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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.

Ever wonder what the Obama daughters eat for school lunch? It’s a far cry from the packaged burritos and the slices of frozen pizza served in most public school cafeterias. Students at Sidwell Friends eat lemon herb baked chicken, tuscan white bean soup, local arugula and herb salad and shrimp creole. One of the favorite entrees across the board is pesto pasta with grilled chicken and vegetables.

I’ve been trying to understand for a while why that menu is so strikingly different from the ones in public schools across the country. Is it because Sidwell is a private school? Is it because the
meal program there has a bigger budget? Is it because Sasha, Malia and other students at Sidwell come from families that prioritize good food and pay attention to health?

I had an opportunity last week to talk to Leslie Phillips, the director of business development for Meriwhether Godsey, which runs school lunch at Sidwell and 36 other schools on the East coast. The answer, she said, is none of those. “It’s not public versus private,” Phillips told me. “It’s all-inclusive versus getting kids to buy.”

In many — but not all — private schools, school lunch is mandatory (or, as Phillips likes to say, “all-inclusive.”) All students pay for meals upfront as part of their tuition, and they’re covered for the year. In these schools, the menu is “in the hands of the adults,” Phillips said. Of course, they take into account what kids like to eat and strive to offer a variety of foods. But if they don’t want to sell chips or French fries, they don’t have to.