By Mrs. Q
[Mrs. Q. is a teacher in the Midwest – she (we assume; I don’t actully know) remains anonymous – who is eating school lunch every day in 2010 and blogging about it at Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project. Her goal is to raise awareness about what many kids eat every day in school, and she’s doing a good job of it.]
I love how enthusiastic little kids are about school. When they line up for school lunch for the first time, kindergarteners get so excited to be eating in the cafeteria just like the “big kids.” There is a line leader, the student (or two) from each classroom appointed for the week to keep order when they are walking throughout the school. At lunchtime the line leader struggles to maintain any kind of formation with kids jumping all around. The kids are hungry, but they also chat with their friends and look around with anticipation. Fumbling with their bulky plastic trays, they grip their lunch tickets firmly and smile from ear to ear.
I don’t know if disappointment would be how they feel when they receive their first meal from the school cafeteria. It’s more like shock. Shock over the strange plastic and paper packaging, shock about how little time they get to eat (20 minutes including lining up and cleaning up), and shock over the spork in plastic wrapping with a small straw and paper napkin. Eating school lunch in the cafeteria is a rite of passage, but it shouldn’t be similar to getting prison food.
My name is Mrs. Q. I’m an anonymous teacher in the Midwest eating school lunch every day in 2010 and blogging about it at Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project. I take cell phone pictures of my lunches, which tell a story of processed food (“bagel dogs” and “popcorn chicken”) and heat-resistant packaging, which is the opposite of eco-friendly.
The school cafeteria is a land virtually untouched by “foodies,” slow food, or the environmental movement. I’m not even sure that school food has kept up with the latest in nutrition research that has come out over the past 20-30 years. In fact I believe that over the past few decades school lunches have actually decreased in quality when I compare what I ate as a student to what is eaten at the school in which I work. I was lucky to have lunch ladies that cooked onsite, but now everything is “thaw-and-serve.” I was lucky to use real silverware, but now it’s single-use plastic sporks. I was lucky to have recess, but now there is none.
I try to get my students to talk to me about food, but they have trouble articulating feelings and preferences. I’ll ask them if they ate the overcooked peas at lunch and I hear, “N– Yes.” Their favorite school food is always pizza even though the school version has more than 60 ingredients. Inevitably these discussions with my students don’t go too far: they want to move on with their day, not sit around and chat about food.
Little by little these kids grow up and eat school food for months and years, all along becoming desensitized by the experience. By sixth grade some students grab the chocolate milk and then throw out their whole lunch, the one that was so carefully planned out for them by the USDA. I eat the lunch myself so I know that some days are bad (processed “Salisbury steak” with unidentifiable bitter greens), but to toss it all? I haven’t gotten there yet as I myself have recently moved into the “this-fruit-cup-ain’t-half-bad” stage. After almost 90 lunches, some of the meals have started to grow on me quite unexpectedly.
Every now and then one of my students tells me, “I’m hungry.” I keep some plain crackers on hand and when I give them this rare snack, they cram them into their mouths as fast as they can. I can’t help wondering if that is something they are learning in the cafeteria. Must eat fast.
After countless little moments like this, I know that the kids are learning many things in the cafeteria. The “newbies” come in excited and happy about school lunch and after a few years, they just don’t care anymore. I know that we can do better in the school cafeteria. And we need to start when they are young and excited about eating! school! lunch!