School Lunch Reform – A Guaranteed Way to FAIL

You may have noticed that I haven’t offered an update on our school lunch reform efforts in awhile.  Some of our team have been stewing.  Others have been steaming.  And one just boiled over.

boiling kettle

Perhaps I should explain the back story.

We have done assemblies in 4 ½ of our schools to teach the students how to use the salad bars safely without contaminating their peers with germs.  And there have been more than a few challenges in keeping our new salad bars running smoothly.

True, the children are no longer climbing inside the salad bars to reach the inner sanctum.  But the food service staff hasn’t received consistent messaging on how to set up the plethora of containers within. Some schools seem to have a system that works well for them, but others have gaping holes with produce that is hard to reach.  Fortunately our food service director has appointed Lisa, our central kitchen manager, as the “girl-Friday” of the salad bar realm.  She has developed an effective system for organizing the salad bar and will soon be conducting a staff training, so that each site’s salad bar will resemble all of the others.

There have been members of our team who are concerned that the salad bar is being used as a smoke screen for the rest of our food program, which is still less than stellar.  It’s hard not to be frustrated when our students are still being served overly processed foods and little packets of brightly colored empty calories.

Ever since our team started meeting last year, we have been striving for a “no-list” of foods and ingredients that will be banished forever.  But we haven’t made as much progress on this list as we had hoped.  We may have bitten off more than we anticipated when we launched our salad bars this year, so our “no-list” hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should.

We have made progress though. Don’t get me wrong.  Our elementary schools no longer serve chocolate milk and we are getting rid of the dreaded condiment packets, instead opting to purchase condiments in bulk and serving them in squirt bottles.  Ideally, the majority of our lunch program will be served from our salad bars, with a wholesome entrée on the side.  And we can serve up the whole kit and caboodle right in these new biodegradable trays!

biodegradable paper lunch tray

New biodegradable trays for school lunch

However, despite our pleas, we keep seeing little packages of gummy bears, sugar-laden fruit leathers, brightly colored crackers and cookies.  It’s true that our district is bound by a “food-based menu planning” system and occasionally has to increase the number of calories that our children are getting at each meal.  (But isn’t that a good problem to have – we can come up with healthy foods instead of supplementing with high-calorie filler?)

The lack of attention being paid to our “no-list” came to a head at our most recent meeting.  Our most passionate team member couldn’t contain her frustration and blew her lid.  Here’s where the title of this post comes in.  While school lunch reform IS possible via collaboration and teamwork, it is NOT going to maintain its momentum when the environment becomes toxic.  Or when someone starts to bully someone else.  As parents, we teach our children to respect others.  Schools are supposed to have a no-bullying policy.  And there we were, at our supposedly civilized meeting, agenda in hand, and the room was filled with the fumes of anger.  I was so uncomfortable that I wanted a shower after it was over.

I don’t like conflict.  But rather than hide under a rock, which was my inclination, I sent an email to the above-mentioned perpetrator.  I told her that I was disappointed.  I didn’t think that being adversarial would help further our cause.  And I was pretty sure that name-calling and accusing our food service director of being ineffective was the wrong strategy.  I have to admit, my knees started to quake after I pressed the send button.  What did I unleash?  But instead of being berated for being too passive, I was thanked.  I was respected for having the courage for speaking up.  And for that, I am grateful.

That’s what these school lunch reform blog posts are all about.  They are about speaking out.  They are about sharing our struggle to make institutional change.  It’s hard.  But if we can do it, so can you.  Of that, I am sure.

What is the condition of your food service program? Do you have a central kitchen that makes food for your students? Or do you contract with an external food service provider?  Are the parents and students happy with the food being served?

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11 Responses to School Lunch Reform – A Guaranteed Way to FAIL

  1. Jennifer says:

    I am so not even close to theat brave!

  2. Amanda says:

    You are a great woman! 🙂

  3. naomi says:

    Michelle, I applaud your courage! Good for you for speaking up and sending that email. I’m sure you have many thankful parents for it. Not that you need that, but as a parent I am thankful there you are out there advocating better eating and better health.

    • Michelle Stern says:

      Thanks Naomi! If I can make a difference even in one child’s health, it is a good thing. I need to ignore the naysayers who say otherwise. Tough skin, tough skin, tough skin… It’s a battle worth fighting!

  4. Cheryl says:

    Oh, Michelle. Michelle, Michelle, Michelle. After being on my district’s wellness committee for nearly 5 years, I am close to throwing in the towel. Without the commitment of the majority of parents, most of whom don’t put this issue on their list of priorities, it has become a great source of frustration for me. It’s hard to advocate for change in a vacuum, and I too sometimes feel I’m being used as a pawn to rubber-stamp incremental change.

    That said, I continue to watch your fight with interest and to draw strength from your courage, and I will revisit this post before my next meeting.

  5. michelle – how has milk participation done without chocolate milk. how about overall participation (are less students choosing school lunch without choc. milk on menu). when you do have parents complain who takes the complaints (parent advisory committee or food service staff) and what is the response?

    • HI Jenna,
      Milk consumption has gone down, but once kids realize that there is only one option, they get used to it and choose the regular milk. We will be offering 2 varieties, I think – maybe 1% and 2%? I can’t remember. But it is hormone free, which is good. We would love to go organic, but aren’t there yet. And in fantasy land, we will have a bulk dispenser 🙂

      No, I don’t think that removing chocolate milk has changed participation in the lunch program. Milk is included in the price of lunch, so they get what they get. If they want only the milk, they can buy that separately. That is what decreased for awhile… And in fact, one of our lunch ladies told me that she was downright angry that we took chocolate milk from the menu. She said that it reduced her milk participation greatly for quite some time.

      Lots of kids and parents grumble amongst themselves. I get a few emails since I am involved, but the majority of calls go to the school (who routes them to the food service department) or to the food service department directly. They are the ones who are implementing the policy for the whole district. It is not a site by site decision.

      I hope this helps,

  6. Karen says:

    Michele, this is well stated. this process is frustrating no doubt and it takes a real effort along with respect on all sides to make real progress.
    I hope the new year brings us all new resolve and focus.
    best, Karen PH

  7. The one thing that drives me most crazy about school lunch reform is the tendency of certain people to create angels and devils. I truly believe that people who work in schools, whether teachers, administrators, or school lunch personnel, have the best interest of children at heart. We may not agree with their decisions, but they’re not evil, bad, or stupid. We unfortunately have an issue where the press tends to create this dichotomy – we just saw this here a few weeks with a very scandalous article was published in which the reporter failed to report the timeline properly making our school administrators look very bad. It’s a shame because that confrontational approach doesn’t help anyone, especially our kids.

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