School Lunch Fast Forward: Loving the Locals

It’s the last day of the First Week Back at School.  Here on RRG, we’ve covered the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between when it comes to the food my kids’ former and current preschool/daycare programs are offering.  And as always, the act of researching and writing the posts I’ve done this week has only served to affirm my feeling that I’m right.  (Ha!)  OK, seriously — right or wrong, what I have affirmed for myself is that if I, or any other parent, want to impart a defined set of eating habits and nutritional values for my kids, it starts at home, and it starts with a packed lunch.

However, I can’t help but wonder whether this philosophy necessarily has to extend into the elementary school years.  L. is in Pre-K now, and may be starting Kindergarten as early as next September (due to his birthdate and some other factors, we have the flexibility to hold off for another year if we choose).  So with only one or two more school years to go until he hits the “Big School” down the block, I’ve started to get very curious about the state of school lunch in our district.

I’ve heard everything from rumors to horror stories — frankly, if you’re reading this blog, my guess is you’re more than up to speed on the mainly ghastly state of school food in this country, from Jamie Oliver at least if from no other source.  But I’ve also seen cooking demonstrations by the school chefs at our Saturday morning farmer’s market.  And even though I’m not one hundred percent sure whether or not L. and P. will be starting off elementary at the local public school (likely) or at the affordable little neighborhood Catholic school some of their friends will attend (worth exploring), one thing is certain: Mama Bear needs to know what might be waiting for her cubs, wherever they go.

Guess what?  I might have to give the edge to the public school, at least as far as the food goes.

The private school has what looks like a very limited lunch arrangement, which in some ways is encouraging — it appears that they’re really banking on having parents send packed lunches.  However, a national sandwich chain (one I actually LIKE and have eaten at, with my kids; one that seems startlingly gourmet, at least for elementary school catering) provides a daily choice of two or three sandwiches or macaroni and cheese, along with the child’s choice of chips OR fruit, and flavored yogurt OR a cookie.  That happens 3 days a week, as far as I can tell; the other two days are catered by a very popular local pizza joint and bakery, which offers calzones, pizza slices, stromboli, and chicken parm — all with chips.

Pluses of the private school lunch: the sandwich chain option is decent, especially since their meats and breads all tend to be very high-quality and their dairy products are organic.  If kids actually chose, say, the turkey and cheese sandwich with an apple and a yogurt, they’d have a lunch I wouldn’t complain much about.  And involving a local business is nice from a community support standpoint, so the pizza joint option gets credit there.  Minuses of the private school lunch: I doubt many kids are going to choose the fruit and the yogurt; I can envision dozens of little ones happily tucking into three days’ worth of mac and cheese with a side of chips and chocolate cookies.  Not a great lunch, by any stretch of the imagination.  Plus, on the two days of the week that are catered by the pizza place, there’s NO fruit, NO veggie (unless you count marinara sauce), and I see zero point in serving chips alongside stromboli.  Lunch fail there, in my opinion.  And finally, the whole thing seems darned expensive.  For the $20 per kid, per week that it would take to buy these lunches, I could make some pretty hoity-toity gourmet lunchboxes.  I mean, that’s more than a quarter of our family food budget.

Now, to the public school: I was disheartened, though of course unsurprised, that the district website directed me to an international food service for lunch information.  However, when I opened up the September lunch calendar for our neighborhood elementary, I was greeted with this opening statement:

We serve Rhode Island Grown Produce whenever possible. Check out the many locally grown items each month. This month we will be serving RI grown:
Apples
Peaches
Broccoli
Zucchini
Cherry tomatoes
Bell Pepper Strips
Salad Greens
Cucumbers
All Local Day on September 16
Most breads are locally baked.

Well.  Knock me over with a feather.

I have to say that, for an elementary school food service, the list of local produce is relatively impressive.  What’s even better is that my memory of the demos I’ve seen at the farmer’s market tells me that the list will continue even into the winter months, when things like squash and sweet potatoes will grace the menu.  Of course, I didn’t want to take the “locally grown” label at face value, so I looked further — and found a prominently displayed list of all the farms and suppliers they use.  Shockingly, many of my favorite farms are on the list.  They’re shopping where I’m shopping?  But wait.  Isn’t school food supposed to be the enemy?

