Lessons in lunching – for students and staff

When I was a high school student, breakfast in the cafeteria consisted of a Danish or crumb coffee cake sealed in cellophane and a foil-lidded plastic half-cup of orange juice. Hot lunch was served out of steam table trays. Whether spaghetti, stew, or vegetables, the food was flavorless and swimming in liquid.

These meals were consumed while perched on a wooden disk stool, which was attached by a sturdy arm to the iron frame of a long narrow table, one of many that sat row upon row in a large, loud, sticky-floored room.

I was fortunate there was food to be had. Quality school lunch is a first world problem. But in an America that is among the richest countries in the world, it seems to me we could do better by our children.

I imagine a school lunch comprised of fresh foods, locally sourced, some grown just outside classroom windows. I imagine students experimenting with the creation of salad dressings because they are excited about the lettuce, carrots, radishes, and kale they grow. It is not necessarily bad to eat strawberries in winter, but there is an environmental and economic cost to doing so that is worthy of consideration. I imagine students understanding what is on their plate and how the food arrived there.

School lunch can be a wonderful social and eating experience. I imagine students in classrooms dining family style in mixed-age groups, able to taste unfamiliar dishes and relishing familiar foods, such as peanut butter made with one ingredient.

When I became head of a small Quaker school I was brim full of enthusiasm and naïveté. We hired a young woman we were excited to call our “chef.” We purchased food from a farm cooperative in Lancaster County. We sold lunches three days a week. We established twice-weekly “community lunches” that were free to all students and staff.

The science teacher took on the curricular connection with gusto. She taught about the perils of bacteria and the benefits of pickling. Then, just as students grew comfortable with this process and content, she taught students to cultivate bacteria in the fermentation of milk to make yogurt. The synergy was dazzling and consuming their own pickles and yogurt as part of school lunch gave potency and meaning to students’ learning.

Kindergartners attempting to remove the skins of tomatoes verged on comical, until the chef taught them about blanching tomatoes. After which, even 5-year-olds had no trouble skinning tomatoes and making tomato sauce to be frozen and consumed in February, when there were no more tomatoes in the garden to be had.

Students were often surprised to learn that school lunch items such as pasta, cheese, and ketchup could be made from familiar whole foods in the kitchen.

Alas, that old chestnut about there being “no such thing as a free lunch” reared up and bit me. It turned out that the cost of our school lunch program was not sustainable. I struggled with the chef and business manager to find a way to preserve the program in some form.

The best we could do was to concede that quality school lunch was insufficiently profitable for us to produce in-house. To earn her living, our chef would have to have more clients, but did not want to become a caterer. We lost our school lunch program.

Parents, students, and staff were all disappointed. We agreed that it would be better for families to send lunch for their individual children rather than settle for a diminished quality lunch provided at school. It was a parent at an Earth Day street fair booth who came upon a caterer willing to join with us in the attempt to provide quality school lunch.

We reengaged in the effort with a partner who is not solely dependent on school-lunch sales for revenue. The meals are scrumptious, eco-friendly, and curricula-connected. Since the start of the year menu options have increased. Initially, parents were required to buy a month of lunches, but now they can be purchased individually. At $5.95 to $6.25 each, the lunches are a bit more expensive than we would like. If we can sell more, though, we believe we can bring the price down a bit.

Small schools can be nimble, innovative, and hands-on – a wonderful crucible for redressing the challenge of quality school lunch. However, my story ends in the middle. The goal is to develop a business model for quality school lunch that is transferable and we aren’t there yet.

I imagine children nationwide and then worldwide, eating in a variety of settings, and integrating an appreciation for the food they eat into an understanding of how the world works – ecologically, socially, and politically.

Unlike my own experience, I look forward to the reflections of today’s students upon meals taken at school as food pulled from the ground, washed, and prepared in tasty ways, and served in comfortable spaces, all in the company of friends.

Michael Zimmerman is head of Friends School Haverford

Philadelphia Inquirer
Lessons in Lunching – for Students and Staff