Students alternatively call it a “jungle,” a place of “chaos,” a “dirty place” where “kids run wild.” In common parlance, though, this place is called the cafeteria. Our school’s is no place of comfort, no sanctuary safe for a moment’s rest. It is, rather, a mess (pun intended?).
But what is more important to me than the physical environment in which my students eat is what they actually eat. So, during the last week of the school year—when the hordes of students who held the brilliant notion that summer break starts when they feel like it had already felt like summer had started—I mustered the courage to descend, with two coworkers, into the abyss and eat the school lunch.
Though it is bad enough that they complain to an alarming degree about the cafeteria, students disturbingly whimper in fear at the inedibility of the food that is contained and served within that space.
The terror of school lunch is no secret in DC, of course. DC Council member Mary Cheh and Chairman Gray recently introduced the Healthy Schools Act as a way of improving the health of DC’s students. In fact, DCPS just hired Jeff Mills to direct food service for its schools. Ed Bruske (aka The Slow Cook), has offered up his own foodie expertise on DCPS food at the Better D.C. School Food blog.
Nor is this a secret nationwide. There are plenty of people across the nation who are fed up with school lunch.
Before this day (for it was premeditated), I told myself that I had to leave my packed lunch at home. I would come without my awesome TFA lunch bag (pictured below) to limit my ability to opt out of this culinary experiment. My goal was simple: eat the entire meal.
We awkwardly stood in line for food. A cafeteria worker looked at me and then cocked her head to the side, as if to indicate her confusion. What in the hell was I doing here, she seemed to be asking. Pulling out a small Styrofoam tray, she proceeded to give me lunch. I picked up my “fruit”—in the form of two mini cartons of Suncup “100% pure orange juice from concentrate”—and sat down with my coworkers. We began to eat this:
I had suspended judgment beforehand. I knew that if I went in knowing that the food was bad, I would simply agree as in any self-fulfilling prophecy. I was ready to eat, so I scanned the food to find something I might like. I began with the tater tots. Aside from their over-sogginess (probably from excess oil), I found them actually quite acceptable to my taste buds. I moved to the green beans. Though they had a significantly-less-than-fresh taste, they also passed the basic taste test. At this point, I felt confident that I could finish the entire meal.
Then came the headliner. A heart-shaped “chicken breast” drenched, appropriately, in a thick gelatinous red goop (high fructose corn syrup, much?) sat before me, imploring me to take a bite, to fall hopelessly in love with its taste. I took a bite. Honestly, the taste was indescribable. To clarify, it was indescribable in a bad sense. And when I say indescribable, I really can’t and won’t describe it. But the texture was describable. In many ways, it felt like biting into cardboard. But that description is overused as well as inaccurate. Here’s the more accurate description: I felt like I was biting into wood. Not just any wood, mind you. I’m thinking of the wood that you sometimes find when you are out camping and you’re around a campfire and you stumble across some old firewood that got logged with rainwater. It was musty, yet distantly crunchy, and altogether unpleasant. One bite was enough for me.
At this point, I knew I had to follow up with a potable to purify my mouth. I realized then that I had to pick my poison: super-sugary chocolate milk or super-sugary OJ from concentrate (x2)? I opened the milk and downed it, letting the sugar crystals coat my tongue. It was so sweet that I decided to “neutralize” it with some OJ. What a potent mix! If it’s true that “you are what you eat,” I was infinitely almost positive that I had taken one gigantic step towards becoming a sugar cube.
Comic narrative aside, I was unimpressed and, quite frankly, disgusted by the food (I never did finish that “chicken,” though I finished the rest of my meal), even given the serious suspension of judgment that took place before I entered the cafeteria. There was no way that eating this lunch could become a sustainable habit.
I could completely empathize with my students. I could see why students tell me that they literally never go to the cafeteria, because they have never once had a good meal. I could see why there are some students who fast from the moment they arrive at school to the moment they arrive at home (8 or 9 hours in the middle of the day). I could see all of this. And I could see the hunger my students feel on a daily basis. It is sad.
Many in the education world would agree that the responsibilities of a teacher go far beyond simply conveying content knowledge in the discipline that the teacher is trained in. Teachers should teach habits of mind that will enable a student to achieve lifelong success. Teachers should teach virtues and manners—character education as it were—that will help students more easily find and occupy an agreeable place in society. Teachers should teach students how to value opposing viewpoints and to respect the diversity of the human race. But one thing that teachers should do—and that I don’t see many doing—is teach students nutrition and good dietary habits.
To a certain degree, I am a hypocrite here. The only comestibles that I have dispensed to my students this year are candy. At a few points this year, I purchased big sacks of assorted candy from CostCo, which empowered me to shower Skittles on and launch Starbursts at my students all year. Whether used as contingent rewards or mood-boosters or even palliatives, candy has flowed freely from my fingertips on admittedly too many occasions.
But I was not always this sinful. During my (wonderful and memorable!) experience as a teacher at Institute, I instituted the somewhat common idea of creating, each day, a challenge question. The first student to correctly answer this question would receive a prize—and here’s the novel part—in the form of a fruit. You see, I love fruits. That summer, I loved fruits so much that I always had fruits to spare; each time I moved through the Temple University dining hall line, I craftily snagged surplus snack-fruits for later. Later I realized I could use them to great effect in my own classroom.
But the success of this method was in the way the challenge question was marketed and the way the prizes were delivered. The question was always posed as a seriously difficult one, and the answer was always meant to be perceived as something so far shrouded in the mists of the unknown that even the most unresponsive of students would shoot up his hand with an answer. I also called the prizes different things, using alliteration, based on the fruit of the day; students won “banana bonuses,” “plum prizes,” “apple awards,” “orange ovations,” and—arguably the most awkward alliteration—“nectarine nuggets.” Finally, to add a hint of unpredictability, I did not reveal the type of fruit until the very last possible moment. Trust me, they were always curious.
So, let’s walk through what sort of drama would unfold. First, there would be a moment of great excitement when I, out of the blue, posed my challenge of the day. Instantly, students would wave their hands up and down and side to side and psychically send “Me! Me! Me!” messages my way. Inevitably, someone would answer the challenge correctly (the questions were never really that difficult) and with a flash of my deft magician’s hands a student would find his or her palm open, with an apple or an orange or a nectarine perched upon it.
But here the student faced a funny fork in the road. Do I eat it or not? She had just been so wrapped up in the process of winning the challenge question that she didn’t realize that the prize itself was not the most agreeable one. She hates fruits. But, at these moments, with the eyes of the rest of the class zeroed in on that one student, there was no way that she could do anything less than take a bite out of the fruit. If she hadn’t, she would feel humiliated.
Indeed, these fruits were like apples from Eden that poisoned students in a positive way (is that an oxymoron?), ones that opened their minds to the idea that, hey, fruits don’t taste that bad!
Note to self: I need to revive this tradition in my classroom this fall.
When about 70% of DCPS students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals and when many of those eligible are dependent on these meals for daily sustenance, it is troublesome that the quality of the food is so poor. While serving 12,600 breakfasts and 27,500 lunches per day is no easy task, it is still the system’s duty to provide meals that are wholesome and appetizing.
If the cliché, “you are what you eat” holds true, and students eat crap every day, it’s no wonder that they struggle to achieve and find themselves making the wrong decisions in life. Indeed, you can’t think when you haven’t eaten well.