What’s For School Lunch Today? By
Had lunch yet? Maybe a Turkey & Havarti with Cranberry Salsa? Delicious Yellow Fin Tuna on 9-Grain bread? We offer some pretty tasty and nutritious meals here at The Urban Farmhouse and many of them are great for lunches. Hang out here or grab something to take back to the office…we don’t care. But what if you’re stuck in the second grade?
In the early history of our country, the midday meal was the largest of the day. You had a quick bite in the morning, a light “supper” at the end of the day, and a big, honking “dinner” in the middle. Most kids went home for lunch, which was easy because most kids were educated in the home. If you were lucky enough to go to a boarding school, the midday meal was served by hired cooks and staff. That all kind of changed with the industrial revolution and the Great Depression.
Factory workers at the turn of the century ate their meals in much the same way as kids. They would frequently go home for lunch, or dig into a lunch pail. Factory owners came to the realization that they could get more work out of their staff if they fed them like Henry Ford made cars, in an efficient assembly line. It was the birth of the cafeteria. During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt began a hot meal program to offer some nourishment (and some relief to farmers) to kids as a supplement to charity soup kitchens. Harry Truman signed the USDA National School Lunch Act in 1946, and our public school lunches became a standard.
And what did you eat when you went to elementary school?
The typical school cafeteria was a long hot line full of mashed potatoes, soups, beans, Salisbury steak, meat loaf, and chicken. Traditional meals served by a cranky lunch lady. You filled up your tray, got a bowl of pudding, grabbed a carton of milk, and headed into the impending food fight.
But all of that changed when it started becoming a business.
The school lunch menu began to be dictated by commodities in the 1970’s and 1980’s. If we had a lot of beef, we fed kids burgers. When we had a glut of dairy cattle, we served tons of processed cheeses and more burgers. To meet nutritional requirements during the Reagan administration we classified ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables. Sodas and chips from vending machines, long the denizens of the mysterious Teacher’s Lounge, began to pop up right there in the student cafeteria. Sure, the school got some of the revenue from sales of the sugary and salty snacks, and companies like Coca Cola and Frito Lay opened up lucrative new markets with millions of hungry young consumers.
There’s a big stink right now because we’re trying to clean up our school lunches. Ketchup is no longer a vegetable, we’re paying attention to the amount of sugar and sodium in the meals, and we’re watching the number of calories we allow our kids for lunch. And they’re miffed. School children in Pittsburgh went on strike. A student in Detroit started posting pictures of her daily meals. And a group of students in Kansas posted a parody YouTube video that currently has over 1,000,000 views.
Aside from the grumbling about trading chips for broccoli, there is also discontent about the amount of food offered. But a 90 pound 2nd grader needs less than 2,000 calories per day to stay active and grow, and the current programs call for a 750-800 calorie lunch. That does not include breakfast, dinner, or snacks. And we’re still being dictated to by commodities brokers. The Farm Bill offered tax incentives and credits for growers who provided nutritious things like broccoli and peaches for school lunches, but the Bill had to be re-written to accommodate growers of “healthy” foods like potatoes and corn syrup. While most fast food restaurants have stopped using “pink slime” (ammoniated beef trimmings – YUM!) we bought tons of it to serve in our cafeterias. When chickens get old and stop laying eggs, they’re referred to as “spent hens.” Your local chicken joint won’t touch them, but they show up on your child’s tray come lunchtime.
Ann Cooper is in charge of nutrition for a school district in Colorado. She made her bones in California, where she got rid of frozen pizzas and sugary drinks and introduced fresh fruits and vegetables. She admits that it can be hard, but more than forcing food on kids it’s about educating them. “It’s education, it’s presentation, it’s marketing…you have to work with the kids, work with the parents.” In her eyes, if you can introduce the idea that an apple is much better from off of a tree than baked into a frozen tart, then you’re headed in the right direction.
Since we can’t host elementary schools at The Urban Farmhouse, that may be a good place to start.