Aliza Wong is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. She lives in Lubbock, Texas, with her son and husband, but hails from Portland, Oregon.

Cafeteria time

School lunch for mom and son

March 4, 2008

I am a lucky mother. I have a work schedule that allows me to be at home when my son, Luca, returns from school; to volunteer in his classroom at least twice a week; and to join him, if I like, for the glorious 30 minutes of lunch time between 11:09 and 11:39 a.m.

Now, I don’t eat school lunch every day. I think it’s important for my son to learn to socialize with his kindergarten friends without his mother’s presence, and besides, the school-cafeteria smell takes me back to the bad old days of dodgeball and bathroom passes and No. 2 pencils (the horror!). But I’m able to dine with my son once every two weeks. And I always return having enjoyed the time with Luca, having gained new respect for his teachers, and having become a little more disheartened over the cafeteria situation.

I don’t want this to be a diatribe against cafeteria workers. They are mostly wonderful women and men who have been given the job of nourishing our children without the liberty to decide what “nourishment” means. And I am not a food snob. OK, I am, but I do enjoy the occasional McDonald’s French fry (back, you haters, I know, I know, but stay back!), and I’ve been known to put a Kool-Aid single in my son’s lunchbox.

But I am also the mom who makes sushi rolls and croque-monsieur sandwiches for her kid’s lunch. I am the mom who makes her own chicken-tempura nuggets out of organic chicken breasts, rice flour, and panko crumbs.

Lunch is served.

So I do wonder, every time I visit with Luca: When did we forget that what we put in our kids’ stomachs can be just as important as what we put in their heads? After study upon study has returned results that a healthy breakfast helps kids concentrate, focus, and retain more information, after study upon study has revealed that a balanced diet helps with brain development and memory, when did we decide that this is where we should be cutting our time and our budget?

Given all the recent media about our nation’s rising rates of childhood obesity, my local school district has restricted snacks within the classroom. Now, as someone who remembers snack as the best part of the day in kindergarten and first grade (celery with peanut butter, apple wedges with brown sugar, graham crackers — all wonders of American culture fed to a Chinese-American girl in the David Douglas school district), I was dismayed. It can be difficult for a small child to make it through an entire school day, from 7:55 a.m. to 2:55 p.m., with nothing other than lunch.

Luca, who cannot bear the thought of food for a full hour after he wakes up, often goes to school with nothing more than a sip of milk or a bite of pain au chocolat (snob!). Young kids like Luca need their animal crackers, their raisins, their (I know, I know) fruit snacks. But I do understand the concerns over childhood obesity, I do understand that the snacks often end up being chocolate or chips or soda or candy, and I do understand that eliminating snacks is perhaps the first stand a school can take against this ravaging disease.

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What I don’t understand is this: Why can’t we change the school snack policy to only include healthful snacks? (Trust me, if a kid is hungry enough, she will eat it.) And if there’s such a concern over obesity, why were the past five selections from Luca’s school cafeteria Cheeseburger Pizza, Hamburger/ Cheeseburger, Chicken Nuggets with Texas Toast, Burrito, and Chili Cheese Dog? (This is in addition to an à la carte menu offering chips, ice cream, and Popsicles.)

And don’t even get me started on the milk. Luca’s school cafeteria doesn’t offer milk in cartons. It comes in three flavors — plain, strawberry, or chocolate — and is served in sealed plastic baggies that look an awful lot like, well, breast implants. This “milk boobie” (Luca and I call it this under our breaths) must be pierced by a sharpened straw in order for a child to suck out the nutritive liquid inside. Afterward the milk boobie lies there, flaccid, saggy, waiting to be discarded. Ouch. I am an academic and prone to interpretation, but doesn’t this gruesome assault symbolize something?

Limiting snacks in school will not end obesity. Serving only healthy snacks to our kids will not end obesity. Shouldn’t the fight against obesity begin with an examination of what we feed our kids all day long? Shouldn’t we teach our kids the difference between eating food and consuming calories? Isn’t this an integral part of their education?

When did it become easier for us to serve kids what we think they like instead of what we know they need? When did we reason that we were better served spending our time on the Web, on the phone, instant-messaging, making money, losing money, spending money, watching television, interfacing, networking all for our future when our real futures are eating corn dogs and pre-packaged PB&Js with no crusts? (When did we become so busy that we don’t have the time to pull out two slices of bread, spread peanut butter on one side and jelly on the other, and slap them together?)

When did we decide we prefer spending more time opening up packages for lunch than actually making and eating our lunch? We all have 15 minutes. We decide what to do with those 15 minutes. Some choose to spend it in a drive-through. Some choose to bathe their organic chickens in butter (shout-out to Sarah Gilbert).

Me, I choose to make 11:09 a.m. to 11:39 a.m. about more than consumption for my son. I choose — even when the choices are limited to cheeseburgers and pizzas — to make it a meal.

