May 20, 2015

J is for junk food (in the school cafeteria).

A lot of what school cafeterias serve, in spite of supposedly following national nutritional standards, is, in my opinion, junk food. Here are a few of the menu items at the school where I currently work:
• French toast sticks with maple syrup, sausages, fruit
• Nachos: tortilla chips and a small cup of processed Velveeta-type cheese for dipping, raw

Nachos - which food group is this in?
Nachos – which food group is this in?

or cooked vegetable (today it was overcooked broccoli which few kids ate), some version of apple sauce or fruit
• Bosco sticks – bread sticks that can be dipped into a tomato sauce. Side dish of vegetable is optional. Fruit – optional, but usually the students are supposed to get one or the other.

Bosco sticks
Bosco sticks

• French bread pizza: a half of a baguette covered with melted cheese and tomato sauce. This is generally not a popular lunch item and many kids get it but end up throwing it away. Side dish of vegetable and/or fruit (optional)

French bread pizza
French bread pizza

Milk is offered at every meal. Here are the choices, from most to least popular:
• Non-fat chocolate milk (contains added sugars)
• Low-fat white milk (1% or 2% milk fat)
• Non-fat strawberry flavored milk (contains added sugars)
• 1% vanilla-flavored milk
• Skim milk

Some of the menu items are better, such as chicken nuggets (in various forms and shapes)

heart-shaped breaded chicken nuggets on Valentine's Day
heart-shaped breaded chicken nuggets on Valentine’s Day

or chicken patties on a bun. These are always breaded. Some kind of potatoes are served with this – steak fries, tater tots, star or sun and moon shaped potatoes. Macaroni and cheese is popular. Occasionally they serve hamburgers or cheeseburgers. All the sandwich type items are served on whole wheat buns. Rarely, they’ll offer something “ethnic” such as “orange chicken” that comes in one of those little boxes you get at Chinese restaurants for leftovers. The kids take one look at this and throw it away without trying it because it doesn’t “look” good. OK, this is a typical reaction for children, but when I’ve occasionally challenged a few to try it before throwing it away, they’ve usually liked it. Another item that’s fairly popular, but very messy, is tacos – the kids put it together themselves, so they always leave bits of lettuce or meat on the table and floor.

Why have a roll in addition to the hamburger bun??
Why have a roll in addition to the hamburger bun??

Wednesdays they have salad choices (as a main course) – Caesar salad with croutons & chicken, all veggie salads. Again, few of the kids choose these.

Children eating salad in a school cafeteria
Children eating salad in a school cafeteria

There are alternate choices, too, such as “pizza power pack” – a package containing round pieces of pita-type bread with grated cheese and tomato sauce, or “Jamwich” – peanut butter sandwiches encased in wheat bread that is sealed all around, like an empanada.

Boys in the school cafeteria - some bring their lunch from home.
Boys in a school cafeteria – some bring their lunch from home.

There is an attempt to offer healthy choices, but in an attempt to be popular with kids, the menu items often resemble the type of food offered at fast food restaurants.

Another version of pizza - usually very greasy.
Another version of pizza – usually very greasy.

Desserts (different each day) are apple sauce, sometimes in different flavors, (can be chosen in lieu of fruit or vegetable), cookie, frozen fruit flavored icies, animal crackers, packaged cake that resembles Little Debbie or Twinkies.

school cafeteria lunch line

Breakfast is provided for students who want it and is free for low-income students. Usually there are a choice of cereals, all of them with sugar added, some kind of packaged breakfast bar or mini pancakes or waffles. There are cups of juice and the same kind of milk that is offered at lunch.

Because we share our cafeteria with a junior high, there is a snack bar open for the first fifteen minutes of every lunch period. I used to tell kids who asked to go there to eat their lunch first, and once I went with a girl to pick out a snack (she didn’t have much of a lunch) and strongly urged her to choose pretzels rather than chips. The woman who runs the snack bar didn’t like me doing this and complained to the principal. He talked to me about the snack bar, saying all the choices are “healthy” – because they’ve been approved by the state health department! (This only means they are not contaminated, not that they are healthy, I thought. Cheetos, Doritos and other chips – the preferred selection of most kids who go to the snack bar – can hardly be considered healthy.) He said I had to let kids go if they brought money.

So now when a kid asks me if he can go to the snack bar, if he has money, I let him go, no questions asked. Some kids even go there with their lunch trays before they even sit down at a table. Sometimes children who frequent the snack bar eat little else of their lunch, filling up with these snacks.  Just yesterday one of the first graders in my class bought Dorito chips and threw the Jamwich on her lunch tray away. She didn’t even eat a piece of fruit.
school food-tasty & healthyAlso at the snack bar are sold deli type sandwiches (which I’ve never seen any elementary student buy), chicken soup (always very salty), soft pretzels, cookies, fruit roll ups, water and milk. Except for the water and milk, I would generally not wish my child to eat most of the offerings at the snack bar. But many do bring money, presumably with parents’ approval to purchase something “extra” to supplement their lunch.

It’s too bad we can’t offer foods made with fresh ingredients – most schools are not equipped to actually cook anything, just heat up whatever the vendor sends to them, which is mostly frozen until ready for use.

More and more I’m seeing children who are overweight or “developed” at an early age – girls who are beginning to reach puberty in second or third grade. Childhood obesity has become a national issue. A poor diet consisting of processed foods is partially responsible for school food-obesitythis. Perhaps this is the kind of food many children are used to eating – tired parents take their kids to McDonald’s after working all day, once or more times a week – but I feel we could spend more time educating them about good nutrition in creative and engaging ways, and put it into practice with more fresh food offerings for lunch. Maybe nutrition should be a part of the regular curriculum.

Why does chicken always have to be breaded? Why are many of the lunch menus dominated by carbohydrates? Why have I never seen fish served at the cafeteria in the two years I’ve worked at this school? We need to rethink what we are giving our children who come to school to learn, not simply duplicate what they may be used to at home. If we gaveschool food-cartoon them fresh choices, I am willing to bet that many of them would like them – maybe not at first, but with time and education, many children would begin to prefer fresh foods and less carbohydrates. Everyone likes sweets – which are fine, on occasion or for dessert. Their whole meal doesn’t need to be catered to their sweet tooth or love of salty snacks.

school food-healthy

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