Thursday, October 8, 2009

Broccoli and hot dogs and fruit cocktail, oh my!

Okay, I know that I've posted twice this week already, but I just had an enlightening conversation with the Food Service Manager -  I'll call her Barbara - and I wanted to share it before the day takes over and all of this fascinating information slips away into oblivion. 

Barbara - who stays for an extra half hour everyday after school, to serve snacks to our middle schoolers - came to my office in between the sixth and seventh grade lunches this afternoon. We needed the standard I9 and W4 forms from her so that we can pay her for time, and as she dropped off her paperwork, we struck up a friendly conversation.  She told me how she is putting her daughter through medical school in Houston, and her son through business school here in Austin.  It is hard to steer a proud mother away from talking about her highly successful children, but I managed to sneak in a few questions about school lunch.

According to Barbara, who would know better than anyone else, 3 percent of the students at our school pay full price for lunch, which is set at a reasonable $2.25.  12 percent receive lunch at a reduced price (it was unclear what this price was), and a whopping 85 percent benefit from free lunches, five days a week. 

I told Barbara that I was interested in coming to the cafeteria one day to experience school lunch for myself.  She became very excited and, noticing the half-eaten pita sandwich on my desk and a tupperware overflowing with baby carrots, she assured me that I could find healthy options on any given day of the week.  Sometimes I feel like I walk around with an "I'm a health freak" sign on my forehead.  At least she didn't say, "you look like a vegetarian," which I've heard several times from students and co-workers since I arrived in Texas.  And you know what? I'm not a vegetarian! (anymore).

"Lunch is $3 for teachers, and there are chicken salads and sandwich wraps and fruits and vegetables every day," she informed me.  "The lunch menu is posted on the website for two weeks so you always know what you can get."  As soon as she left I checked out the website, which sure enough provided menus two weeks in advance and there were myriad fruits and vegetables listed for each day of the week, from garden salads, steamed broccoli and carrot and celery sticks, to pears, apples and fruit cocktail.

Students must chose between three and five items for their trays, two of which must be fruits and/or vegetables.

The menu for today is listed as follows:

Chicken Enchilada
Soft Beef Taco
Crispy Tacos
Turkey Hot Dog
Turkey Hot Dog w/ chili
Beef Taco Salad
Turkey Wrap
Tortilla Soup
Pinto Beans
Steamed Spinach
Garden Salad
Taco Fixings
Carrots; Celery Sticks
Broccoli and Carrots
Fresh Fruit Variety
Fruit Cocktail
Fruited Gelatin
Milk, 1%
Milk, Chocolate Skim
Milk, Strawberry 1%
Milk, Skim
Ranch Dressing
Hot Sauce

When I visited the cafeteria earlier in the week, I only noticed three milk choices, but four are listed on the website.  I instantly began to wonder if their are other disparities between what the district lists online and what is actually offered at lunch time.

The lunch menu website also states that "different menus [are developed] for each school level. Lunch menus are designed to meet one-third of  the Recommended Dietary Allowances for calories, protein, iron, calcium, Vitamin A and Vitamin C. Additionally the menus are analyzed to assure that the week does not exceed 30 percent of calories from fat or 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. Sodium, cholesterol and fiber are monitored as well. With our new feature you may view the nutrients for each food item on the menu.
Lunch consists of an entrée, two selections of fruit, vegetables or salad, bread which may be part of the entrée or separate and a choice of milk."

And as promised, below each of the daily menus is a link to a chart that lists each of the food items served that day, and the number of calories, the amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats (in g) and vitamin A and D contained in each food serving.  Unfortunately there is no Percent Daily Value listed, as on nutrition labels, so without some extra time and a calculator, it's not immediately clear how much of their RDA the students are consuming at lunch time.

So, yes, for the most part, a well-balanced (although not so fresh) meal is provided to students.  Barbara made a point of telling me that the students are unaware of how healthy some of the foods are.  For instance, the meat that was served with the tacos today looked like ground beef, but in fact it was ground turkey.  And hot dogs are made of turkey too.  "The cafeteria never serves red meat," Barbara explained with pride.  In my book, hot dogs - whatever they are made from - are not healthy.  But they do taste good once in a while. 

The real issue, Barbara lamented, is that while teachers can always find a well-balanced lunch in the cafeteria, students do not make choices that are as nutritionally wise.  Barbara told me that she encourages the children, particularly the girls, to take milk as one of their five food items.  She tells the girls how she wishes that she drank more milk as a teenager in order to avoid painful and costly health problems as an adult.  Many of the girls do take the milk, but once they are past the cash register, they dramatically throw the milk into the trash can, for Barbara to see.  Barbara seems quite distraught by this public and targeted display of rebellion, and was frustrated by her inability to get students to make healthy choices that will benefit them now and in the future.

I have to say that I was mildly impressed with the menu - pinto beans and steamed spinach! - given Barbara's limitations as far as sourcing locally and actually cooking foods from scratch.  For some great insight into the challenges that nutritionally-minded Food Service Manager's face, check out this article that appeared in the New York Times last week, School's Toughest Test: Cooking

I won't draw any grand conclusions here, but my conversation with Barbara and a little bit of detective work have left me with a whole styrofoam tray full of food for thought, and some great questions to pursue.  I have decided that in order to truly understand what is offered in the cafeteria each day and the choices that students must make, I need to stand in line and make those choices myself.

A challenge to myself: next week I will purchase school lunch each day and experience the chicken tenders, strawberry milk and fruit cocktails alongside my students (and then I'll write about it).

Before she left, Barbara told me that she eats breakfast and lunch at the school everyday.  And that by the time she gets home for dinner, she knows that she has consumed all of the fruits and vegetables and calcium that she needs, and therefore she can eat whatever she likes for dinner.  Somehow, I don't think that's the reaction that I am going to have.  I fear that I will need to stock up on extra fresh fruits and veggies so that when I get home from work I can eat a healthier dinner than usual, to compensate for the chicken tenders and hot dogs that I will inevitably sample at lunch time. 

Stay tuned ...

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