Sassymonkey posted today over at BlogHer about school lunches and Amy Kalafa’s new book, Lunch Wars. Besides the fact that it made me smile to read that Sassymonkey (whom I’ve known, well, for a bit) went to an elementary school that she described as “crunchy”, it was interesting to read someone else’s memories of school lunch.
I remember generally enjoying school lunch. Indeed, I was usually slightly embarrassed if my mom would pack my lunch. She certainly meant well but she didn’t ever seem to differentiate between my older step brothers and me when it came to appetite. Whenever she would pack my lunch, I would unpack a plastic grocery bag full with two or three sandwiches, a bag of chips, pickles, a soda, four or five cookies, and a piece of fruit or two. I was 9. This particular bag is memorable because there was a bit of pickle juice in the ziploc bag (to keep the pickles fresh, I guess?) and the ziploc bag leaked. So there was a bit of pickle juice all over my entire lunch. I was in fifth grade and already not allowed to sit with the cool kids. The smell of pickles didn’t help my cause.
But, it was generally rare for my mother to pack my lunch. Most days, I ate the school lunch. And, generally, I enjoyed it. Indeed, I enjoyed it more than most other kids did. I recognize now that it was all mostly reheated, previously frozen, very processed food. But they were relatively balanced meals. There was always an identifiable vegetable and an identifiable fruit. The vegetable was more often than not some kind of niblet corn or diced vegetable medley and fruit was always swimming in syrup, but they were there. Thank you, USDA requirements.
Each morning in elementary school, the teacher would announce the day’s hot lunch and count how many students wanted it. If sloppy joe’s weren’t your thing, you had the option of taking the alternate lunch, which was your choice of a sandwich served with chips and carrot and celery sticks. You would have to fill out your own yellow slip selecting what kind of sandwich you wanted (PB&J, PB&Fluff, or tuna. I think ham and cheese might have been an option too). When you went through the line, there was a tray of sandwiches arranged alphabetically by name in individual waxed paper bags. In a way, choosing the alternate lunch felt more special because the lunch ladies had made that sandwich just for you.
I remember always being very interested by the shiny, stainless steel wonderland that was the school kitchen. When I was in middle school, I became a library aide (appropriately enough for the dorky bookworm), but I would have been the first to volunteer to help out making lunch if I’d had the option. I got picked on enough for volunteering in the library; I’m sure volunteering in the kitchen wouldn’t have been that much worse. Thinking back, I’m a little surprised that I never seriously pursued culinary school. (Ok. So my mother would never have let me pursue culinary school and put far too much pressure on me to get a “useful” degree. We compromised: I went to a top university but took a degree in history.)
By the time I got to high school, I was still enjoying the school lunches, though I was excited to have the option of a salad bar instead of sandwiches in case I didn’t like the hot lunch. I ate a lot of salads for lunch in high school. But they probably weren’t the healthiest salads. I was a teenage boy and had free reign over a salad bar that included bacon bits, cheddar cheese, and ranch dressing. Any modicum of healthfulness to my salads had to learn to swim in an ocean of ranch dressing.
There was also the Snack Shack. This was a separate counter in the cafeteria that only sold desserts. It was built during my time in high school. It’s the kind of thing that would make Jamie Oliver or Alice Waters shoot beet juice out of their ears. Giant, soft, sugary chocolate chip cookies. Honey buns that tasted like the plastic bags they were packaged in (not that this stopped me from consuming several a week). Nachos with neon yellow cheese. Sodas. Vitamin waters. I guess the assumption was that high schoolers had enough self-control to choose to eat healthfully.
Prior to the Snack Shack’s construction, you could only buy dessert after having gone through the lunch line once. You could go through again for a second dessert, but you had to face the guilting looks of the lunch ladies. Once the Snack Shack was built, there was no accountability. If you wanted your lunch to consist of nachos and a honey bun, there was nothing to stop you. I’m trying to remember if the Snack Shack sold fruit. I want to say yes, but it probably didn’t.
I’d grown up with enough food sense to know that I shouldn’t eat a lunch entirely from the Snack Shack. Besides, the hot lunch was always much more filling and satisfying. But I was the rare exception. Lots of kids chose to eat only from the Snack Shack and I suspect that they weren’t getting balanced meals at home either. I’d be curious to know where the funding for the Snack Shack came from and what kind of approval process it went through. Who thought it was a good idea to allow students to purchase a lunch consisting solely of desserts?
Today, more often than not, I bring leftovers from dinner for lunch the next day. It’s one of the benefits of cooking for four in a house of two. My partner is more picky than I am and doesn’t like to eat the same thing too often, so I often end up with two days of lunches from every dinner. That’s just fine by me. I do most of the cooking, so I know that I’m going to like whatever I’ve made.
It might be as much as a decade before I have school-aged kids. I wonder what school lunch will be like by then. A lot can happen in ten years. I hope that there’s still some semblance of nutrition in school lunches by then. If not, I hope my kids like leftovers.