Slow Momentum in Healthy School Lunch

Take a peek my exclusive images of nacho cheese and milk cartons from National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day.

I am amazed by the amount of work it takes to prepare meals for my own family. However, I am left aghast by the amount of work four women do at my son’s cafeteria every school day. Yup. Only four women serve breakfast and lunch to hundreds of Head Start and kindergarten students. I can’t forget to mention that they prepare the snacks for the district-managed preschool students, too. These women affectionately refer to the students as their own kids. As well they should with the muscle they put in to provide nutritious

This is why there are no easy answers for improving the school lunch program. There are high standards and few resources. The kitchen manager at my son’s school said that they are scrambling to meet the new guidelines from the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. She mentioned the prep work for fresh fruits and vegetables is more intense. She also let me know that her heart breaks when she watches those fruits and veggies go into the trash can. I felt for her. She and her staff put in harder work and then the kids don’t eat it anyway. Or so it seems. Changing the norm takes time.

Now onto my experiences at last week’s National Take Your Parents to Lunch Day. It was a brisk Wednesday morning. You read correctly. My son eats lunch at 10:50 AM. Still morning. The menu read Nacho Grande. I politely helped myself to carrots and some chilled 1% milk. There was no way I could stomach that drippy cheese sauce product. My mind raced judgmentally, “How on earth could this represent a nutritious lunch?” I watched Big P take a few bites and sip his chocolate milk. Then I watched Middle E inhale that nacho grande like it was his

I didn’t waste any more time being annoyed by the nutritional standards of the meal. This meal is heralded as a school favorite and the drippy cheese sauce product can be kept warm ready to plop on top of an unsuspecting pile of corn chips. Less waste and easier assembly is like heaven for these overworked cooks.


My response to these amazing women behind the steam table: Thank you. I know you said it was heartbreaking when you watched food become trash. It’s time that the entire school participates in the transition to healthier foods. You get the food on the tray. Now let’s ask the rest of the staff if they can help once they sit in their seats.

A few ideas for a cash-strapped district:

  • Lunchroom monitors leading the kids in a “Tray Taste Test” every day. Make is socially acceptable to try new foods.
  • Lunchroom monitors walking around noshing on the veggie of the day.
  • Classroom teachers talking up the new healthier entrees and veggies when they are lining up for lunch.
  • Gallery of pictures showing classroom teachers eating giant stalks of broccoli, carrots, celery, cauliflower, spinach, etc.
  • Surprise visit from the principal who is dressed as a carrot or broccoli.

I leaned over to some kids commenting on how awesome the carrots were. Guess what happened next? They grabbed a carrot, too.


6 Comment

  1. Kim says:

    What a great post, Alli! I would have been aghast at the lunch as well, but I applaud you for bringing attention to the hard work of the lunch ladies and the obstacle they face. And I think your ideas for assisting on the floor are right on! Excitement for fruits and veggies is contagious and if they are new to the students, a little prompt is all they need. Kudos to you for doing what you can. Can you work with the administration to implement that support?

  2. Nicely done! It is challenging to cook for the masses of little picky eaters. Encouragement and “marketing” are key! I did undergraduate research for Texas school breakfast and lunch for the HealthyChoice company. Us researchers weren’t allowed to influence the kids, but the teachers? Criticized, made faces, and said downright nasty things about the improved food! (They were not the picture of health mind you!) It was heartbreaking because the children were really hungry, would have benefitted from good nutrition, and were turning their little noses up at the food because of how it was presented.

    1. Alli says:

      You are completely correct that teacher attitudes about school impact student attitudes. Sorry it was a bit disheartening. But here’s a big THANKS from a mom who is thrilled about research like this. You are working to improve food at school. You rock.

  3. Ditto on Kim’s comments. Needs compassion AND improvements.

  4. Lise Neer says:

    And COMPOST all that uneaten fruit/veggies, then start a schoolyard garden! At least real food has some residual value.

    1. Alli says:

      Awesome idea. We’re trudging along with healthy initiatives. I hope the garden takes off in the next year. Our CSU Extension Office has expressed interest in helping us with the garden. Wo Hoo!

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