School Lunch Reform – Stick a Spork In My Eye

Okay, it’s time for me to tell it like it is.  It’s not like I was lying to you before.  But I realize that I may have suggested that our school lunch reform efforts were all flowers and butterflies.  It’s time for a reality check.  For you.  So you don’t think that this is easy.  I’ll be honest  – there have been many days when I have wanted to stick a spork in my eye.  But I haven’t told you about those days because I didn’t want to be a complainer.  And I didn’t want to make anyone look bad.

salad bars in schools

The truth is, I love my school lunch advisory team.  They are candid and passionate parents and teachers.  And they have high standards for the types of foods that should be served in our schools.  For many children, this may be the only meal of the day – so we owe it to them to do the BEST we can.  And I also adore Elena, our food service director.  She has a tough  job and is constantly being bombarded with demands and complaints. It’s a wonder she gets up the gumption to come to work every day.  It’s because of my respect for all of these people that I haven’t been as candid as I wanted to be in my school lunch articles so far.  I was afraid that they would be offended if I suggested that things weren’t ideal.  But it would be dishonest if I told you that I was perfectly satisfied with our progress.

I’ll say it here, and I’ll say it now – I am very proud of our work on school lunch reform so far and can’t wait to see where it is headed.  This post (and the ones to come hereafter) are NOT attacks on anyone – they are just honest stories about our challenges and hurdles.  We may not have stretched enough before the big race – and we have stumbled a few times.  And it’s time you knew.

School Lunch Reform History in our District

We have had some setbacks since we started this effort almost 8 months ago.  One of the first issues we tackled last year was the sugary cereal that was being served as a part of the breakfast program.  Our food service director agreed to serve high fiber, low sugar cereals – and we even got rid of the muffins-as-big-as-your-head.  But a few weeks ago, we were frustrated to discover that several of our schools were serving Froot Loops again.  How could that have happened?  “The package says they are low in sugar,” we were told, when we asked.  Oh Lordy.  And what about the mixed messages that it sends to kids – that we actually endorse that stuff?  Families can serve their kids whatever they want at home, but it is our job to be educators at school.  We have to set a good example.  It turns out that someone used an old ordering sheet over the summer while our district’s central kitchen was being renovated.  While that excuse may be valid once, it won’t be again.  We encouraged our food service director to remove the old ordering pages and create new ones that ONLY included items that are healthy and meet the standards set by our advisory team. We haven’t seen that list yet, but our fingers (and toes) are crossed that we’ll be allowed to help revise the ordering materials.

Buying good food on a budget is difficult, and commodity foods can alleviate the burden.  But my skin crawls when the kids are served up a batch of canned fruit in syrup.  It’s not the canned part that bothers me. It’s the sticky syrup – the extra sugar.  Why is it being served?  Because it’s free.  And our district has over a year’s supply in their stock piles.  As a temporary solution, we are urging our lunch service workers to drain the cans and rinse the fruit before adding it to the salad bar.  It’s not being served every day but some of us cringe when it is served at all.  I wonder if our plethora of cans could be used as door stops or paper weights instead, so they aren’t wasted.  I hope that our staff can learn to say NO to items like these next year. Even if they are free.

I’d love to hear from you.  What’s the reputation of the lunches served in your community? Have you or any other parents tried to make changes in the food service program? We would all love to hear about the experience – what worked and what didn’t.  Did the tone of this article work for you?  I want to be sure that you can learn from our trials and tribulations, and candor seems to be the best strategy.  I desperately hope that this will be the start of a candid discussion about feeding our kids, and why it pays to try to do it well.


P.S.  And since I am being extra honest here, I thought you might want to know that my daughter isn’t the biggest fan of vegetables.  I didn’t want you to think that just because I teach kids how to cook that my kids will always eat what I make.  But that’s another post – more transparency for another day.

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33 Responses to School Lunch Reform – Stick a Spork In My Eye

  1. Mrs. Q says:

    Change is hard and I appreciate your honesty. Saying no to free items has got to be so hard when there is no money. Our food system is broken. Thank you for doing your part to fix it! I think you are an amazing person! 🙂

  2. Wow – Froot Loops?? I had no idea it was that bad. Love the honesty. We all are trying hard at what we do, but we aren’t perfect! 🙂

  3. astott says:

    This movement is lucky to have you at its helm! Great post!

