School Lunch Contest: Help Us Pick the Winner

Wow, wow, wow! What terrific photos you sent! What great stories you told! The school lunch challenge that began just over a month ago with an open letter to our children apologizing for the current state of school lunch ends right here, right now. Many of you have done the hard part: you've eaten lunch with your kids, taken photos, and sent them to us (so have we, by the way). You've done this in the name of research, in the name of love, and in the hopes of winning valuable prizes from great companies.

The stakes are high. A winner will be chosen in one short week and announced here, but we need your help. We need you to vote for your favorite entry by participating in our poll (vote HERE). On April 19, 2010, we'll tally the votes and give out prizes in this order:

Thank you for taking our school lunch challenge to heart and going to eat with your kids at school. Here are our entries:

Heather Eisenmenger - Minneapolis, MN

I had lunch with my 2nd grade daughter today ... milk, apples, chicken nuggets or deli sandwich.  I thought it tasted good and was fairly healthy (I guess I do not know the nutritional value of chicken nuggets but I admittedly serve them to my kids on occasion). My only complaint was there were no veggies? I asked and they had run out of mini bags of carrots, I wonder how often that happens? That means none of the second graders or third graders got vegetables today. On a good note, this school is doing composting with the lunches this year, notice the compostable tray. I was impressed by how good the kids were at knowing what you could and couldn't compost and by the reduction in waste. I wish I had learned about composting in 2nd grade - think of all the waste I could have prevented.

Mary Quinn McCallum - St. Paul, MN

I live in St. Paul and have two daughters in public school, next year my youngest will join her sisters when she starts school. The girls take "hot lunch" about 1/3 of the time. I volunteer at the school regularly so get to see what is served for lunch and find it pretty appalling. There is not much of a kitchen at the school, and there is no dishwasher, so all food is served on styrofoam trays, which is a huge bummer.

The kids are allowed their choice of chocolate or plain milk everyday. The #2 ingredient in the chocolate milk is high fructose corn syrup. I would say at least half the kids take chocolate milk every day. When I joined them for lunch yesterday, when I took these photos, they also got single serving apple juices with their meal.

It was a very popular day for school lunch, the meal was french toast. The topping for the toast was a sort of apple cinnamon goo, which most of the kids didn't take. The protein was scrambled "eggs." As you can see from the photo, they were yellowish, with green and grey streaks. Highly unappetizing, I did take a bite and it tasted exactly how you'd think from the photos.

The "fruit" was mushy peaches in syrup, again in individual containers. The amount of trash generated from all of the single serving containers makes me sad. There was a baked hash-brown triangle as well.  The kids happily squirted ketchup all over the eggs and potatoes and ate away. I had a harder time getting the stomach for it, not being in the habit.

I know that St. Paul schools are using more local food than they have in the past and has worked on making their menus healthier - baking rather than frying, offering whole wheat bread, etc. I applaud this, but add, wow, there is still a ton of room for improvement. The district also runs a program where the kids put their food waste into a separate trash can and that is then hauled to feed pigs. This seems like a good idea, except when you think about what pigs are meant to eat. If I don't want to eat a pig that's been fed school lunch scraps, why should I let my kids eat school lunch?

Chanelle Neilson - Brookside Elementary in Beaumont, CA

I blogged about my school lunch experience here:

Kate Noble - Minneapolis, MN 

Pizza covered in ranch dressingPizza covered in ranch dressingGreat idea with the school lunch contest. I work at a public school in Minneapolis and I spend some time in the lunchroom while I'm there. Here are a couple pics I took for the contest (I ate the food too).

Ann Lumbar - Minneapolis, MN

So here is the pic from my school lunch that I ate today! It was a actually really good (as the meals usually are here) because they actually MAKE the food versus reheating packaged items. My only complaint? An ongoing lack of veggies. Fruit is occasionally represented but veggies lag behind. All this was a bargain for $2.50! Delicious and easy on the budget! Meal purchased and eaten at a private Catholic high school.

Dana Murdoch - Capital Hill, St. Paul, MN

Submission One: 

I had a very memorable meal with my son at his school. I was so excited to see this contest. This was just my reason to show up at lunch and see what it is really all about.

