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.
A few months ago, Hester Dye received boxes of beautiful, plump blackberries from the USDA. She was delighted — the berries were as big as her thumb — and she hoped her students would enjoy eating them for lunch.
But the kids in Jonesboro Public Schools, where Dye directs the school lunch program, didn’t touch the berries. Determined not to let the fruit go to waste, Dye and her staff made a blackberry cobbler. Still, half of it ended up in the trash. “They didn’t know what it was,” Dye said. “They weren’t familiar with it.”
Students’ familiarity with certain foods has always driven Dye’s menu. When she started working in the Jonesboro cafeteria 37 years ago, students ate home-cooked meals with their families, and that’s what they expected for lunch at school. Dye served soup, lasagna and meatloaf, because that’s what students were used to. Today, Dye serves students who have grown up with heat-and-serve entrees and fast food, and her lunch offerings have changed to accommodate their tastes.
“We’ve taken all the lasagna and meatloaf off the menu because the kids don’t know what that stuff is anymore,” Dye said. “They won’t eat it.”
Instead, Dye offers the items they will eat. Her menu runs heavy on mini corndogs, chicken nuggets and stuffed-crust pizza — the foods students are familiar with from restaurants and TV commercials.