Popular television shows depict students standing in line, while an irritable lunch lady plops a glob of sludge onto their trays. Even though this is a common portrayal of the school lunches in the media, a different scene is played out every day in public school cafeterias across the U.S. The national school lunch program, offered by the USDA, provides free or reduced cost lunches and breakfasts to students. Formed through the National School Lunch Act in 1946, it allows the government to buy surplus crops from farmers and donate them to schools for subsidized meals. However, because of the budget crisis, schools have been forced to find ways to cut costs of school lunches, and have done so mainly by cutting the biggest expense— labor. Instead of having highly-skilled cooks make lunches for hundreds of kids each day out of fresh foods, schools receive donated food, ship it to processors and receive in return processed foods that require little, if any, preparation before serving.
Offering students processed, individually packaged foods for breakfast and lunch has several impacts on the health of the students and on the health of the environment. Firstly, as many parents know, kids seldom eat everything that is put in front of them, especially if it’s vegetables. However, schools are required to provide students with a certain number of options, and students are required to put three of those options on their trays. But much of that food is uneaten, and many times, unopened. Unfortunately, schools are not allowed to donate subsidized meals, meaning that tons of food ends up in the landfill, along with all the plastic packaging it came in! In 2002, a USDA report showed that schools across the United States were wasting $600 million in food each year, a number that is likely to have increased since then.
This is no secret— countless blogs decrying the nutritive content of school lunches abound, but it is important to note that schools only get reimbursement for the meals that they actually serve. This means that schools must “market” their food so that the students will choose it, which makes many days of pizza, hamburgers, and sugary drinks and foods on the menu. The school staff then, is encouraged to serve more highly processed foods that do not offer the same nutritional content as fresh or raw foods.
The Berkeley Unified School District, however, has been able to change the food its kids eat due to impressive parent involvement and commitment. The schools that have switched back to serving fresh, unprocessed foods made by highly trained chefs in the school kitchens require more time, skill, and money, but the schools continue to operate within their budgets. Other schools, and districts that don’t have those resources yet, are forced to be creative with their waste diversion. One example is Fairmont Elementary School in El Cerrito. At Fairmont, students are part of The Watershed Project’s Waste Matters program, which focuses on composting and recycling the former waste found in the cafeteria. Although this program helps offset the amount of food going into landfills, we should be finding ways to bring back the lunch lady, too. Providing students with healthier meal options could lead to not only a healthier environment, but also healthier and happier children. And who knows, maybe making this change will make the lunch lady a little happier, too.