We Need To Rethink The School Cafeteria

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of FoodCorps

“They give us pizza… mozzarella sticks… chicken nuggets… and then pizza again…”

“We have to put fruit on our tray to get past the lunch staff, even if we aren’t going to eat it.”

“It’s loud and crowded and we don’t have enough time eat.”

Sound familiar? Are these the types of things your kids say about their school lunch experience? Mine sure do. Across the country, too many kids are only given a few minutes to scarf down mass-produced, processed foods in the school cafeteria. They cram into tight spaces, have their senses overloaded, and end up throwing away half their lunch because they ran out of time or don’t like what’s on their tray.

This is a major problem for America’s youth because guess what kids need to maximize their learning potential? Proper nutrition. And many schools across the U.S. just aren’t getting it done.

Courtesy of FoodCorps and Rochelle Li

Well, a nonprofit organization called FoodCorps is trying to change all that—from the types of foods kids are offered to the colors of the cafeteria walls to the amount of time they have to get lunch in their bellies. Their research study called “Reimagining School Cafeterias: A human-centered study on the current state and future of school food” involved schools from all over the country, from varying socioeconomic statuses and from both rural and urban areas, and it revealed some interesting findings.

Across the country, too many kids are only given a few minutes to scarf down mass-produced, processed foods in the school cafeteria.

Turns out, teachers and administrators don’t look at the lunch hour (or “lunch 20 minutes,” we should call it) as a positive experience. And, more importantly, kids aren’t exactly thrilled with their lunch time at school either. And as the future leaders of America, they deserve better.

Courtesy of FoodCorps

“Schools are—in a sense—the nation’s largest restaurant chain,” the study states. “But too often, our education system approaches feeding 30 million kids a day as a burden: lunch time is a drain on learning time, cafeteria culture is a drain on school culture, and good meals are a drain on the general fund.”

So what can our nation’s school districts do about it, especially when funding is consistently slashed? When more and more pressure is placed on teachers to cram as much educational material and testing as possible into the school day? And when important parts of the school day like recess and P.E. are also getting cut?

How can we now ask schools to fix this too? Well, FoodCorps has some ideas.

Courtesy of FoodCorps and Steve Ettinger

Their study started off by asking a few basic questions as it aims to reshape the way we look at the school lunch experience. “What if school food could show us a future where every child gets the nourishment they need to thrive? What if it could affirm children’s cultures and identities and invite their agency to the table? What if it could show children they are valued and cared for in a way that food—the currency of human connection—has uniquely done for eons?”

What if school lunches weren’t a burden or an afterthought, but seen as a valuable part of the students’ day that’s just as important as science, math, and reading? Imagine the effects of changing this line of thinking.

Courtesy of FoodCorps and Rochelle Li

FoodCorps knew that in order to produce a research study that truly reflected the needs and wants of students, they needed to get into the schools and talk to the kids themselves. Far too often policy changes are made that impact children’s lives and no one takes their opinions into account.

What if school lunches weren’t a burden or an afterthought, but seen as a valuable part of the students’ day that’s just as important as science, math, and reading?

“Adults can be quick to make generalized assumptions about how and what kids think,” Lucy Flores, Director of Program Innovation at FoodCorps says. “Of course, if you give them an opportunity to share in a safe space, kids of all ages have nuanced, thoughtful perspectives and ideas. But as adults we need to help create that space—and be truly willing to create more opportunities for student agency.”

So they talked to kids. And after studying nine diverse school communities, here’s what they learned.

Courtesy of FoodCorps

Kids need the academic break that lunch provides. They need time to relax a bit, socialize, and let their minds rest. They want choices in their cafeteria experience rather than being told what they must have on their tray. And they want those choices to respectfully reflect their cultural identity—like, for example, if the school cafeteria serves enchiladas, they should actually be enchiladas.

So how can schools achieve this? How they can afford to offer more choices when fresh foods are expensive and kids throw so much away? How can they offer kids more time to eat and control over what they put into their bodies?

As anyone who has ever worked in education knows, it often comes down to money and politics. “Elected officials at all levels need to hear from their constituents (i.e. you!) about what matters to them,” Flores says. “As far as what they need to hear, one really important issue is improved infrastructure and equipment (such as salad bars) and related technical assistance.”

Courtesy of FoodCorps

And to really see some change, FoodCorps has even provided an overview of the School Food Modernization Act, which is “a bill that would create a grant, loan guarantee, and technical assistance program to support school districts in buying the kitchen equipment they need.”

That’s one essential step.

FoodCorps also strongly believes that if kids are educated about healthy food in hands-on ways, they’ll get excited about eating it. “You can’t do one without the other,” Flores says. “A core component of our national AmeriCorps service program (currently operating in 18 states plus Washington, DC) is hands-on, food-based education, which is all about creating opportunities for students to learn about, grow, prepare, and taste healthy, culturally relevant foods. Our program evaluation has shown that students who take part in more FoodCorps hands-on food education eat up to 3x as many fruits and vegetables at school lunch than students at schools receiving less of that food education.”

Courtesy of FoodCorps

and Steve Ettinger

Get those kids in the kitchen and garden, FoodCorps says. Let them touch fruits and veggies, watch them grow, harvest them, learn about what’s inside of them, and how they affect our bodies. You know what they say—if you teach a man to fish… Well, if we teach kids how to grow and prepare healthy foods… guess what? They’re more likely to willingly put them on their lunch tray.

The study also emphasizes another key component in making school lunches are more positive experience—and that’s about changing the environment. Too often, there is a disconnect between the hard-working and often underpaid school cafeteria staff and the rest of the school. How about honoring School Lunch Hero Day, which occurs annually in May?

Courtesy of FoodCorps and Rochelle Li

FoodCorps knows that teachers are stretched thin and need their lunch break as much as kids do. But once in a while, if teachers or administrators or other staff members could sit alongside the kids and eat their lunch, it would show the students how much the entire school values a good lunch experience with proper nutrition. Or how about brightening up the cafeteria? Do the walls need a fresh coat of paint? What designs can be added that reflect a positive, supportive, healthy school culture? Are kids willing to volunteer on the weekend or over the summer to bring new life into their lunch room? A brighter environment—created by kids—can go a long way in showing them how much their lunch time is valued.

FoodCorps’ study may be complete, but their plans to change school lunches across the U.S. are just beginning. They’ve partnered up with sweetgreen to create a pilot program that will be tested at schools across the nation with at least 50% of their students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. The program will involve such opportunities as:

– A “Tasty Challenge”, which means kids taste a vegetable or fruit prepared two different ways and vote for their favorite, with the idea that the cafeteria staff might put the winner on the menu.

Courtesy of FoodCorps

and Kelly Campbell

– A “Flavor Bar” that includes kids’ choices of spices, condiments, and sauces.

– “Our School Cafeteria” through which kids can brainstorm ways to improve the lunch room environment.

In the end, the study tells us something we all need to hear: our kids need a better lunch experience in order to reach their full potential. And it starts with talking to the kids. “It’s about having awareness,” Flores says. “Awareness of how complex school meal programs actually are, awareness of both the challenges and opportunities that exist and, most importantly, awareness of what student experience is and could be. As school community members, parents can play a huge role in advocating on behalf of their kids and lifting up student voice. Listening to and learning from their kids is the best starting point.”

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