School Lunches Evolve and Sprout a Veg Option

Remember school food? Little aluminum trays filled with steaming rubber meatballs in greasy orange tomato sauce, or the enigmatic Salisbury Steak? It was enough to make a vegetarian out of the bravest diner.

I grew up eating the school lunch, and can even attest to having worked in a public school food service kitchen for several months. I was the baker, making hundreds of chocolate chip cookies every day. The kids didn’t want any oatmeal cookies, just chocolate chip.And pizza.

As far as I could tell, Salisbury was an adjective meaning that the object had been printed with stylized black stripes. There must once have been a delicious dish from Salisbury, but once you have worked in a public school kitchen and watched the staff dump a 50 lb box of the frozen meat-pucks onto pans, it’s hard to imagine. My favorite part was when they took the sheet pans of hot “steaks” out of the oven and poured the grease off into coffee cans. The school sold it for use in cosmetics.

Kinda puts you off both Salisbury and lipstick, doesn’t it?

Fast forward to the 2009 School Nutrition Operations Report. The School Nutrition Association has been tracking what’s for lunch since 2003, and things have been getting better. Between ’03 and ’09, the percentage of schools offering a vegetarian meal has grown from 22% to 63.9%. Amazingly, 20% now offer a vegan option. Institutions are slow to change, and believe me, this would not have happened without a push.

In fact, In 2008, The US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service did a “call for comments,” and received 10,000 requests for more vegetarian food. So if you ever hear of a call for comment-shout out! Over the years these public comment opportunities have come and gone-and helped shape things like the regulations on organic food, so they are taken seriously.

So what are the veggie kids eating? No surprise, pizza and pastas top the list, with rice and beans and other mexican fare tossed in. Big salads, veggie and cheese sandwiches and other non-scary foods are also making the cut. As we would expect, kids are happiest with simple stuff.

The progress that has been made is, unfortunately, tenuous in the current economy. Like it or not, school lunch planners have to make do-the current average food cost on a school lunch is less than $3. The big problem for them is buying fresh produce, and paying labor. It’s lots cheaper to use processed food.

Like the frozen meat pucks.

If it were not for our backwards food system, in which cheap, subsidized foods flood the market, vegetarian food would be the cheap option. Believe me, you could not buy decent meat and make the little salisbury steak meal for the pennies that it costs the school district.

Congrats to the schools, and the kids and families that worked to get their veggie plate. Now we just need to keep making those meals more healthy, veggie-filled, and sustainable.

2 Responses
  • Jul 2, 2009

    I’ve been following school lunch programs ever since that was what I had or lunch. Fifty years ago, surplus food was given to the Boy Scouts in addition to schools. We became real familiar with food that came in kraft paper wrappers with official sounding labels, all courtesy of the USDA.

    Then as now, the desires of the kids being served the food was ignored. If there was more effort—some schools are making one—to educate the kids about healthy eating, they would become more interested in better food for lunch. Of course, some of that education needs to make it into the home, too.

    Peter Hertzmann Jul 2, 2009
    • Jul 2, 2009

      When I worked in the Urbana IL middle school cafeteria, they had piles of awful government surplus food. I suppose it was better than starving, but what ended up happening was that the kids bought packaged snack cakes, and a pizza truck parked across the street and sold slices. Only the poorest kida ate the free food and it was stigmatized.
      It is hopeful that the kids and parents are getting some awareness and making requests. It is our backwards food system that makes vegetarian more expensive. Rice and beans should be free.

      robin Jul 2, 2009

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