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A substitute's observations on school food.

Infants eat lunch at the federally-funded Head Start school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York.
Infants eat lunch at the federally-funded Head Start school on September 20, 2012 in Woodbourne, New York. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Each lunchtime, armies of chickens, battalions of burritos, regiments of rice and beans (some on taco shells), platoons of plantains, and slews of salad get tossed into the trash in city schools, the overflow of a massive operation that feeds tens of thousands of children every day.

Typically, the children are over-excited, bouncing off their benches or spaced out like ghosts pulled along by the class momentum – line up, shuffle to the lunch counter, don’t forget a milk – purple or blue? – choose a pre-filled tray; pick up a spork and napkin wrapped in plastic. Take a fruit, get back to the table without a mishap, slide along the bench. Make space; bunch up with your buddies; try to get a treat from someone with a home lunch, maybe a cookie or a fruit leather.

There’s no question that the meals in the elementary schools I go to have improved greatly since the olden days (80’s, e.g., when ketchup was a vegetable) But there is a mis-match between what is served and the age and experience of the children. As noted at the beginning, crispy baked chicken portions can’t be eaten with a plastic spork, they are way too big for the kids under 4th grade, and especially the youngest children seem to have an aversion to picking up the whole thing and taking a bite. So after shredding a few pieces from a delicious-looking breast or thigh, they give up and eat the rice, pasta, bun or potato that came with it, perhaps a carrot slice, rarely the salad they sometimes pile on their tray for the novelty of it, and then eat just the canned corn and the pickle slices! Finally, way too soon, lunch is over and the remainder goes into the giant garbage cans.

Starting as early as 1853 with the Children’s Aid Society, (view an interactive timeline here: http://www.nfsmi.org/Templates/TemplateDefault.aspx?qs=cElEPTM5 ) and growing gradually with the goal of educating the tastes of immigrant children away from their ethnic palates towards ‘standard American fare’, along with the higher purpose of providing the hungry with balanced nutrition so that they could benefit from their time in school, school lunches have loomed large in the budgets of cities, rural communities, and from 1946, in National funding.

From the Wikipedia description: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_meal_programs_in_the_United_States, here are some of the highlights:

The most prevalent school meal program in the United States is the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federal program signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1946.

The NSLP was originally established as a “measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities” (School Nutrition Association, 2012). In the six decades since its origin, the program has made a significant shift from not only preventing malnutrition, but also fighting childhood obesity. The NSLP is currently operating in over 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential care institutions. In 2011 the program served low-cost or free lunches to over 31 million children per day.

http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodschools.html#lunch1910 This website traces the origins of the lunch programs in NYC, and mention should be given to the efforts of mothers from around 1900 on, who fought tirelessly for programs to feed their children when poverty and the rise of militant Trades Unions empowered them to seek relief for children who were literally passing out in their desks from hunger. Shockingly, many of these children still failed the intake requirements to join the military in 1914 due to stunted development from malnutrition. I wonder what these mothers would think of the lunchrooms of today? I hope they would be very proud and happy, but from their perspective, I think the amount of waste might shock them, as it does me! Nevertheless, children do eat, they aren't left hungry, and the communal experience can cement positive attitudes and thoughtful nutritional values for the future. More of how this works in Part 2 of this topic.