Posted on November 24th, 2012
Season one episode 6 of ” The Adventures of Pete and Pete” opens with Big Pete saying, more or less, “By the time you are fourteen years old you will have eaten over 14,000 meals and if you look back at all of your favorites not one of them began with a tray.” He was of course referring to school lunch. As he and his friend Teddy go through the lunch line and decide between the gray and uniform meatloaf – one of the various disguises given to mystery meat by the aging, hideous, underarm jiggling lunch ladies – and the previously-frozen fish-sticks, it becomes clear that Teddy in fact loves school lunch and Pete does not. Pete’s skepticism is vaguely confirmed when the one young attractive lunch lady Emma leans over and whispers to him to get the fish-sticks, and is promptly threatened with a spatula beating by one of the veterans. When they get to the dessert station and see plastic cups filled with red and green quivering masses, Pete says, “It’s like they’re not even trying,” while Teddy takes one of each exclaiming that red and green are his two favorite flavors.
When they return to their tables with what Pete calls “Trayload”, we get a glimpse of the other students’ lunches. The two boys have trays with plates full of crinkle-cut french fries and the girls have brown bag lunches containing sandwiches with the crusts cut off. All of them have the ubiquitous cardboard square half-pint container of milk, including whole milk. This episode aired nearly twenty years and two sets of federal regulations ago; I was still on the receiving end of trayload. It was a time when anyone who wasn’t creating or eating it paid little attention to school lunch.
I am now a school lunch professional, to put it in basic terms, and these days it seems everyone from the elementary school music teacher to Jamie Oliver to the First Lady have opinions on school lunch, for better and for worse. The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed by Congress last year went into effect this year and I can tell you that jello and whole milk have gone, to quote Miss Fingerwood from season two episode eight, “the way of a unified USSR.” Healthy Food Certification and the Healthy U.S. Schools Challenge each provide strict rules about all food available to students that go well beyond just what constitutes a federally defined lunch. The regulations are myriad and the resources slim.
All obstacles and challenges aside, I can say that school lunch has come a long way from Pete’s dreaded trayload. The variety goes far beyond chicken nuggets and fish-sticks: students in some schools have over fifteen entree options to choose from every day. School lunch doesn’t have to be some slop created by a hairnet-and-orthopedic-shoe-donning brute named Bertha, but it does still have to utilize various government commodities. In fact, more and more frequently some very talented chefs work hard to produce delicious and beautiful meals to fit very specific regulations that will be served off of an industrial food service line and put onto a compartmentalized tray. That is a labor of love, which frequently goes unrequited.
While every school has a few Teddys, many students will scoff at school lunch no matter how well-prepared or nicely presented it is. Kids are kids; always have been and always will be. Lunch for them is more about free time to socialize and less about eating–school lunch is a universal adversary. Even the students who eat school lunch daily by choice and not out of necessity find something to gripe about; it’s the group mentality and lunch complaints that give them common ground. They can all collectively pick on it like a bully does a dweeb and no one gets hurt or in trouble. It is clear in “Pete & Pete” that he is dissatisfied with the quality of the meal, but I think today’s students make a ruckus about a lack of familiarity with what is offered. Students are being exposed to a wider variety of foods, especially vegetables, under the guidelines of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. Luckily the group mentality that can harbor dissent can also be instrumental in reversing their apparent displeasure: when an unfamiliar item is introduced to students, often several students in a row will try it once one of their friends takes it without grimacing.
In the first episode I mentioned, the young lunch lady Emma takes off her hairnet and escapes in her leather jacket (did I mention she was played by Juliana Hatfield?), promising to meet Pete in Iowa.
In today’s schools it is just the opposite as a new generation of school lunch providers stay put to slowly assume the responsibility of feeding students. The trade-winds have shifted and school lunch is about nutrition, healthy students, AND good food. We aim to overcome all the preconceived notions and collective memories – accurate or not – about school lunch. Our goal is to entice the students to eat healthful foods by making them delicious; at least enough so that they pay any attention at all to what they are eating in spite of being much more focused on socializing. Our ultimate ambition is to influence their lifelong eating habits in favor of fruits, vegetables and whole grains regardless of what foods they are regularly exposed to outside of school. It may seem like we are tilting at windmills, but I don’t think our efforts are entirely in vain, because students are not above a particular brand of hypocrisy. Maybe no one’s favorite meal will ever start with a tray, but it sees to me no matter how awful they claim the lunch to be, they manage to do all of their grousing in between bites–leaving trays that once held a low fat whole grain entree, a fruit of their choice, some carrot sticks and a ubiquitous carton of chocolate skim milk, empty.