Speak, Memory: School Lunch, an Embarrassment of Richness

11/16/2010 01:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have many madras-shorts-paisley-shirt-pink-and-green-monogram-Fair isle-sweater memories of growing up in Andover, Massachusetts in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the sweetest center around life in the Andover public school system, before my parents shipped me off to girl's school for finishing, or finishing off, depending on how you look at it. Three of the most vivid of the kaleidoscope of recollections I have took place in the school lunchroom:

  1. The day my First True Love, Joey Goldstein, accidentally on purpose touched my hand as we took our trays to hold helpings of government cheese rations, wax beans (the slimy yellow ones), carboliscious mashed potatoes with brown meat sauce and "fruited gelatin";
  2. The exuberant cafeteria-wide applause every time some poor slob dropped his tray; and,
  3. A concoction whose name is indigenous to New England, which was served whenever the cafeteria ladies had reached the end of their ropes or the bottom of their larders, whichever came first: American Chop Suey. For you rubes, that's over cooked elbow macaroni (sensually swelled to four times its original size), ground beef, sweet tomato sauce, reconstituted dried onion and bits of green peppers all mixed together in a giant vat and served on a plate along with a 2-inch by 2-inch white dinner roll. And yes, friends, it was as delicious as it sounds.

A quick look at the menus today -- still reassuringly published in the Andover Townsman -- tells me that times have changed. Sure, there's still plenty of carb loading going on, but the selection of those carbs is mind-boggling. For instance, on Wednesday November 17th you can choose between classic breaded fish sticks, something called a Rib-a-Q on roll (sounds like competition for McDonald's recently reintroduced McRib), or nachos topped with beef and/or veggies, cheese & salsa. Be sure to enjoy a side of chicken & rice soup, roasted red bliss potatoes, and fresh fruit with that. If you don't like the main course you can visit the school deli, taco table, pasta bar, or grill station.

For those of us who endured not only American Chop Suey but Salisbury steak served with Harvard beets as well, this cornucopia may sound palate pleasing and even healthy (Veggies! Fresh fruit!). So why is it that today, being a fat kid (there, I said it) is not unusual -- it seems to be the new normal. I recall exactly one plus-sized child in my class (whose name I remember but will not mention here). And her girth was considered to be very weird. As a result this perfectly sweet little girl was on the unfortunate receiving end of snide remarks and nasty jokes (perhaps, ironically, compelling children prone to over indulgence to curb their desire for extra after school snacks, for fear of becoming a similar target). Everyone else was either thin or at least regular sized.

Maybe the cafeterias are to blame. According to a study from the University of Michigan published in March 2010, middle school children who eat school lunches were more likely to be overweight or obese (38.8 percent vs. 24.4 percent), develop poorer eating habits, and have high levels of "bad" cholesterol compared to kids who brown bag it. More specifically, children who ate school meals were more than twice as likely to consume fatty meats (25.8 percent vs. 11.4 percent) and sugary drinks (36 percent vs. 14.5 percent), and far fewer fruits and vegetables (16.3 percent vs. 91.2 percent) than those who brought food from home.

The most revealing line in the press release from UMHS is this, however: "There are other, potentially confounding issues that [the research] team are teasing out, including whether there is a possible correlation between socioeconomic status and heart health in children of low-income families who take advantage of free school meal programs."

I don't think this is confounding at all. When you leave any decision, especially one that should be personal or parental, up to the state, the results are bound to be pretty disappointing -- no matter how well intended the professional do-gooders writing menus and proclaiming moral-nutritional superiority may be. In fact, in my experience, the more sanctimonious the meddler is, the worse the results of their actions turn out to be. And don't get me started on how the USDA's agricultural interests influence what's served in school cafeterias.

As any parent can tell you, martial law would need to be declared before a kid consistently eats whatever the definition du jour of perfectly healthy is. "As a parent, you're not completely sure what you're packing in their lunches is what they are actually consuming; foods can be traded or they can get snacks from vending machines, so it can be hard to know what they are putting into their bodies," says Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of internal medicine at the U-M Health System and an author of the study.

