Nutrition Personal Posts School

Are all School Lunches Like This?

At our house, we try to eat 90% healthy. Nothing is “banned” so to speak, though I don’t regularly buy anything that contains HFCS, hydrogenated oils or red dye. I avoid artificial flavors or colors entirely whenever possible. We eat a small amount of lean meats, lots of whole grains and fresh/frozen fruits and veggies.

We eat our fair share of treats too though! I love to bake, and we may have 2 homemade cookies as dessert after dinner occasionally. We even get candy (M&Ms are my son’s favorite) as a treat sometimes, and I might let my kids get a lollipop at the store now and again.

I’ve never claimed to be perfect, but I think I set a good example for my kids. You won’t catch me eating junk food before dinner, and I mind my portion sizes. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of this, and even though my daughter doesn’t have full access to junk, she does a great job of self-regulating. Halloween, Christmas and Easter candy seems to last until the next holiday, and she (and my son) will push away a bowl of ice cream (etc.) if they’ve had enough.

My daughter started preschool 2 1/2 hours a day 2 days a week when she was three and I was not happy that they were serving them things like Chips Ahoy or Oreo cookies and sugar/dye “drink” every day. I volunteered a few times and brought actual juice, and things fresh fruit and whole grain crackers as snack! Anyway, she did the 4-year old program the next year, which was 2 1/2 hours per day, three days per week. For many reasons (including the flippant and dismissive way they were handling a student’s nut allergy!) we pulled her out of the program halfway through the year.

It was a huge blessing, since we ended up finding a preschool-third grade private school that was so fabulous in so many ways that it would take a separate post to talk about it! This program was Thursday 9-2 and Friday 9-3, so snacks were definitely necessary and she ate lunch there. For snack they served things like whole grain crackers and fresh veggies (fruit too when available) that were purchased locally (not from a grocery store!) along with water.

At lunch, they offered the kids water and a fresh veggie to go with their lunch. The kids got to try all kinds of new fresh, raw veggies and ended up liking a lot of them! The school actually did not allow junk food. If you sent candy or something with their lunch, they sent it back home. They didn’t do cupcakes on birthdays either, but kids still enjoyed some creative birthday treats! One parent made carrot muffins, I made fruit kebabs that were a huge hit and were gobbled up!!

We would have loved to send her there for Kindergarten, but at almost 9k/yr, she would have had to choose between Kindergarten or college, LOL! My daughter is now in first grade at a public primary school that is goes through second grade. We looked into lots of private schools before we went through the giant hassle (which I’ve mentioned before & is it’s own post!) to get into this school district. (I’ll preemptively say that homeschooling isn’t for us, with my daughter’s personality it would be a total disaster!)

Fast forward to my daughter starting Kindergarten last year. I packed her lunches like I did for preschool. The “main dish” was usually peanut butter (minus the hydrogenated oil) and 100% fruit spread or Tuna on whole grain bread. Sometimes I’d use a thermos and send dinner leftovers or something else hot. Snacks would be something like whole grain crackers or pretzels, or Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies. She’d usually have a piece of cheese and/or yogurt and fresh fruit too. As a treat, I’d put in Crispy Green freeze dried fruit instead of fresh fruit or our new favorite treat GoGo Squeez applesauce, and/or a “dessert” like Stretch Island fruit leather, Stretch Island Fruitabu fruit rolls or a Clif Kids twisted fruit. Rarely, she’d get a cookie etc. if I had recently made some.

We ended up deciding to allow her to buy lunch once every week or two. It was sort of a novelty, and she liked getting in line with friends who bought every day. When we were kids (my husband and I went to school in this county…I was actually in the same school district) you got a ticket, or punch ticket for lunch. If you wanted to buy ice cream, you had to bring the money. Now, the parents add money to the child’s account and the child enters a pin at the cashier to deduct the funds from their account. I’d had lunch with her a few times and noticed a rack behind the cashier, full of prepackaged cookies, chips and other garbage snacks. We quickly found out (when her account balance ran low!) that whether or not the child purchased their lunch, they had free rein to go select whatever junk food they wanted…from Oreos, to fruit by the foot, to all kinds of ice cream.

I actually felt bad for my daughter when I found out about this and reacted with a bit of shock. She had no idea that she was doing anything wrong, or that it cost money! She just said that Mrs. xx (the lunch cashier) “gave” it to her. I’ve been trying to teach her to handle money responsibly, and this made her think that she could just enter her pin and get whatever she wanted free. (When I was a kid, I didn’t understand writing checks in the same way!)

