Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
I get Google Alerts about blog posts and articles that mention “school lunch,” and lately the emails have had lots of links to stories about how to pack a healthy midday meal. I’ve been getting alerts about everything from packable recipe ideas to the latest stylish lunch boxes. All of this reminds me that while more than 30 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program each year, another 20 million forgo cafeteria fare and bring lunch from home.
Many parents pack lunch for their children because they don’t consider chicken nuggets a healthy meal. I don’t either. But before you resolve to pack lunch for your child every day this year, think about this: one of the best ways to get better food into public school cafeterias is to put away the lunch box and become a loyal lunchroom customer.
I’ve blogged before about how cafeterias operate much like restaurants. Since their revenue comes from a mixture of federal per-meal reimbursements and student dollars, cafeteria directors need to bring students into the lunch line to stay afloat. They do that by offering the foods kids like — pizza, chicken nuggets, nachos and French fries. The hope is that students will look at the menu and say, “Mom, I want to buy lunch today because the entree is popcorn chicken.”
That means kids have a lot of power when it comes to determining what’s for lunch at school. But it also means that parents have a lot of power. After all, parents are the ones who supply the lunch money. If parents — and I’m talking big groups of parents — started using that power, cafeterias would probably be pretty receptive. If cafeterias had to cater to parents instead of kids, they probably wouldn’t serve popcorn chicken.