Well, it’s not all sunshine and unicorns.  The menu itself has pluses and minuses: interesting choices like chicken fajitas and corn and black bean salad are sharing the spotlight with the more prevalent standard-fare choices of bologna sandwiches, hot dogs, and chicken tenders (though I notice they’re billed as “tenders,” not “nuggets” — a fine but possibly important distinction).  However, there is not a single french fry or tater tot on the menu.  Not one.  Also, no mac and cheese.  Whole wheat bread seems to occupy about 3/4 of the menu, and each day, kids are encouraged to select three options from the sides menu, which is where all the local produce appears to be living — to go with that bologna sandwich, they’ll at least have to choose from broccoli, apples, and salad.  And the only beverage option is milk, though whether there are flavored milk options, I don’t know.

So is it perfect?  Of course not — far from it.  But as school food goes, I have to give many, many nods of approval to this particular menu, because I see the effort that’s being made.  Would I necessarily sign L. and P. up for this food, carte blanche, knowing that they could still choose the cheese sandwich every single day and halfheartedly take an apple that they then chuck into the trash?  Nope — I’m forever going to be a lunchbox packing kind of mom.  But should the day come when they beg and plead to be allowed to buy lunch like their friends, I think I’ll feel more comfortable at least having the discussion with them and maybe finding a position of compromise.  Just knowing where so much of that food is coming from makes a huge difference to me; I’ve shaken hands with these growers, I’ve roamed some of their farms, and I know what their practices are.  Talk about peace of mind.

So I’m encouraged.  And also feeling a mite guilty, because all this loving of the local lunch thing reminds me that I haven’t been giving much love on the blog to these growers, or to my farmer’s market, lately.  I haven’t even been to the market in 2 full weeks, due to schedule issues, and I — and the kids, and J. — have been feeling the lack of produce options.  It’s funny how you get accustomed to opening your fridge and finding a cornucopia of fruits and veggies to play with, and how hard it becomes to pack lunches and make dinners without them.  But rest assured, readers, and wonderful farming friends, that I intend to be there at 8:58 tomorrow morning with my reusable bags.  And maybe a forklift.  I’ve got some catching up to do!

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4 Responses to School Lunch Fast Forward: Loving the Locals

  1. Great info here and how wonderful that your school district is making strides like that! Here in Colorado, there are some school districts that are making similar attempts…of course, my kids’ district isn’t one of them. LOL

  2. Liz in Vermont says:

    You’re like the investigative food parent! I say pack the lunches as long as you can. I took yogurt frozen overnight and fruit to school from 7th grade on. Just the smell of the cafeteria made me sick. I didn’t have Shepherd’s Pie for my whole life because of that smell until my husband made it for me in my forties. From your blog, it looks like things are changing, but you’ll never see grilled salmon and couscous on a school menu even in your grandchild’s lifetime. And tasting the menu is key, since cafeterias can so frequently overcook and ruin almost anything. And $20 a week times 2 kids eventually, that’s a lot of packed lunches! Love the examination of food choices for kids in answer to the question “Why do our kids eat junk?” Answer: Because they develop a taste for the salt, oil and sugar that is in fast, processed food, duh.

    • Exactly, Liz. I mean, I won’t say that there’s not some sort of mechanism of predisposition that makes us like things that are sweet, or salty, or whatever — but actually, if you wean yourself off processed foods and then try to go back, you’ll notice that your palate has changed substantially, and they no longer taste as good as they once did. Which is why I figure that if my kids eat real food, they’ll like real food. If they eat processed food, they’ll like processed food. Simple. And things ARE changing, slowly…very slowly…though I do think here in RI they may be going at a slightly more rapid pace, due to the overall local food culture. But you’re right that salmon and cous cous haven’t even hit college dining halls, much less elementary cafeterias, and won’t for many, many years. So I’ll keep packing…but I’m keeping an eye on what “the other guy” is doing too.

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