Can this Lunch be Saved?

Mushy green beans. Questionable beef patties with fake grill lines. Overripe fruit that the lunch lady says you have to put on your tray. We take you behind the cafeteria counter to reveal why so many school lunches are unappetizing, why you should care, and what you can do about it.

Carrie Tananbaum, 14, tried lunch in her New Jersey school cafeteria just once. Her square of pizza was greasy, bland, and soggy. Her verdict? “Disgusting.”

Carrie is not alone. While some lucky students get smoothie bars, pasta stations, and baked goods made from scratch, for most teenagers, school lunch is a necessary evil. Want some fresh vegetables? Good luck if you’re Abigail Pickard, 15, who says that at her Indiana school, “the only thing available is bad lettuce.” Want some fresh anything? Dream on if you’re Stephen Thrasher, 13, who says at his North Carolina school the food is either microwaved or reheated. “The last time I tried the lunch, I got sick and had to leave school,” he says.

If any of this sounds familiar, you probably wonder if school lunch is actually designed to make you hate food, but the truth is, the people in charge of your school lunch may be as frustrated as you are. After all, a lot is at stake. Research shows that eating a nutritious meal not only improves your physical health, it also boosts your concentration and academic performance. But offering food that is healthy and that you’ll actually want to eat is incredibly challenging. 

Let’s look at why:

LUNCH FOR $1.25?

You’d probably feed yourself pretty well if you had unlimited funds. But that’s far from the case for the federally funded National School Lunch Program, which pays for low-cost or no-cost lunch for about 30 million kids across the country each year. After paying for cafeteria workers and overhead costs, schools end up with an average of just $1.25 per kid to spend on food—a shockingly low amount to build a meal that has to include a protein, a whole grain, a fruit, a veggie, and a carton of milk.

Think about that for a minute: Schools have to create a healthy lunch for you for less than the cost of a 20-ounce soda.

And, unlike that soda, your lunch has to meet federal nutritional standards that dictate everything from how much salt is on your french fries to how many whole grains are in your roll. There are minimum and maximum calorie counts, too. Schools also need to offer options for kids on special diets, like teens who have diabetes or food allergies or are on gluten-free diets. All for less than two bucks.

MEET THE CHARMAKER

So how did we get here? If you think the turkey cutlet on your plate looks old, consider this: Federally funded school lunch has been around since the 1940s. Back then, lunches may not have been the healthiest (think meatloaf and mashed potatoes), but they were made from scratch and served fresh.

But in the 1980s, funding for school lunch programs was slashed. To cut costs, schools turned to commercial food service companies. These giant food factories deliver products like “grilled” chicken that was actually air-cooked, then frozen, months ago. (Those grill lines? They’re branded onto the raw meat with a machine called a “charmaker”—so gross!) Thanks to commercial food companies, schools no longer needed operational kitchens or workers who knew how to cook. Fatty, heavily processed dishes such as chicken nuggets, nachos, hamburgers, and pizza became standard fare.

The Great Cafeteria Takeover
Meet the Rethinkers, a group of kids fighting to improve school lunches.

HEALTHIER BUT NOT TASTIER

Fast-forward several decades. With tater tots being passed off as “vegetables,” more than 90 percent of school meals failed to meet national standards for nutrition. Not surprisingly, childhood obesity was skyrocketing—one-third of kids aged 2-19 qualified as overweight or obese. In response, former First Lady Michelle Obama overhauled the national lunch program. Starting in 2010, schools were required to cut fat, calories, and sodium, while adding lean protein (such as fish and chicken) and whole-grain breads and pastas to meals. The new standards also are the reason you have to take a fruit or vegetable with your lunch—and no, waffle fries don’t count.

Ironically, this noble attempt to improve school lunches actually made them worse. Commercial food companies that provide school meals had little experience making healthy foods, so the results were often bland and uninspiring at best and nauseating at worst. Students tagged photos of lunchtime atrocities #thanksmichelleobama, then tossed the food in the trash. According to the National Institutes of Health, $1.2 billion of edible food is thrown away in lunchrooms each year.