Yet despite their free will to swap an orange for a donut, brown bag lunchers are still in better shape than those being fed by their schools. Jackson adds -- and this is crucial -- "that parents can help shape food choices by modeling good eating behaviors at home and on the go." Perhaps some of them already are, given her study's findings.

Looking back at the menus of Andover Middle School (nee Andover West Junior High) the other big difference I notice between the meals I had and those being served now is the mind-boggling choice children are given -- grill stations, pasta and sandwich bars, along with three main courses to decide between. Bounty can be a dangerous thing. It's very easy to avoid the veggies and fruit in favor of the faux barbecue on a roll, bread, corn chips, cheese and cake. Making every sort of food under the sun available at lunch is a trend not just in Andover but also at public high schools across the country.

Catering (literally) to the fickle appetites of school kids also sends them another dubious message: school-aged students, you deserve to eat whatever you like best. If you don't like what's being served, there are ten other choices for you, little darlings. Still not happy? Aw gee, then check out the vending machines in the hallway!

That wasn't possible when I was a kid -- if you didn't like what the cafeteria was dishing out on a particular day or week, your mom either packed up leftovers, or a homemade sandwich and an apple; or, if there was no time or mom forgot you hated meatloaf, you just didn't eat a lot of what was being served. Neither are recipes for obesity.

Okay, I have a confession: when I first received and read through the menus at my son's nursery school I was appalled. We live in a town my friend Michael calls "tony" (he says this in a vaguely accusatory tone, not an awe-struck one) and Bix attends a well-endowed private, not inexpensive pre-K institution. I thought that they could do better than, "sliced potatoes, sliced hot dog, diced carrots, peaches in light syrup," or "apple slices, cheese sandwich, baked beans, pudding," for lunch. Where were the baby greens and organic chicken tenders? The seasonal, local berries and Greek yogurt? Oh. That's right. At my house.

After taking note of the fact that there are no overweight children in my son's class, including those who receive government aid (there goes the socioeconomic argument about who's fat and who's not) I realized that serving a very limited selection of simple food isn't such a bad idea after all. The school's head mistress allows parents to bring cold food replacements for lunch but there's no swapping out food until each individual kid is perfectly happy with his or her meal. This old-fashioned approach demonstrates to children that there are times, such as during the school day, that food is simply fuel. And it teaches that life isn't about always being happy with or even having an endless array of "choices." Food is not and shouldn't be the center of life (you know, "eat to live, don't live to eat").

Which brings me back to another important function of the lunchroom that we over look in our focus on what and how much to serve -- ultimately, it's not just about the food. Those 45 minutes are a break to relax and talk with friends in relative freedom. It's about blowing off steam when someone trips over their own two feet causing his tray of mac-and-cheese to go flying -- and learning how to deal with temporary humiliation if it's your turn to lose the lunch. Oh yes, and it's also about Joey Goldstein brushing against your arm, your eyes locking with his for a moment, and falling dumb struck in love.

Fun Lunch, With Love From Home

There's a good case for children to bring their lunch from home, so finding quick meals to pack up makes sense for busy parents. Laurie David's wonderful new book The Family Dinner, is generously dotted with recipes that help even the most overwhelmed of us make a yummy lunch to go quickly -- and they're so much fun to mix up it won't be hard to enlist the kids to help. Like Laurie says, when children are part of meal prep, they're more likely to eat it. These ideas should get your creative juices flowing:

  • Last night's stir fry veggies mixed with drained and rinsed canned black beans and a drizzle of tahini makes tasty fillers for a whole-wheat wraps.
  • Angel hair pasta with broccoli and Parmesan cheese tastes just as good at room temperature as it does hot.
  • Baked potato stuffed with shredded cheddar cheese (vegan versions are also good) and steamed broccoli or spinach can be zapped in the cafeteria microwave.
  • Couscous, grape tomatoes, chopped fresh parsley, black olives, and feta cheese is nutritious and fast -- it only takes 5 minutes to cook these tiny pasta dots.
  • Left over roasted chicken shredded over a romaine lettuce and tomato salad holds up until lunchtime.
  • Put it on a stick: lunch meat, cubes of cheese, and cut up fruits and veggies plunged onto wooden skewers are fun to make and eat. A side of hummus makes a great dip.