There are 9 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Mar 4, 2008 at 3:25 PM PST

This is a very topical article. At my son’s school, all the food is cooked off site and is reheated on site and served in pre-packaged containers. The food is typical alegedly kid friendly food like nuggets and pizza with little vegetables and some fruits. In addition to being bad for you, its also soggy and bland. Finally the kids only get 15-20 min to eat. My son refused flat out to eat at the cafe after two tries, and after having seen the food, I have no interest in encouraging him to eat it - so we pack lunches at our house. This also gives him extra time to eat as he doesn’t have to stand in line to pick up the food.

2. by MamaBird on Mar 4, 2008 at 7:10 PM PST

Yes, so topical. My kid’s school has no kitchen or cafeteria. The kids eat in shifts. Nothing remotely healthy, much less organic or local. Now our district (DC) is going to outsource food service. Possibly an opportunity to change for the better?? Maybe just wishful thinking.

3. by Cynthia Lair on Mar 5, 2008 at 8:05 AM PST

I serve on a Nutrition Advisory Committee for the Seattle school lunch program and I must confess that it is rather like banging your head against a wall. We are told over and over about lack of funds and government regulations. They have managed to serve some fruits and vegetables everyday but the main entrees are still the most nutritionally poor food I can think of. I still can’t figure out where the buck stops on this one. It’s a fight we should all be involved in for the reasons mentioned.
Cynthia Lair

4. by cafemama on Mar 5, 2008 at 2:50 PM PST

I love that you’re eating lunch with Luca, even if it is ‘milk boobies.’ and I think it’s going to continue to be like this until parents with a single (ish) voice rise up and say, ‘enough!’ eating lunch WITH them is a start. we all remember lunches from our childhood, and they haven’t changed much, if at all -- maybe now the low-fat choices are marked with a star, but seriously, I doubt the low-fat is any better than the full-fat. it’s still trucked-in, processed food served without a side of nutrients. we need to start demanding that our public officials unleash our school systems from the archaic and arcane and strait-jacket-like USDA rules and let our children eat REAL food for lunch.

Everett won’t take a lunch to school; he eats cafeteria food with gusto. but the other day I almost wanted to cry with happiness when I asked what he had for lunch and he said, “a kiwi.” it’s part of the farm-to-school program and, by golly, he ate it!

he didn’t eat the beets, though. baby steps.

5. by Dr.SusanRubin on Mar 5, 2008 at 7:12 PM PST

Great essay on school lunch. You’re right it’s about food, not calories. Childhood obesity is just the tip of the iceberg....our kids aren’t just fatter, they are sicker too.
Better School Food is an organization dedicated to supporting parents and others in advocating for a better food environment in schools, day care centers and after school programs.
Two Angry Moms is a documentary film about school lunch, visit to learn more.

6. by mia on Mar 6, 2008 at 9:56 AM PST

I remember school lunches. And I hated them. I can not drink dairy and in order to purchase a school lunch back than I had to buy the milk even though I couldn’t not drink it. My niece is in middle school and refuses to buy lunch. She takes her lunch every day. She told me that the food they serve looks nasty and tastes worse. She has on occasion forgotten her lunch and had to call home to get it delivered. She would rather not eat than eat the school lunch. And the thing is that if she was to eat the school lunch, she would have to buy milk even though she is unable to drink it. Things have not changed much. And there are schools in the district that reheat food prepared elsewhere. And experts wonder why obesity is on the increase. Look at what is being fed to kids.

7. by awong on Mar 6, 2008 at 1:21 PM PST

I am so gratified to see so many people concerned about our children. I want school to be a “whole” experience - and that means teaching them how to truly take care of themselves and each other. Obesity, physical and mental health, the earth, education - these are not matters of “convenience.”

Luca’s school requires them to take milk regardless of whether they drink it. A lot of milk boobies are being thrown away, whole, wasted. This school lunch topic is not just about food choices and budget cutting, it’s about an entire process that teaches our kids that we somehow have the “luxury” to waste.

Meanwhile, Luca brings sushi rolls to school and asks why we can’t pack clams in white wine sauce in his lunch bag...

8. by anonymous on Apr 26, 2009 at 4:14 PM PDT

I am 16 and go to school currently. Our school lunches are similar to if not exactly what is discribed here. On top of that EVERY lunch has french fries as a side dish for when, yes when, they run out of food. Having the last lunch of the day, I get that a lot.The worst part for me is that if you don’t have a SERIOUS food allergie, you can’t pack a lunch... we have to eat what we are given or wait until 3:15 at the earliest to eat at home.

9. by Frank on Aug 4, 2010 at 11:59 AM PDT

A small step in the right direction.

The Senate’s Important Lunch Date:

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