  4. Michelle, wow can I relate. I have been involved in school lunch reform in Maryland for 4 or 5 years, and it seems like every time we take one or two steps forward we also take another step back. I’m so upset when I see cheez its and fruit gummis in the lunchroom, but sometimes it feels like a lonely and fruitless (literally?) battle. But, if I compared the lunches our kids are served now with those served a few years ago, I would definitely notice some improvements and I think our efforts have paid off for the kids. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  5. Chris says:

    You and I spoke about this briefly this weekend, but the lunches suck at work. To see the high schools run for the slushies and ice cream, then to the pizza and fries kills me everyday. And yes…it is indeed everyday since I have 90 minutes of lunch duty (which is cruel and unusual punishment in itself). I hate that, in my low-income school, the lunches are lowered to every crappy stereotype.

    I am not sure how it all works and will be looking into it soon. You have put that bug in my ear and I appreciate you so. I can’t wait for your follow up conversations. 🙂

    • Chris – I still have the image of kids with blue lips from slushies burned into my brain. Some kids can NOT tolerate those ingredients and they should NOT be part of the food offered at an educational institution. Ugh.
      Aviva – you inspired me when I started – I am thrilled to do the same for others. Thanks for your continued support!
      Amber – it was such a joy to meet you last week. I am thrilled to count you as an ally.
      Alison – Great to see you. Why we have to meet at a conference when we live in the same time is beyond me 🙂 Please keep me posted about the word on the street on school food. Salad bars should come your way this week! Nut free, too!

  6. Gina says:


    I’m so thankful for your open sharing and honesty. We certainly don’t want people to think changing our big, broken food system is all roses. It’s not.

    It’s roll-up-your-sleeves hard work! But you look at the kids in the cafeteria and know that all the efforts are worth it.

    I believe that every small step matters. Small improvements lead to big change over time.

    Let’s celebrate the small steps today and get ready to play again tomorrow.

  7. laura says:

    you know change is HARD but it will come and the canned fruit should be commandeered and used up by the advisory panel in a cooking class or something…potluck?

  8. Lisa Suriano says:

    I am really glad you wrote this post. It was timely for me to read. I just came back from a visit the the Boulder Valley School District where I learned alot about how and why public school food improvements are so greatly hindered by USDA bureaucracy. I was a little shocked and overwhelmed as to how complex and trying the process is. Commodities can be a necessary evil in this system. The entire National School Lunch Program needs a major overhaul. Thanks for being forthcoming with your struggles for a better program.

  9. Damaris says:

    When I was in elementary school in inner city Chicago I wrote a letter to the mayor and complained about school lunch. Someone read the letter and contacted my school and told them that I had to be included in the monthly menu planning meetings. It was my first taste of activism.

    It made me realize that the lunch ladies, whom we totally blamed for the nasty food, had nothing to do with what ingredients they had to work with. I became way more sympathetic towards them if nothing else.

    This issue is HUGE.

    I’m glad you’re talking about it.

  10. Michelle: I’ve lurked for a while and I know we follow each other on Twitter. But when I read this post I had to comment. Here in Houston, it’s the same story and my feelings about the process mirror yours. Just a big – YOU SAID IT, SISTER.


    The Lunch Tray: kids and food, in school and out

  11. Yes, real reform is hard! Anyone who says otherwise is blowing smoke. It takes persistence, diligence, and unflagging focus. But it will come.

    I have two nephews, ages 6 and 11. When I saw their school lunch calendar posted on the fridge door a few weeks ago, it broke my heart. “Uncrustables” are available at almost every meal. Not acceptable. Not by a long shot.

    I’m just getting started working on improving the nutritional quality of the food at a large Boy Scout camp. The camp management is onboard (which could have potentially been the highest hurdle) so that’s a huge step. Now, we need to figure out how to make the changes within a huge list of logistic limitations: Time, money, availability (the camp is on an island, and only gets food delivered once a week!), and, of course, the kids have to want to eat it.

    It will take time. I’m sure it won’t be perfect right away — I expect it to take several summers before we’ve figured out even the largest kinks. But we’ll get there. We have to.