In 2018, the government loosened a few of the nutrition requirements. White pasta, flour tortillas, and white rice were once again allowed on the serving line. But many school lunches remain far from perfect.

Is This the Fanciest Lunch in America?

Not all school lunch is boring and bland. Want proof? Dan Giusti was a chef at Noma—one of the fanciest restaurants in the world. Now he cooks for harsher critics: high school students in the Bronx, New York. On the menu: delicacies like roasted chicken, pizza from scratch, and kale Caesar salad.

CHANGE IS IN YOUR HANDS (AND STOMACH)

If your school food still isn’t up to par, you have options besides buddying up to the vending machine or skipping lunch altogether. With a little initiative and perseverance, you can work with your school to improve the choices on your lunch line. Not sure where to start? Take some inspiration from students like you—really!—who made changes big and small to put a little love in their lunch.

These Teens Solved School Lunch

Meet three students who are revolutionizing their cafeterias.

1. The Vegan Crusader

She persuaded the country’s second-largest school district to offer a plant-based option for lunches every day.

One day Lila Copeland, now 17, checked out the lunch line at her Los Angeles middle school. The only choice for a vegan student like her? A few pieces of sad-looking iceberg lettuce topped with cucumbers.

In response, Lila launched her Healthy Freedom campaign to push the school district to offer more vegan lunch options. She recruited animal rights activists, doctors, and athletes to speak to the school board. She even served the board vegan black bean burgers and pasta. (“They all said they loved it,” Lila says.)

In 2017, the school board voted to offer a daily vegan lunch entree in every Los Angeles school. In the first year of the program, about 13 percent of students chose the vegan option. And when the cafeteria serves up the vegan chili, fully half the kids chow down on it.

Lila’s next goal: a law requiring California public schools to offer a daily plant-based entrée. “Prisons and hospitals have to offer vegan meals,” she says. “Why shouldn’t our schools?”

Lila’s Tip: Be willing to put in the time. Lila spent many hours making phone calls, meeting with school officials, recruiting supporters, and going to meetings. “We got a ‘No’ many times before we got a ‘yes,’” she says.

2. The Flavor Savior

She convinced her school to implement simple solutions to make lunch taste a lot better.

Dismayed by the lack of options in her Fairfax, Virginia, school and the blandness of the food, Kyra West, 18, knew there had to be a better way to lunch. She asked to meet with her school’s lunch director to suggest some small improvements.

The school implemented one of Kyra’s ideas right away—a spice bar with seasonings like nacho cheese, chili lime, and ranch so students could add some flavor to their meals.

Kyra’s other idea was a bar where students pick a base of a grain, lettuce, or a wrap, and then choose toppings. She got the idea after hearing about a similar concept at another high school.

The school ran a pilot of the program for two days, and it was a hit. Now school officials are considering making it permanent.

Kyra’s Tip: Don’t assume your school is the enemy. “What I learned is that schools really do want to make meals that kids love, but there are a lot of challenges,” Kyra says. “So if you have an idea to make your lunch better, my advice would be: Just ask.”

3. The Food Rescuer

He helped rescue 2,400 food items that were headed for the trash, getting them instead to people in need.

Cameron Driggers, 14, was shocked to see a student at his Florida middle school load up his lunch tray and head straight for the trash. The student dropped in an unopened carton of milk and an untouched Styrofoam bowl of fruit before going to sit down to eat. “And he wasn’t the only one throwing away food,” Cameron says.

To reduce food waste, Cameron proposed setting up a share table, where students could put unopened or uneaten food and beverages. At the end of the day, any leftovers could be delivered to a local food pantry. Students would supervise the table so it wouldn’t become a responsibility for cafeteria staff.

School administrators approved the plan. The share table was set up last November, and by the end of the school year, more than 2,400 items had been rescued from the local landfill. Now, Cameron and his classmates are working to expand the concept to other schools.

Cameron’s Tip: Learn from others who’ve done it before. Cameron connected with John Williamson, founder of K-12 Food Rescue (www.foodrescue.net), who shared advice on how to navigate state regulations and most efficiently share and distribute the food.

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