I am a huge proponent of school lunch change, my mantra being: “If we could just start by getting rid of chocolate milk.” As soon as my oldest started kindergarten, she suddenly was drinking chocolate milk every day, because it was there. Chocolate milk is once-a-month treat at home and all my kids have always drunk their milk.

Needless to say, I also feel very strongly against the food offered and put effort into packing 3 lunches every day. Of course, my son adores the tater tots and hot dogs offered, so he gets to choose every once in a while a hot lunch day. I usually cringe. I was in luck (?) that he had selected a pizza day on the calendar so joined him at lunch.

First, you will see that lunch is served on Styrofoam trays. Aaaargh! My oldest and her friends were appalled by this at the beginning of the school year (they had regular trays last year) and they crafted a letter to send to the powers to be asking what was up and that they were concerned for the environment. Yahoo! Word has it the dishwasher was broken and they were waiting to get it fixed. Well, days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and the next explanation was that Styrofoam trays were to stay because it is more cost effective (?) and/or better for the environment (?) to continue with the Styrofoam trays. I have other battles other than to chase that one down.

OK! Pizza Day! I was on the 2nd grade side of the cafeteria. When I approached the lunch server, I used my inquisitive nature to ask what my options were. I was told: Cheese Pizza, Veggie Pizza, or Cheese Toasty (I think). Looking for a little extra nutrition, I asked for the Veggie Pizza which she had to go over to the 6th grade side to retrieve. Apparently 2nd graders don’t go for Veggie Pizza. Maybe if they saw it in front of them, some would … She gave me a nice piece, but the veggies were few and far between and the edge pieces were pretty sad with inconsistent cheese.

In front of the pizza was a bin with warmed up ‘green’ beans that the kids could self-serve. You can see they are not all that green. I can get past that. I was impressed that my son took some and I can’t wait to tell you what he did with them. Next was a fresh salad bar. I took some lettuce, cucumbers and some fresh (probably thawed-frozen) peas. Hey, the peas were tasty!

I took the piece of bread; it looked a little bit like there may be some whole grain in there and a little yellow as though there may be some corn meal? Who knows! I did laugh though, because I had just seen the first show of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and had the image of his disdain that 2 bred servings were required for every meal. Even though I had that pizza and its possible 2 bread servings included – I grabbed the bread to try it.

And then my skim milk. I like skim milk; it’s what I drink and have some with breakfast every day and try to with lunch.

I have to say, when I told my son’s teacher about my outing, she warned me about the noise level in the cafeteria and that I should bring earplugs. I actually didn’t think it was too loud, but I guess it would get old day after day.

Okay, we sat down and it tasted pretty much like it looks: cardboard pizza, mushy green beans, fresh peas and salad, dry bread, and cold milk. I forgot to grab a fruit – there were bananas.

My son devoured the pizza, drank his milk, and surprisingly started in on the green beans. He didn’t take any salad or fruit.

OK, the greatest thing my son did with the green beans. He picked up his bread, hollowed it out a bit, like a boat, and shoved the green beans into the divot and ate it all up. I loved it! Although I have seem him experiment with food at home, too.

All in all, this lunch didn’t seem too greasy to me, which I was glad. It was a bit tasteless, compared to how we eat at home, but that’s us. There are a lot of entrees on the calendar that my kids have no interested in eating, so I will continue to make them their lunches. Thanks for this opportunity to validate my dream to eat a school lunch!

Submission Two:


This visit to the cafeteria was with all kindergarteners. My daughter can’t stand hot lunch, so I had to drag her along with me through the hot lunch line for her to ‘show me the ropes.’ My entrée option was a hamburger or one fish fillet. With these little tikes, I was impressed that the lunch server offered half of a hamburger to one of the kids in front of me. I chose fish. Of course I had the tater tots, then salad, bread, banana, and a brownie dessert, and, of course, my skim milk. All this was served on reusable black plastic trays, which really showed off the food well, now that I look back at the photo!

Man, was that fish fillet soggy! Yuck! I reminisced (to myself and my fifth grader when I got home) that every day for lunch in high school, never fail, I ate two deep fried battered fish fillets, canned peaches, and milk. I don’t remember anything else on my tray – maybe some fries? The fish was hot, crispy, and greasy. I loved it. To this day, I adore fish and chips and canned peaches. But that was then, and this is now: the world of chicken parts no one else will eat ground up into chicken patties for school lunch (thanks Jamie Oliver). I digress.

