Today is the end of National School Lunch Week 2014. Here at Money Saving Parent, we have been examining and scrutinizing the National School Lunch Program and have presented our readers with a different article each day relating to schools and food. As I wrap up my weekly examination today. I decided it would be best to talk about the actual food itself. And the best and most appropriate way to do this is by visiting my children’s school cafeteria and joining them for lunch, which I did this week.
Government Approved Lunch and Other Options
First, let me point out that both of my kids are in elementary school so my post will be from the perspective of grade school food. This does matter, because the food served and the options available are different for middle and high schools, with foods at those schools slightly more tailored to the tastes of older children.
I visited my girls’ school for a midday bite to eat and decided that, to get the full experience of a government sponsored lunch, I would stick with the plan and eat only those foods that come with this type of lunch without purchasing any extras. Starting with my beverage, I chose a small carton of chocolate milk. I then had to select a main entree and was presented with the choice of fried chicken or large cheese sticks (for lack of a better term- they were crusts stuffed with mozzarella cheese). I added a serving of whipped potatoes and gravy then added the required fruits and vegetables. I went with a pre- packaged bag of sliced green apples and a bag of chopped up cantaloupe, along with a small boxed salad with ranch dressing. There were other a la carte options available like yogurt, but I wanted to stick with the plan and eat only the food offered with a standard, National School Lunch Program meal and nothing more.
With my tray of school food in hand, I paid $3.10, which is the going price for a full meal without discounts. Children who qualify for reduced price lunches pay only 40 cents for the same meal and those who qualify for free meals pay, of course, nothing. Even at the $3.10 price, it seemed like a more than fair deal so from a financial perspective, I had no complaints.
Get This, Not That
As I discussed in my post yesterday, government requirements have toughed up this year on what can be served for a standard school lunch and also for a la carte purchases. The food served has to meet minimum nutrition standards and children have to select foods that represent a balanced meal. To make sure the children don’t forget, my kids’ school had small signs in the serving line, reminding kids what they had to choose in order for a meal to qualify for the special rates. Of course, nothing says the children have to actually eat the food- the rules only say that they have to select certain foods. So, it shouldn’t be too surprising to discover that much of the foods- particularly vegetables- end up in the trash can by the time the bell rings.
A Balanced Meal, But…
Now that I have visited the school and experienced a government- approved school meal, I can assess the quality of the foods and other things from direct experience. And I must agree that, based solely on nutrition, the food does measure up fairly well. The main entrée supplies a good deal of protein, the milk contains important nutrients, and the fruits and vegetables contribute necessary vitamins and minerals for a balanced meal. This is all well and good and if kids eat all of the food, they should return to the classroom with a full stomach and a well- nourished body.
I did, however, have a few issues with the food. The “cheese sticks” were incredibly bland and wouldn’t pass any level of taste scrutiny with the average adult. They contained absolutely no seasoning and the crust was plain and boring. On the other hand, I liked my salad greens, even though I noticed that very, very few elementary age school children were selecting this option. I also liked my cantaloupe and green apples. The potatoes were average, once again because they lacked sufficient seasoning. And I was surprised to discover that there was no dessert! I believe this is due to the stricter government standards because I know that, in my grade school days, we had a small dessert with most every meal.
One thing I was curious about was the food preparation. This is one area that I know is inconsistent from one school to the next. Some schools receive almost all of their food pre- cooked/pre- packaged and just pop the food into a microwave or regular oven to heat and serve. I could plainly see that my cantaloupe and green apples were both pre- packaged, so it made me wonder about the cheese sticks and chicken. I walked to the back and inquired and was told that, at least at this school, the chicken, cheese sticks, and potatoes were all prepared on site. This is good but as I said, this isn’t necessarily the rule. The food served at other schools across the United States is not always this fresh.
Until Next Time
My school lunch experience is now behind me and I did learn a few things in the process. I learned that the rules are stricter than they used to be and food has to meet more rigid nutritional guideline to qualify as a National School Lunch Program reimbursable meal. I learned that children are constantly reminded of what they need to choose in order for a meal to qualify. I learned that there are very few food options in an elementary school and that green vegetables rank as the least popular option. I also learned that the prices per meal- even the full price without any discount- are very reasonable and that the nutrition is good overall, provided a child eats all of the food. I also learned that the food is quite boring and tasteless, but then again, it’s made for elementary school age children, most of whom do not like added seasoning.
School food and child nutrition have received renewed emphasis over the past several years. Child obesity is an important problem and schools are trying to do what they can to reverse these trends and improve the health of present and future generations. My time spent examining the National School Lunch Program over the past week has been informative and eye- opening and I must say that my experience in an actual cafeteria was the most educational of all. I encourage everyone with children to visit their school cafeteria, purchase a lunch, observe the surroundings, and ask questions when necessary. Your child’s health matters very much and considering that they will consume approximately 180 school meals each year, it’s important to know what they are eating and what your money/tax dollars are supporting.
Copyright 2014, Bryan Carey