The school does offer a way to mark their account so they can only buy lunch. I decided not to do that. Instead, we gave her cash on the days we decided to allow her to buy a treat. This way she not only had to get permission (the same way she would at home) but she handed over the money. I found out I was able to view her activity online and I did check to see she was following the rules. I’d actually rather she have the responsibility to follow the rules (and deal with the consequences when she came home) than have her try to sneak & get shut down by the cashier (and me never know about it.) We haven’t had any trouble because honestly, she wasn’t trying to be sneaky or get away with anything. She knows that when she’s at school, the grownups there are in charge, and they handed the junk right over!

I definitely think the lunch itself is lacking as well. The entrees are pretty gross, they get canned fruit in teeny cups, and that’s pretty much all. When I’ve been there, there are usually one or two cups of gross looking, dried up baby carrots or raw cauliflower pieces. They are right beside the fruit, so it’s really not clear if you can take both. One day I spied some green beans, so I asked for some. The lunch lady said they don’t usually even offer them because the kids don’t eat them. My husband and I were talking about what lunch was like when we were kids (I swear we’re not that old…it wasn’t that long ago) and we remembered decent chicken nuggets, chicken patties, tacos, mashed potatoes, sometimes fries or tater tots, and hot veggies like green beans, corn and broccoli. Every once in a while they’d have pizza, or a french bread pizza when they served things (like fish sticks) that not everyone liked.

If you bought ice cream, it was either the little cup with the wooden spoon, or the bar with the crunchy pieces on the outside, and you had to bring money for it! A friend whose daughter goes to school in New York told me they are only allowed to purchase ice cream on Fridays.

Now, I’m not saying public schools should control what’s packed in a child’s lunch. It’s up to each parent to decide that. But what business do Doritos, Oreos (and anything packed with dyes and sugar) have being sold in a primary school cafeteria? I do not think that even the most mature 5-7 year old is capable of making choices like that, when they are presented as being free and limitless. Yes, I know that as the parent I could ban her from buying it, but come on. It’s hard for adults to pass by the doughnut table at work when they are dangled in front of our noses. We’re expecting little kids to look at all these goodies (right in front of their faces mind you) and know they can’t have it? While their friend sits beside them eating it?

Then we send them back to the classroom all sugared up and expect them to learn (but don’t worry! They bribe them with candy to behave!) I made the mistake of letting my daughter get a PB&J Lunchable w/fruit as a treat to take to school for lunch. Not normally what I’d feed her, but I figured it was a fun treat…what harm would it do? Well after hours of the horrible, defiant, awful behavior, (complete with tantrums to make a 2-year old watch in awe, slamming, stomping, throwing and screaming) I realized that the Lunchable had contained “berry flavor fruit snacks” which contained loads of sugar and…red #40. We’d already figured out that red #40 makes her totally crazy to the point that she simply cannot control herself at all. As I already said, I don’t regularly buy anything that contains it, but I didn’t “ban” it, especially since it’s in the weirdest stuff (cream cheese flavored toaster strudel? Why is it in that? Yes, I know it’s crap, but I’m okay with buying something like that a couple times a year, especially since there are 4 of us and only 6 in a package.) I think it’s time to ban it entirely.

This has been bugging me since she started Kindergarten, but I figured oh well, what can I do? They’re not going to take junk out of schools just because I say so. What finally set me off to write this is that kids are allowed to choose Gatorade instead of milk at their discretion (yes, dye, sugar water “sports drink.”) That’s another one of those things that yes, I may buy it as a treat if they are sick (one store near me has clear Gatorade), or if we stopped for gas and snack when we were out all day, but it’s a treat, and not an appropriate daily substitute for water in my opinion. The kids love it of course, though 75% of it is thrown away, since they only get about 15 minutes to buy and eat lunch, and aren’t allowed to take it with them.

I just found out (yesterday) that they are being charged an extra $1.00 for the Gatorade, increasing the cost of lunch by 50%…grand total $3.00. Now you all know I’m cheap frugal, and I can pack a fantastic, tasty, nutritious lunch that will be eaten rather than thrown away, for way less than $3.00! I mean jeez, you can get fresh apples, apple juice and a hamburger (plus toy!) for about that at McDonalds!