    I also want to to build on one remark in your post: “Families can serve their kids whatever they want at home, but it is our job to be educators at school.” If kids start coming home from school and telling parents how delicious (and healthy) their lunches are — and are excited about it — the parents will start learning, too. Food will get better at home. Big Food learned years ago that kids can influence parents’ food purchasing decisions — and it will work the other way around, too.

    Keep up the great work, Michelle! It’s unbelievably important!

    • Thanks for chiming in, Andrew. I agree – kids are going to teach their parents. My whole business banks on that concept!
      Bettina – Hurray for coming out of lurking mode. I never even knew I had lurkers 🙂 Maybe you’d like to write a guest post sometime on your experiences in Houston.
      Damaris – Your post gave me the chills. I wonder how many other people remember their first taste of activism? You go, girl!
      Lisa – wow – I bet that was an amazing visit. Was Ann Cooper there to share her stories? Ah yes, commodities – perhaps that’s something we should delve into further.

  12. Miguel says:

    I greatly appreciate all the work being done by all the school meal advocates. I have been working as a school FSD for 30 years and in the last 10 years I have made it my priority to reach out to advocates, organizations, community leaders, etc etc to help bring sustainable, systemic nutritional and wellness changes to our food service programs. Even with all this support, our program is far from being a prime example of how to operate the best food service program in the country. Do you want to know the simple truth? Health and wellness is not the number one priority of the community. Yes, it seems that everyone is discussing H&W, but it is not fully implemented. In school food service, implementation is extremely complex and must be localized. In other words, what works for us, may not necessarily work for you. Factors that keep food service programs from full implementation range from inadequate facilities, insufficient equipment, lack of staff and\or lack of trained staff , poor distribution systems, inadequate eating areas and yes, the USDA commodity program. Please do not lose sight of what I am proposing, a food service program that is the polar opposite of what we currently see in many of our communities. In effort to implement this program, a financial investment that goes way beyond the typical USDA school meal subsidy is required. Is your community willing to INVEST in school food service to improve health and wellness for your children?

    • Miguel – I am so grateful that you chimed in on this discussion. We could never improve our program if it weren’t for you and other food service directors giving us tips and suggestions. You told me something recently that I think of daily. You talked about how the bar for food service has been raised – and that people who aren’t committed to making improvements will be ousted and there will be a long like of applicants ready to step in. Fingers crossed that we can make it happen with our current team and be a source of inspiration for others. I can’t wait to see our new Project Lunch standards to help schools assess where they are and where they want to be.

  13. Amber says:

    Michelle, it’s so inspiring what you’re doing here. It is super frustrating that people don’t understand just because it’s written on the package does not make it true! I mean for goodness sake, the FDA says foodmakers can call High Fructose Corn Syrup “Natural” because it was a plant at one point in its lifecycle. I wish you intestinal fortitude as you move forward!

    • Thanks Amber – I laughed at the phrase “intestinal fortitude” because I actually get queasy when things aren’t going as planned on this project. With every limp cucumber and each drip of sticky syrup from a can, I get butterflies in my stomach.

  14. Mrs. Q says:

    I’ll always be in your corner!

  15. Denise says:

    I hear you ! My district has successfully changed the food in our schools to healthier homemade options. But it is still a battle. Between the increasing cost of healthy whole foods and complaining parents you want to bang your head against the wall. Last year our district made NO progress ! Everything in the cafeteria was from the government or this horrendous food coop our food service person was part of. Getting the labels from the food being served and getting the asst. superintendent on our team was essential. Patents didn’t like what they were reading and the asst. superintendent didn’t like it either. We hired a school food reform consultant and things changed. The battle is still not over. Check out

    • Wow – I had no idea that there was an official “consultant” for school lunch reform. I suppose I act as one for my district, but didn’t consider a specific title. Thank you so much for chiming in – I am heading off to look at your link right now. xo

  16. Just came from Kristen’s post on BlogHer Food – I do hope that you can consider me a new friend. I had so much fun getting to know you & I wish we had spent more time together. One day we will I am sure 🙂
    Those Fruit Loops for breakfast are a disaster, the fruit in SUGAR syrup – as if fruit is not sweet enough. What people are doing to kids bodies and taste buds are beyond me. I pack our meals, end of story. xo

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  18. Untie me says:

    We started the School Lunch Task Force Meeting a year ago and never really completed a list of Never Again Ingredients for the food the program serves. This list contains more than what we got to discuss last night, but is an expectation that I have and I know it is ridiculously lofty, but I submit, possible if tried.

