsidized commodities-corporate nutrition.

WEREFEDUP.com is a program in LA County that is doing a good job of engaging youth around these issues...
Keep up the good work Lee...

Gehry,
Oakland, CA

here is a link to the kids cooking themselves food-because no one else is!!
http://teacherrevised.org/2010/01/29/the-schoolyard-foodie-keepin-it-rea...

Everybody knows what is bad, but knowing is not enough. we have to start a personal change and teach with the example. if i had kids i will pay for their meal and i will also send them at school with a couple of apples because they will learn about sharing and they will also get healthy at the same time. people need to reed the Bible. thanks Jesus.

This is all wonderful discussion, and I am especially appreciative of the lunch lady input; front line and valuable information, and I don't know why you all weren't the first people we checked with! A couple of caveats: I love the site of FoodTeacherAmy, except that those same comments have been made to me by my son in the face of some truly wonderful organic delights. Ugh. And, Luis, in our district sharing is not allowed at all- so many kids with allergies have made sandwich trading (or apple sharing) a thing of the past.

I'm in Wisconsin, in Madison. The kids at my son's school have 15 minutes for lunch, and this includes time spent coming in from recess and getting to the lunchroom. The hot lunch kids wait in line for their lunch, and then at least 3 minutes can be spent opening the plastic film that covers the tray as well as the plastic film covering the chicken patty, bun, condiment packets, and spork/napkin package. Then opening the darn milk carton. There are 4 or 5 lunch ladies on patrol, expediting like crazy. The waste generated, both of food and packaging, is huge. We have breakfast offered as well, and ofcourse something is WAY better than nothing for the kids that don't eat at home, but why on earth is sugary cereal an option? How much learning gets done after that?

We need to know which districts are doing good things! Which cities, which schools? What are the names of the administrators, and if they've made changes, how exactly? I'm glad there are so many people interested in changing the lunch system, in the districts and schools where change is needed. THANKS!

What we do to children at lunch time in schools is criminal. We are also shaping their ideas about food that will be hard to eradicate in later years. We all know this. But do all of us know that most real 'kitchens' have been taken out or are no longer used in our older schools and are not being installed at all in the new ones. In my granddaugters small school in the next county (rural Indiana), there is a space where a kitchen used to be, but now only a smaller space remains that dispenses microwaved food that comes to the school frozen. My granddaughter tells me that even the grilled cheese sandwiches are 'nuked'! So, now we have at least 6 fewer jobs that were taken from women in the community (generally older women who know how to cook, since some of the younger ones are serving some of the same bad stuff for supper in the evenings and cooking for low wages and no benefits is not too appealing to them--imagine that!).I came from a very small school which is teetering on the brink of budgetary extinction right now. In that school is still the big kitchen with the big lunch window opening out onto the cafeteria. While I was a student there, the food was plentiful (you could go back for seconds without paying an extra dime), the food was wonderful (as good as a family restaurant any day of the week) AND we had an entire hour to eat (by the way, the extra hour didn't hurt our education--at high school graduation, out of 39 students more that 50% went on to a bachelors degree or higher--and that was in 1969)! When my children attended grade school there, it was the same. My sister is now a teacher at that school and they still have cooks and a kitchen and the food is good! Seems that there are two things lacking now--a real kitchen with cooks and education for entire families about what they should be cooking and eating. You might think that we should only educate the poor, but ignorance of food and how to cook it knows no economic class--the money to buy it does. Oh, and we also need politicians from both sides of the aisle that don't go running for the hills screaming socialism every time it is suggested that more money should be used for our schools and our childrens needs!

So right you are, Jane, you go! This is exactly why I think the first task at hand is to actually experience school lunch ourselves. When more parents are exposed to the food our kids eat, we can speak intelligently and compellingly about how it aligns - or doesn't align - with our own desires.

I'm doing a bit of research into school lunches past, and it turns out they weren't as nutritious as I remembered. They might have been more delicious - your point about cooking onsite is an important one - but I'm trying not to romanticize the past. Although I did have to walk uphill to school, both ways...

I went to Bloomington schools in the 80s and 90s and in 2nd grade I told my mom that the schools were trying to poison us with their food. I refused to eat it anymore because it was so disgusting. I remember a friend scraping the cheese off her pizza and it looking like she had been sick on her plate. We even joked that it would be a good way to go home early from school. Looking back at this now I realize that the 2nd grade me was completely right. I'm so glad my parents had the ability to send a lunch with me to school.