They did a brief lesson on the food pyramid last year but practice what you preach people! Get the garbage food out of schools! If the teachers want it, keep it in a teacher’s lounge. My child shouldn’t have more/easier access to junk food while she’s at school!

What are school lunches like where you live?

FTC compliance: I was not provided any products I mentioned above, though Amazon product links are affiliate links. I was not compensated for this post and all opinions are my own.

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Maria Moser
Maria is the mother of 3, writing about cloth diapers & going green. You'll often find her juggling her preschooler and typing 1-handed in between sips of cold coffee. Maria works with many companies within the cloth diaper industry and beyond, providing social media management, product development and other services.
  • Maia G
    September 7, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    I have no idea what the public schools here serve, but the private school my mother teaches at serves a well balanced meal. They are catered by Colton’s Steakhouse and always include fruits and vegetables and rarely have a (modest sized) sugary dessert. Of course, this costs $3 per meal- so it is quite a bit pricier than at the public schools ($1.35)

    • September 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm

      $3 is what some mystery meat, 2 tablespoons of canned fruit & gatorade costs here. 🙁

  • Hannah
    September 7, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Totally agree. When things are offered by an adult/institution, they are being portrayed as normal and OK.

    Growing up we got free/reduced lunches so my mom wouldn’t/couldn’t allow us to pack a lunch. Our school lunches were mediocre nutritionally (fruits and veggies were usually the canned variety, white bread if you picked a sandwich, etc.), but there was very little junk food (cake once a month to celebrate that month’s birthdays, occasional pudding desserts).

    By the way it sounds like you do a great job of feeding your family healthy food. I am gradually learning how to avoid the HFCS and hydrogenated oils (they’re in everything…) while keeping a decent food budget. Maybe you could write a post about that! I am making my own granola for breakfast, etc.

    Do you think there are other parents experiencing the same issues as you are? I would do some more digging (if you have the time/energy) and see how this is affecting other parents, why the school is doing it (money?), if there are any laws or nutrition guidelines that should be prohibiting this, and what can be done.

    • September 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm

      Hannah, I think the best way to feed your family well, frugally, is to make, grow or raise everything you can…use co-ops and farmer’s markets when you can, and see if you can go in with another family (or more) to buy grain fed beef. I keep saying I want to do that! It seems like if you look hard enough, you can find better versions of things (I’m jealous of those with Whole Foods/Trader Joes) but is NOT easy on the budget. I am having a terrible time keeping our food budget under control just feeding my son (the bottomless pit) so I definitely can’t be paying double for everything!!

      I have been tossing around calling whoever is in charge at the county level, but I guess I feel like I won’t be able to change anything. I am shocked that it’s not against gov’t regulations to have this junk for sale!!

  • Naomi
    September 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    I am surprised! Our oldest is off to 4K this year, so I am not aware of the school lunches around here…although I did notice they offer a snack, but forgot to look more thoroughly at the menu. the 4K is at a YMCA center, and in the past, I had worked in their daycare program. The meals/snacks where wonderfully varied, and each day the kids were given fruits and veggies, and rarely had juice, usually milk. And yes, I was always surprised at how well the kids ate the veggies…I expected a lot more complaining, but most kids had gotten used to the food and definitely enjoyed it as opposed to just tolerated the healthier options.
    I am suprised that the school offers such snack items at such a young age. Maybe at least offer the “healthier” chips/cookies (oatmeal cookies and baked whole grain chips/crackers?)
    Things I’ll have to start thinking about for next year.

  • Trisha W.
    September 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    It seems like your school must not receive any federal funding for the lunch program. There are some pretty hard and fast rules about what must appear on the lunch tray. Doritos would not be an option. There needs to be a certain amount of protein, for example, for the lunch to be federally reimbursable.

    • September 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm

      They do the gov’t subsidized free/reduced price lunch/breakfast. I think someone thinks that because they are not serving “along side” the lunch, that it’s OK? Technically the kid would have to either buy & throw away a school lunch (I have seen kids do this), or sit at the table with their lunch bag for a couple minutes before they could go buy the junk.

      • Trisha W.
        September 7, 2011 at 11:58 pm

        I know kids do throw away stuff. One of the things you wrote about that really puzzled me is subbing (for a higher price) Gatorade in place of milk.

        • September 8, 2011 at 9:12 am

          And it’s served WITH the lunch, so there’s no getting around the “served along side” thing. I know they try to call it a sports drink blah, but it’s still absolute junk to me. I’m fine with bottled water in lieu of milk, but Gatorade??

