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

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