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Tales from the Lunch Lady

(post, Rachael Warrington)

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I am the manger of a school lunch program.  We are part of the NLSP or the National Lunch School Program and we receive government reimbursement for our lunches.  It is the only way we can stay in business.  I have been doing this for 9 years now.  I started not knowing a thing and I have read and self taught as much as I can.  I have learned a lot (imagine a dry sponge soaking up water) and am still learning.  I can say though that I love my job and I am doing my best to change my little corner of the world.

When I came on board I had grandiose ideas about home cooking for the students.  It took me exactly one day to realize that it was not going to happen.  The prior lunch service consisted of a daily al carte menu with hamburgers, pizza, cheesy bread sticks, and fries.  Students could purchase cheesy bread sticks with a 2 oz cup of spaghetti sauce and call it lunch!  I was shocked.  I ended the entire al carte menu.  Then I looked at the menu and was disgusted.  It consisted of the bottom of the barrel food, nasty chicken nuggets that were dark meat only, hamburgers that were paper thin, all canned vegetables and fruits.  Nothing fresh, salad was only iceberg lettuce, hot dogs were 100% meat, what kind of meat we never knew (also had 19 gram of fat per 2 ounce dog), and deep fried anything.
Pizza was available, but it was the bottom of the line kind that had no real cheese even.  The numbers of students eating were dismal, maybe 90 a day with a little higher numbers on pizza day.

I took the next 5 months and learned all I could about what kind of food was out there.  I raised the price of the lunches and started looking at the type of food being served.  I didn’t change the basic menu, but I did use better food.  The numbers starting going up, we were averaging 200 a day!  Then I looked into the NSLP and applied and started learning about what they considered a balance lunch.  It was a starting point.  With the extra monies available to me I started bringing in fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, white meat chicken nuggets, better hamburgers, whole wheat bread.  After 9 years I can say that with the help of the NSLP and the dreaded SMI review (a government process to see what you are serving such as fat, fiber, vitamins), I learned how to serve great food at a decent price and am now averaging 275 per day in participation from students.

We serve fresh fruit (example: apples-red, green, and yellow, oranges, bananas, strawberries, kiwi, plums and pears) each day.  All of our salads are now made with shredded romaine; iceberg is used only on taco day.  All of our beef lunches are made from 100% beef that is already cooked and drained so there is very little fat remaining in the meat.  Our hot dogs are a 100% turkey with a fat content of 9 grams instead of 19.  We use 51% whole wheat rolls, and we are looking at more fiber breads.  We are moving into making more of the lunches from scratch.  We make our own Mac & cheese and it is a low fat version the kids love!  We are bringing back chicken on the bone, and whole meat chicken breast.  Yes the cost is a bit more up front, but so is the cost of losing this generation of students to obesity and diabetes.  

As the lunch lady I take my job very seriously.  This next school year we are looking at even more changes.  We have a salad bar line that is available to a certain group of our students; they pick from shredded romaine, spinach or field greens.  I served soybeans and blue berries and they were gobbled up.  I hunted out low fat meats; we put black beans, kidney beans and chick peas on the line.  Students and adults ate them up.  Whole grain breads, whole fruits and lots of fresh cut raw veggies, all eaten with relish.  It has taken me 4 years to get the students to eat the fresh food, but each year the consumption goes up.  We are changing the taste buds of our students!

This next year I will be doing library time with the younger students (k-3) and we will be doing mini cooking sessions.  They will learn how to read a recipe with mom and dad, make a simple healthy snack.  I just purchased 4 new kid cookbooks for our library.  I will teach the students how to use these new books and how much fun they can be.  I am hoping to have a cooking class with the older students as well.  I just keep plugging along.

So my encouragement to parents is keep trying.  Realize that it will take time and some effort to retrain our children to eat better.  Of course it would help if we ate better.  So lead by example, draw your line in the sand, and stand firm.  Change will come in time.