The tater tots were great, the salad ‘fresh,’ the banana fine, and the bread dry. I gave the brownie to my daughter and her friend even though we are not supposed to share food.

Now, this lunch experience was not as loud or scattered as my second grader, so I had more time to look around and chat with the kids. There was all sorts of food not getting eaten by these kids and their small stomachs. I could have guessed that. Besides, my daughter’s class has two snacks in class during the day, why would they be hungry? (Another one of my issues – too many snacks.)

Everyone took a banana and no one ate them. I asked a few why and only one had a real answer – she couldn’t open it! So, since I know her and her mother well enough, I offered to open it and she ate it! Amazing!

This was another ‘acceptable’ lunch experience for me, but my daughter seems to prefer her packed lunch: buttered baguette, baby carrots, fruit, salty snack, and purchased milk. It’s not much, but she doesn’t eat much more at home for lunch and this way I know where the food is coming from. Oh, and did I mention the two snacks in the classroom? Why would she be hungry?

Elizabeth Roca - Silver Spring, MD

I ate lunch with my first-grade daughter at her school today. Lunch at this school is served buffet style - the kids are served the entree of their choice, then pick up the side items they want. The cost is per item. I had cheese pizza (the other entree choice was hot dog with bun and baked beans). The kids also had a choice of whole fruit - orange or pear - plus salad or celery sticks. I took an orange and, because the salad looked a little wilted, the celery sticks. I passed on the cookie for dessert (after munching on my kids' Easter candy most of the week I didn't need it). The drinks offered were skim milk, low-fat chocolate milk, and low-fat strawberry milk. I had skim milk, for a total of $3.10.

I am one of those people who feels that there is no such thing as a bad piece of pizza. This one was nicely browned and it tasted fine. The crust wasn't as crispy as I would have liked, but our school is huge (800 students), and it would be no easy feat to prepare that many lunches, much less keep them crisp. The celery was crunchy and nicely cold, as if it had just come out of the refrigerator. The skim milk was ... skim milk.

I don't eat meat, so I can't comment on the quality of our school's meat-based lunches. The problem with the pizza lunch today, as I saw it, wasn't that the kids didn't have healthy choices available, but that they weren't taking them; I saw very few with a piece of fruit and none with the salad or celery. So how do we make fruits and vegetables more attractive to kids, so they'll want to choose them? That's a question I'm also pondering with my own family.

Tamara and Skye - Nederland, CO

Lunch with my son in the most beautifulest place in the world - the Rocky Mountains of Nederland, Colorado. We are blessed to be in a county that cares about what the children eat for lunch, as I know the school lunch coincides with our diet at home. I no longer have to be concerned that my son is consuming high fructose corn syrup or artificial colors/flavors and am rest assured he is eating fresh vegetables from the salad bar, along with BGH free milk and daily vegetarian options. We are blessed to have a proactive and educated Nutritionist looking over the well being of our children. I pig out every time I share lunch time with my son - for only $3.75 I can dive into a fresh salad bar and enjoy a warm tray of filling, healthy food - okay, well... Pizza! One of our favorite foods!

Deann Hadley - Ogden, UT

I wanted to share this lunch. I skipped the Rice Krispie treat that was as big as MY hand (which my 1st grader ate half of with chocolate milk before her food) and skipped the mashed potatoes and gravy. The veggies were not bad at all, the chicken strips seemed baked instead of fried. My child drank the syrup from the peaches until I mentioned it was sugar water. The meal was better than I expected, but could still use improvement. It was too much food for me to eat, and my child didn't even finish half. Glad the lunch was not as bad as some I've heard about.

Tamatha Perlman - Minneapolis, MN

Sometimes I will join my kindergartner for lunch on Fridays. He insists on bringing his lunch, primarily so he doesn't have to wait in line. He insists the line takes too much time, preventing him from eating his lunch. This used to be a major concern of mine, until we began our lunch dates. I forgot that his interpretation of time includes all the goofiness and silliness that goes into a lunch period. Really though, lunch time - more importantly, recess time - is too short.

Our school recently switched from styrofoam trays to paper ones. The old ones made me cringe every time I saw the kids lining up to use them. Visions of mountains of these trays in landfills always made me queasy - 500 a day, five days a week for our school alone.

Our school has also added more fruit options since we started there three years ago. Things are changing slowly for the better.

