In late November, I had one of those lazy Sundays that sets you up to be very distressed at the beginning of your work week. Not only did I barely plan a lesson for Monday, but I left a laundry list of errands undone in favor of college-esque napping, football, TV, and goofing around.
Aside from leaving my laundry undone and my parking tickets unpaid, I totally forgot to do any grocery shopping. I neglected to pick up the essentials for my morning sandwich creation routine, including deli meats, bread, cheese, and of course, snacky-poos.
As I hungrily realized my mistake during third period, I knew that I didn’t want to spend 11 dollars on the one decent sushi place at the corner. I also knew that our school sits in the middle a neighborhood that is far from any worthwhile food.
All of a sudden, an idea swept over me. Why not go downstairs to the basement cafeteria, (where the children eat ) and order me some school grub? Few teachers have ever thought about this as an option (maybe because they cherish their few minutes away from screaming students, or that they are adults and can buy their own food). But in my heart, I knew I had always wanted to go through with the school lunch experiment.
Because I love getting excited about eating, I thought that consuming five straight school lunch meals and writing down my notes on them would be worthwhile. Maybe they would affirm or dispel some of people’s assumptions about the free and reduced school lunch program in our city. Let’s see what you think.
Breaded chicken patty, whole-wheat bun, pineapple chunks, fried potato wedges, chocolate milk. Other option – slice of pizza.
The breaded chicken patty was very processed, slightly warm, and a little too solid. It was your standard “That’s definitely not really chicken” patty, that you know was frozen in bulk for months before getting heated up. No condiments were offered, and even with added ketchup from the teacher’s room, it was super dry.
The whole-wheat bun was a nice surprise and was the best part of the sandwich. Healthy options were always a positive during this week.
The pineapple chunks were your standard canned sugary serving of vegetable in water.
The big serving of fried potato wedges was very heavy and filling. They were delicious because of their dense, greasy potato insides, yet by far the most unhealthy and tasty part of the meal.
The chocolate milk was wonderful, and the pizza (which most students ate) looked very re-heated and unappetizing. Other students ate school option peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, food from home, or candy and soda substitutes.
Beef burger with whole wheat bun, pickles, peaches in water, herb sprinkled potato fried and baked, milk.
The burger looked like one of the poorest pieces of meat I’ve ever seen. The lunch lady said that she, “Usually has what the kids like, but today’s menu was not the best”. It was clear the kids were staying away from this mystery meat patty, but I decided I had to experience it.
I placed it on the whole wheat bun, threw some of the many pickles they served with it, and dipped it in the giant dollop of ketchup they added to my styrofoam plate. I was much easier to chew than the over-microwaved chicken patty from Monday, and actually didn’t taste terrible. The pickles and ketchup helped out, but this for sure did not taste, or feel like a healthy burger during and after consumption.
The potato’s today were different, and somewhat of an oddity. After one small burger, I assumed I would be hungry after the meal. I was wrong. After these potatoes, which each had the weight of the entire burger, I was satisfied and full. They were seasoned, which was nice, but what stuck out as odd was their super heaviness They didn’t feel or taste baked. I assumed that they were deep-fried, and then thrown in the oven for a little.
Finally, I had my healthy fruit portion – the pears in water. I was full due to the brick potatoes, and I fought myself in front of my laughing colleagues in order to finish the slimy pears off.
Pasta with meat sauce, whole wheat bun, fresh salad, pineapple in water, chocolate milk.
The surprise of the week so far, this meal was tasty and healthy all around.
The pasta was delicious and light. It was the first main course of the week that tasted fresh and healthy. The only problem was that I wanted more.
The salad was fresh and the lunch ladies told me that they had just made it minutes before I came down.
The whole-wheat bun, pineapples, and chocolate milk were all becoming good friends to me by Wednesday.
Oven roasted chicken with duck sauce, crepe with spinach, pepper, feta cheese, fresh salad, chocolate milk.
This was by far the best meal of the week. Wednesday surprised with a nice salad, and Thursday continued the salad and added some really tasty chicken and crepe combo.
Not only was the chicken REAL, hearty, and hot, but it tasted delicious. I’m sure it was in frozen packages hours earlier, but what I ate could have passed as freshly cooked chicken anywhere. It had a sweet duck glaze sauce on it, and by this time in the week, the lunch-ladies were throwing double portions on my Styrofoam plate (score).
I asked where they make crepes, and they told me that they were also frozen. Nevertheless, with the salad option again on the table, I was very much impressed with the cafeteria staff and the lunch in general. Even when I showed some teachers back upstairs, a few of them commented, “That’s from downstairs?!”
Fish sticks, on flat bread tortilla, fruit punch, and chocolate milk.
Coming off some stellar meals on Wednesday and Thursday, it seems the students and teachers aren’t the only ones that may run out of gas a little by the end of the week. I mean no offense at all by this, but this meal was pretty weak by any standard. The fish sticks were almost inedible, and I just regretted not ordering the pizza at least once during the week.
I’m was actually a bit scared to post this one because I could see parents or others getting upset. The lunch staff was so kind to me, and it is obvious that the group of five or six of them work extremely hard within the boundaries of their control to offer quality meals (sound similar at all?). I want to give a big Kudos to them all, but this particular Friday the kitchen had run out of fruit options entirely. They apologized and gave me an extra fruit punch to compensate. Nevertheless, this should not be happening in our schools.
To be perfectly honest, now is a good time to say that most students did not eat this fish stick platter. The majority of the students, on most of the days, seemed to order the standard slice of pizza.
Although a few days had lackluster meals (cough-cough gross burger and fish sticks), I was surprised by the ‘better-than-expected’ quality and variety of lunch options throughout the week. I thought that eating the school lunch would be a one time thing for me, but I find myself going down for lunch once a week since my experiment.
You could make the case that most of the meals did in fact have all food groups accounted for, though nutritional experts might be terrified at the sodium and sugar percentages of some of the frozen, processed meats and canned fruits. In addition, I would strongly suggest that salads be offered as an option every day.
I think that increasing the funding for federal and state school food programs could only benefit the healthiness and variety of options for our students. Imagine if more of those canned fruits or frozen portions could be exchanged for fresh ones?
I came in with an unfounded ‘Supersize Me’-like notion that the cafeteria only offered fried food, and that none of the food was edible at all. I came out thinking that while a few things could most definitely be changed (like not having the pizza option every single day), students who eat the school lunch have much less to complain about than they voice daily. In a follow up to come, I may look at nutritional content and what other urban school districts are doing to combat childhood obesity.
On a final note, students come into school first period every day with handfuls of potato chips, sour-gummy candies, and highly sugary soft drinks in their artificially flavor-stained hands before we make them dump them away. After school, and even at lunch, students pig out on meals entirely consisting of junk food. I know the dangers of making blanket statements about anything, so I won’t. But I can say that during my personal experience with adolescents at my individual school, many of the health issues stem from eating habits learned at home.