    My Goals for the SRSD lunch program

    • Zero Waste
    • No bad meat
    • No old vegetables
    • No hydrogenated fat
    • No cottonseed oil
    • No blue food coloring
    • No corn syrup
    • No MSG
    • No red food coloring
    • No plastic
    • No mylar
    • No single use containers
    • No pesticides
    • No fumigants
    • No single use silverware
    • No single use condiments
    • No sugary drinks
    • No chocolate milk
    • No Growth Hormone Milk
    • No plastic wrapped “grilled” cheese sandwiches
    • No commodity vegetables and fruits

    Food Rules (M. Pollen) states the expectations in a beautiful format. Use them to guide all future decisions about the choices in front of us. Get Radical, Get it Done! The payoff is tremendous! Imagine being the leader instead of the victim of these inevitable changes. The school intelligence goes up! Individual performance increases! Focus becomes the standard behavior, not the awesome anomaly. School STAR standards rise. We increase our intelligence as a nation! We stop being stressed out about obesity being created by the food we serve our innocent kids. We stop supporting huge faceless corporate interests and support our local farmers and food people instead. We stop wasting fuel moving unacceptable food around at the expense of our planets future. Wait! There’s MORE!!

    We can stop wasting our recess time with recycling exersizes!

    We will all benefit, more than anyone can imagine.
    Make it so!

  19. Fallopia says:

    OMG! That is so well put! May I add a few more great benefits to having better food in our schools? Our poorest population who “eats” this food will be more successful by the sheer impact of nutritious food! This is called social justice. Who creates the social injustice in this School Lunch Program? These corporations are being SUBSIDIZED, that is, given money by the government to create this monstrous food. Yes, your tax money. Food is politics. Let’s have the government give your tax money to the SCHOOLS to buy what they need to locally, and deconstruct this centralized nightmare. Our superintendent says she has 120 thousand dollars at her discretion. What if she had twice that? Then she could make some choices.

  20. Sigurd the Brave says:

    I understand Project Lunch in Marin County has a vision. Sounds like an education campaign for the school lunch director is key. If he/she is not clear about goals and reasons, she might not really be able to create a vision and plan. For instance, does she understand how bad sugar is, or what blue food coloring does to the brain? Is she required to understand this as part of her job? Opinions should not be the driver of food selection.

  21. Alice says:

    Choir, Where is the vision? My time is being dibbled away, if you will, which is just one of many precious resources that is being wasted in this joke of a system of food “service”.

    This is how I loop the system: the food is bad because it is corporate food, and the corporations are treating us like animals or a slave class by giving us food that is subsistence level garbage. This creates chronic garbage issues. Garbage in the landfills, garbage on our fields, garbage in the sewers, garbage in the creeks, garbage in the ocean, garbage in the skies, garbage in our minds, garbage in the spirit, garbage in the ground. And we PAY for it with our lives and our hard-earned money. When is the last time Tyson offered money for a recycling program in schools to help deal with the mounds of cellophane created on a daily basis? When is the last time Kraft gave money for composters? Or cash to improve a salad bar?

    The system that allows this toxic mess to be sustained needs to be stopped. Those who cannot imagine how that can happen need to step out of the way.

  22. HATE the syrup fruit! my kids have grown up on raw fruit and love it. Now my PK kid comes home singing odes to mandarin oranges and fruit cocktail, SIGH.

    getting ready for follow up meeting with child nutritional services in SBISD (houston) ::shudder:: i know i’ll walk out disappointed, quesy and probably in tears. i hate in the core of my being the trash that we serve kids on a daily basis. small steps are great, but kids don’t need small steps, they need huge strides. the current school food program is wasting kids’ health.

    thanks michelle for what you do, and for doing it publicly so we can build a community and learn from each other.

    in other better news, the eat to learn program launched in Oct. at our elementary school. menu changes may be slow, which is why i wanted to get on campus and teach kids why real food is functional.

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