On my visit, I opted for pasta and meatballs with a side salad. The sauce and noodles weren't bad. The lettuce was crisp. In terms of mass produced food that is shipped all over the city, its not going to get much better. I am REALLY against the gas staion-style packaged foods that include the corn dog, mini-burgers, and pizza sticks - the packaging, the preservatives, the quality of the products. These are naturally some of the kids' favorites  But it really doesn't matter what kind of apples and salads you sit out if the kids won't eat it. (I will cop to never packing my boys fresh fruit in their lunches because they simply won't eat it. I would rather supervise it actually getting eaten at home, than having them toss it, or leave it in their lunchboxes to smoosh around.)

There could be a way to incentivize fruit and vegetable eating. The kids could earn stickers or stamps for making healthy choices. They could earn a popcorn party one day a month for achieving goals, or better yet, a longer recess. The best way to get kids to try something new is to have their peers model it around them. By creating a fun challenge, they would at least be encouraged to try new things (and old). I know the days are full already. In an IB (International Baccalaureate) environment, like my kids have though, it seems something could be integrated into the profiles.

Corrie Meyer - Mesquite, Texas

Corrie didn't send SGT a description of her FOUR (count 'em, FOUR) school lunch experiences - she saved those for her own excellent blog, Just a Mom in Mesquite. You can get a sense for Corrie's sense of humor in the annotated photos above. Here's an excerpt from her Salisbury steak post (but I suggest you read them all):

I’m not going to lie, it did taste like a Salisbury steak. I only had a slight initial cramping when I started to eat it. Keep in mind, however, I was still convalescing from the “Great Enchilada Assault of 2010″ just two days prior. I have always assumed today’s version of Salisbury steak, was just that, steak (ie. beef) with seasonings. Of course, me being me, upon looking at the school version, I began wondering how they managed to get the thing so flat ... and un-beefy.  

... Turns out, the USDA created their own version of an acceptable Salisbury steak (yeah, it’s bad, you already know). Here’s what they say according to their Labeling Policy Book:
Salisbury Steak

Finished product must contain at least 65 percent meat. Fat is limited to 30 percent. Other requirements are:  

1. It is an unbreaded cooked product.  

2. The meat block may contain 25 percent pork, with the remainder beef. Or, the meat block may contain up to 12 percent partially defatted chopped beef and pork.  

3. Extenders are permitted up to 12 percent. When isolated soy protein is used, 6.8 percent is the equivalent of 12 percent of the other extenders. Those extenders include, but are not limited to: cereal, bread crumbs, cracker meal, soy flour, soy protein concentrate, isolated soy protein, and textured vegetable protein.  

4. Meat byproducts are not permitted. Beef heart meat is permitted.  

5. Permitted liquids include, but are not limited to: water, broth, milk, cream, skim milk and reconstituted skim milk (9 parts water to 1 part NFDM).  

6. Product not cooked which conforms to the above may be labeled —Patties for Salisbury.” 

I’m not sure if the policy really embraces kooky ‘ole Mr. Salisbury’s vision. I know for a fact it doesn’t embrace the one I have for our kid’s school lunches.

Now…here’s where it gets silly. As, the policy states above,  the finished product must contain at least 65% meat (pork, beef) to be considered Salisbury steak. Got that?
Ok…now read this:
  • The product name can be a key factor in the consumer’s decision to buy the product
  • The “95%” rule applies to products consisting primarily of meat, poultry or fish. In these examples, at least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient. 
  • Counting the added water, the named ingredient still must comprise 70% of the product.
Don’t worry, our schools aren’t actually doing anything wrong, per the USDA. In fact, our schools don’t have to worry about the above policy. Those are just the regulations concerning pet food labeling  the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) established. They didn’t feel USDA’s policies (aka, the same one’s for our kid’s) were specific enough. According to the AAFCO standards, the proper name for my “Salisbury steak”  would be more properly called  “beef and maybe pork dinner, for kids”.

Raise your hand if you’re freaking out right now.

OK, we'll admit it. We're freaking out a little bit right now. But we're also terrifically encouraged by the photos you've taken, the stories you've told, and the commitment you've made to your kids and your communities. It's exciting to see so much positive activity and to be a part of such important change.

Remember to vote for your favorite right here. Winners will be announced right here on Monday, April 19.

Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at