  • Jessica Sullivan
    September 7, 2011 at 11:09 am

    This is EXCATLY how it is here too (Putnam County Tennessee). I was working at the school in the school nutrition program as it is called and it appalled me. I tried to change things and read some of the ingrediants to the higher ups but no one seemed to care that for example the pork patties say entire pig. (no joke there, it says entire pig used to make these patties) I had to quit and now try as a concerned parent to make a change.

  • Lyn
    September 7, 2011 at 10:51 am

    I don’t like that so many junkie things are in the schools these days. I have also learned partly why they are in the schools. Big companies give funding to the schools for putting their treats or drinks in the cafeteria for the children. With districts always needing funding and funding always being taken away, schools are turning to these more unsavory tactics to meet budgets.
    After watching the show with Jamie Oliver and his quest to change school lunches, it also showed that schools sometimes just are not willing to change things, usually because of funding or unions too.
    In the same way “If you build it, they will come”; “If you offer it, it will be bought.” Companies are looking for the profits and not really looking out for the nutritional safety of our kids. They also know that there are plenty of parents out there that will allow their kids to eat almost anything.

    • September 7, 2011 at 10:58 am

      Well, I wish companies like Hint Water, Kashi, Clif, Crispy Green (etc. etc) would get on the bandwagon. I don’t have a problem with them trying to make money to make up a deficit. I have a problem with them saying “nutrition, nutrition!” out of one side of their mouth, and saying “here, eat this cr@p” out of the other side!

      • September 7, 2011 at 10:59 am

        Although, I believe Revolution Foods is trying to make a difference. I contacted them a year+ ago hoping they would get into our school district, but oh well.

  • stacy h
    September 7, 2011 at 10:37 am

    they make $ off the junk. its a huge money maker in the school district i grew up in. that’s why it is there. =(

    • September 7, 2011 at 10:51 am

      That’s what I told my husband and he said he didn’t think school lunch was supposed to be for profit (I had never heard that, so I don’t know where he got that idea.)

      I think it’s just disgusting to profit at the expense of children.

      This is 10 years old, but it makes it sound like they should NOT have this stuff for sale??

  • September 7, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Are all lunches like this? yeah, pretty much.

    • September 7, 2011 at 10:31 am

      I’m not expecting a complete overhaul but OMG, get the chips, cookies & Gatorade out of K-2 schools and you’ve just made a giant leap!

      • Trisha W.
        September 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm

        I agree. Those types of treats should only be available at the Jr. High and up levels. Things like Gatorade are helpful for kids who participate in sports at the school, right after school lets out.

        • September 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

          I don’t even think Doritos etc. are necessarily appropriate in upper school levels. *shrugs* There was a sports drink machine in our high school gym, and soda machines in the lunch room, but they were not turned on during lunch. We DID have a machine with brownies & garbage that was on during lunch.

          I dunno. Kids have the rest of their lives to eat junk & drink soda. In fact, they can pack & bring it if they want. I guess I am turning weirder than I thought I was because I just don’t think it’s a big deal for them to be unable to buy it is a public school for 6 whole entire hours.

  • September 7, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Wow! In elementary school, really! I have such a problem with what’s served in schools for lunches. I’ll say my daughters elementary school was pretty good though. However, when she hit middle school they offered the junk food and like you I noticed dd lunch money was being used up way too fast. I soon found out she was buying dollar cookies everyday (unlike your children my oldest will never pass up on junk, she doesn’t eat it constantly and we *try* to lead by example, I only buy junk food monthly when I get a craving because I’m normally not big on junk). These cookies were worth every bit of a dollar too, they were huge. I started checking her account online and seen somedays (after we talked about not buying junk daily, the money was for lunch) she was only buying junk food cookies, icecream, candy and not even buying lunch, and they let her do that. We now pack, and some (lazy mommy days) she buys her lunch at school, but that is rare. We both checked up and found out about these things, but the sad truth is most parents don’t even know what their children are eating daily at school and some don’t even care. Something that really needs to be brought to more people attentions. Great Post!

    Life of this SAHM

    • September 7, 2011 at 10:32 am

      I just don’t get it. I’ve heard that Michelle Obama is trying to make it her crusade to improve school lunch, though I don’t know the details. How about we start by removing the junk food?? Then we can focus on the actual lunch quality!

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