What We Can Learn from School Lunch


It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and there is only one four-day week left on the 2018–19 school calendar. It seems only fitting to post a school-inspired story right now. There are so many memories and things to choose from since last August, when The Precious Pair began eighth grade and fourth grade. In this past year, all three of our lives have changed dramatically. We have established what we call our New Normal. More about that soon…

But let’s start with a question I’ve had on my mind – what’s the deal with school lunch? I’ve heard and read about it becoming more of what it should be in recent years, thanks largely to Michelle Obama during her two terms as First Lady. She made it her mission to clean up school nutrition nationally, pushing through new and more stringent guidelines for what is served in school cafeterias throughout this fine country.

Seemingly, based on all we’ve heard, we ate poison as school children back in the 70’s and 80’s. My memories of school lunch begin as a student in the primary grades, when my mom worked part-time as a substitute lunch lady. As a single mom of two, she had several diverse jobs. But my personal favorite was her role as the occasional lunch lady. On the days she appeared with a hairnet and plastic gloves passing the pastel plastic trays to my fellow students and me, I felt like quite the celebrity. Everyone knew that was my mom behind the lunch line, smiling and serving us. I took great pride in being her daughter on those days, and now nearly 40 years later, I’ve experienced that same beaming pride time and time again.

But even my own mom never noticed or mentioned that the food at school was killing us softly. You would think that was the case anyway, according to today’s trendy standards and comparisons to yesteryear’s menus.

Fruits and vegetables are now served in droves, not merely doses – at least in some of the local schools. The canned green peas of 1976 certainly no longer measure up. I mention those specifically because of that one time my older brother in the third grade plucked one of those peas from his tray and flicked it with a fork onto the ceiling. Of course, it got stuck up there. And he was caught green-handed by the cafeteria monitor, and he was sent to the dunce corner or whatever they did back then as discipline. Heaven forbid that had been a day when my mom was working the lunchline. How embarrassing that must have been for her! Shame on you, Big Brother.

Vegetables no longer come in a massive white generic labeled can at school. They appear bright and fresh and speckled with dew drops. I know because my youngest enjoys the luxury of a fresh produce bar at her grade school. I am always in awe of the spread that’s provided. And I think to myself, whomever is responsible for washing and prepping and peeling and chopping all of that, bless them, because it has got to be a huge pain in the ass. But some dear soul does it all in the spirit of increased vitamin intake for the kids.

So, yes, there do appear to be many healthier differences between school lunch in 2019 and that of decades ago. However, I am perplexed about a few of these differences:

#1. Ironically, if you’re vegetarian in middle school, you’re tough out of luck. Despite what I said about fruits and veggies above, the teenagers I know claim middle school is No Man’s Land for a vegetarian meal. You can count on a side salad or an order of four smiley-faced mashed potato fries. (Ew.) Or there’s the Hummus Kit, and thank goodness for that, or my 8th grader would pass out on the days she forgets to pack her lunch. I hope high school brings her a few more heartier options.

#2. What has happened to the rectangular slice of pizza? Today they serve a triangular slice. Or – get this – a full, round personal pizza! Why they had to mess with the delicious rectangular slice from my memories, I do not understand. After all, it used to fit perfectly in the spot on the lunch tray. As if it was meant to be there in all its cheesy gooey glory. I mean, do you know anyone who did not eat school lunch on Pizza Day in 1988!?! Even though it was typically served with those peas I already mentioned.

#3. Proteins are now served as Rings, Poppers, Chips, Nuggets, Chunks, and in Various Other Unnatural Formats. WTH? How can an order of Chicken Chips or Rings be something healthful? I’m not comfortable with this.  How about the old-fashioned breaded chicken filet or the even healthier, trendier grilled chicken breast?  These preparations don’t feel like outlandish requests when it comes to chicken.

#4. “The nasty hamburger with the nasty cheese.” This is the way my youngest describes the hamburger entree at school. Although I’m not a big meat eater, I do not recall eating a nasty cheeseburger in my entire life. Even a low-quality cheeseburger normally tastes delish. And 99% of little kids love burgers. (No source for this stat.) Yet the school soyburger tastes bad, even to a little kid. Yuck.

One thing I can say about school lunch back then and still today is that it’s consistent. Picture the color-coded calendars that show you the Red, Green, Yellow, and Blue Weeks that spell out specifically the menu each day, right down to entree choices and multiple side items. A parent and student can always find out “What’s for Lunch?” Even if it’s reliably terrible. (The only exception is next week, when the menu goes rogue with the year’s leftovers or “Manager’s Choice” as I believe they spin it!)

Last year in August when school was starting, my girls and I began talking about our New Normal and what it was going to mean and what it was going to look like. At that point, we felt the incredible weight of that newness. Our lifestyle was suddenly something foreign and uncomfortable, for sure. It was a daunting task to achieve what was ahead of us – healing, adjusting, re-calibrating, and becoming a very different family unit.

Luckily, my reliable old friend Consistency has been here for us. It’s a quality I cannot speak highly enough about. It’s the real reason I’ve been yammering on about school lunch above, as a timely analogy – and if you read my last entry “Zombies Can’t Open Doors” you already know how I love a good, creative analogy.

Some would associate Consistency with Boredom. But I do not. There’s nothing boring about being a good steward of your behavior and habits. It is, in fact, quite admirable, responsible, and beautiful to be the person you are on a reliable basis, for the benefit of those who surround you daily, including but not limited to: your children; spouse, partner, or date; parents, siblings, and other family members; friends; neighbors; coworkers, direct reports, and bosses; your kids’ teachers; the quirky clerk you always see at Dollar Tree; and the hipster barista you know at your Town Square coffee spot where the motto is “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Starbucks” (Lord knows, I drink gallons of that, too, though!) When these people see you coming, they want the comfort of knowing you and what you represent. As humans, we crave normalcy and predictability and stability and security because those feelings are good and simple and pure and calming, among all the chaos of our surroundings.

So I plead with you, be consistent. As I said, that’s how we’ve tackled the challenges my daughters and I have faced together thus far. We consistently talk, cook and bake, listen to and sing along with our favorite tunes – sometimes really loud – via Alexa, our loyal DJ. (ABBA makes an appearance on our playlist nightly.) We enjoy our creature of habit comforts such as our soft living room blankies; phone calls and FaceTimes with grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins; and treats like Rapid Pick-Up Panera, lately enjoyed out on our screened porch because we like to dine “al fresco” when the air is just right. And, for added comfort and support, we go to our new and very accepting church regularly, and we visit our amazing counselor frequently.

Annnddd, now we’re getting ready to dump Consistency on its head. We have a pending move to a new and smaller home. This will coincide with – thanks to my terrible yet well-intentioned timing – the arrival of a 10-week old Corgi puppy we’ve named Sunny. There she will join 7-year old pug, CiCi. Yikes! As in the case of chicken served as rings, I never could have predicted all of this would be happening.

But life takes on new and unexpectedly different forms every. single. day. We either enthusiastically consume the opportunities presented to us, or we resist them and go hungry and angry. (Hangry.) I recommend keeping an open-minded appetite for what The Day brings. If I may borrow an awesome one-liner, I consistently choose to “rejoice and be glad in it.”

Let’s do lunch soon!

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “What We Can Learn from School Lunch

  1. Reminds me of the 40’s when my Mom told us if we didn’t clean our plates, children in China would starve. I later learned that in China it’s considered impolite to clean your plate!

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