A Tale of True Horror: School Lunch

Ugh, what is this? School lunch. Photo: Aim High Blog.

It’s Halloween season, and nothing is more scary than offerings on school lunch plates around the country. Boo.

Our society’s shift from real foods to processed and pre-prepared flavors during the 20th century rests comfortably on kids’ palates. Cooked from scratch meals wrinkle a fair amount of young noses. Many a kid wants their battered, deep fried, and reheated salvaged chicken bits(chicken nuggets are an innovation of the 1950s) and the effort to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches has led to some whining as captured in this NPR blog.

Serving poor food choices in a place of learning teaches kids that its okay, even correct, to eat junk. How can health class teach that you should eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables, and then serve something like the lunch at right? It sends mixed messages.

I left the public school system in the early 90s. As an adult, I’m pretty grateful that I usually took lunch to school. It was my responsibility to assemble my lunch after I turned 12. But I loved my chocolate milk – and was suitably horrified as an adult when I discovered how much sugar was in it: 8lbs of added sugar each year. I stole tater tots off of my Calculus classmate’s plate. I was allowed to buy lunch on pizza Fridays (fries with pizza were outlawed in my school district, so we had oh-so-healthy canned corn with our pizza). I remember the salad plate involving mayonnaise based salads on top of iceberg lettuce and wan tomatoes (and you know how I feel about tomatoes, see here, here, and here).

Photo: 100 Days of Real Food Blog. Whole-wheat waffle sandwiches with cream cheese/cinnamon/raisins in the middle, plain whole-milk yogurt mixed with homemade berry sauce (leftover from Sunday’s lunch), and fruit/veggies.

Convenience culture has led to a taste for the pre-prepared. When a family is busy with work, school, and evening commitments, it’s easy to see how I grew up eating a fair amount of hot dogs, fish sticks, chicken patties, and frozen pizza for dinner – but it was the 1980s. Today, we have a greater awareness about sustaining our health through what we eat and a greater interest in preparation of different kinds of food. Food Network, PBS, and local stations are booming with food programming, cookbooks, recipe websites, and food apps multiply by the day, and Farmer’s Markets are booming.


Photo: Alpha Mom.com blog

Jaime Oliver has taken a keen interest in school lunch and launched Food Revolution. The website posts the numbers by how school lunch is risking children’s health. 43 million children under age 5 are obese – how sad that makes me. A May 17, 2013 activism day is planned.  Lisa Leake chronicles the challenges of her mission to eat real food on her blog 100 Days of Real Food: 1 Family. 2 Kids. 0 Processed Foods. I’m intrigued by her photo expose of her family’s lunches. I’m also a fan of bento boxes, and I found this approach to making a western bento box fun and lowkey practical (though I would have substituted something else for the lunchmeat). Read more about bento boxes for children and adults in this NY Times article and at lunchinabox.net.

Certainly, not all kids have an opportunity to bring lunch from home, depending on a family’s time commitments and economic status. Shouldn’t they have the same opportunity to eat healthy?


About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.