Admittedly, this series touched on this a little in allergies. But I’m talking about the kid perspective and general notion now — because my kids have no idea that something like mystery meat exists.
Giving the “lunch ladies” their props, it’s hard to cook for a large number and not have things turn out a little different than expected. You might even say there is an art to cooking for hundreds at a time. I know this because my mother did a brief stint as head cook at our school when I was a teen. She was actually covering for the head cook who took a leave of absence to care for a spouse with cancer. The assistant cook was a very nice lady who was developmentally disabled. She was great help in the kitchen, but not up to being in charge for anything more than a single day. So my mom was hired on a temporary basis. Understand that my mother is a great cook. This is somebody who had been cooking for six kids, a spouse and numerous hired hands for years. She could make spaghetti sauce in her sleep out of practically nothing. What she didn’t realize that spaghetti (particularly the cheap stuff schools use) turns to mush if it’s even slightly overcooked. You also must pour oil in the water to keep this stuff from sticking together. Two days into the job, my mother ended up with a large pot of mush that resembled glue. The longer it sat, the worse it got. She was nearly in tears by the time the high school lunch shift came. The kids didn’t care much because the sauce was so good. I still remember them going back for seconds on sauce, which they were eating on bread.
The spaghetti wasn’t the only hard reality my mother encountered. Schools at that time subsisted on government cheese and butter, bulk flour that was just this side of stale, and bulk ground beef with such a high fat content they actually sucked it off with a baster.
During the eighties, the amount of vegetables a child was served had gone down significantly. Most of you probably remember that the Reagan Administration had declared ketchup a vegetable (even though a tomato is actually a fruit and ketchup is more sugar and vinegar than even tomato). I suppose it didn’t matter much because it seemed to me all vegetables were canned and cooked in butter (yeah the commodities type). I’m not sure how healthy that was anyway.
Since I attended a small school, our lunch program was better than average. The regular head cook had been there for years and years, so long I still remember her name. Beverly was insistent upon attempting to make good meals and offer healthy choices. We had a salad bar added about the time I hit seventh grade. I can honestly say that was an unusual addition in those days. Granted, the lettuce was mostly iceberg, and the dressings were all made with mayo, but Beverly was trying.
In spite of having a better than average lunch program, I was fully aware of the concept of mystery meat, and the more profane joke, “S*&^ on a shingle”. Those were the days we were glad for commodities peanut butter and fresh made bread, all offered in the fancy salad bar.
I caught an episode of 20/20 the other night where they were talking about the state of school lunches these days. What they showed didn’t look even as bad as I remember. New regulations require that school lunches cut out a lot of the fat, and they have to offer two full servings of fruit or vegetables, some of which must be fresh. In order to handle the costs, though, the government has allowed schools to cut the protein by two-thirds. The kids aren’t being served as much sodium, fat or high fructose corn syrup, but they’re also not getting adequate protein. Hungry kids are starting to rebel — some quietly by leaving campus to eat or by keeping lockers full of junk food, and some protesting more loudly with sit-ins and protest songs. Even when the government attempts to regulate these lunches they don’t quite get it right, do they?
Part of the problem is this — there is an epidemic of overweight kids in this country. But there are also kids who are barely getting fed in the first place. Nutrition, like so many other things in public school is based on a standard that may or may not fit each individual case. Yes, there are a lot of overweight kids out there. There are underweight kids too, who are stuck with the nutritional offerings of the diet generation. The other problem is that nutritional needs for a child change. Young children do need more fat — that’s the material that brain cells grow off of. It doesn’t have to be the bad fats, but fat must be there for kindergarten aged kids. Kids who are doing more activity really need more protein. And teen bodies require more protein to help their bodies transition.
More options would help, but some of them (for example offering peanut butter as an alternate source of protein) have been banned because of the rising number of life-threatening allergies. I also noticed that the schools still rely on milk to make up some of the difference, even though milk allergies and lactose intolerance could potentially make that choice problematic for some kids. Some parents skirt the whole thing by having the kids take lunches with them. Cold sandwiches don’t always satisfy a hungry kid though.
As a homeschooler, I know exactly what my child eats each day. I know if he’s finished his lunch. I can give him more when he’s in a growth spurt, and I can be sure he’s not missing half of his school thinking about how his tummy is growling. I can provide a nice, hot lunch on cold days or cool choices on hot days. It’s pretty easy for me to know how much junk was consumed. I can even make sure he brushes his teeth after each meal if I want to. Snacks can be part of his school day, and they are, because my little hummingbird needs food every two or two-and-a-half hours.
He might be missing out on jokes about crummy food, but then he can always learn about mystery meat in college.