Posted on Fri, May 29, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
11 Comments | Categories: Labeling, News, Current Events, Policy, School Food,
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, didnt 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 didnt know what it was, Dye said. They werent familiar with it.
Students familiarity with certain foods has always driven Dyes menu. When she started working in the Jonesboro cafeteria 37 years ago, students ate home-cooked meals with their families, and thats what they expected for lunch at school. Dye served soup, lasagna and meatloaf, because thats 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.
Weve taken all the lasagna and meatloaf off the menu because the kids dont know what that stuff is anymore, Dye said. They wont 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.
It seems like Dye has a captive audience, as every one of her students receives a free lunch. Most meal programs depend on paying students for a large chunk of their revenue, so they have to craft menus that will convince kids to bring lunch money instead of brown-bagging it. That often means embracing the fast-food fare kids like. With all of her students entitled to free meals, it sounds like it would be easier for Dye to offer foods that encourage good eating habits.
But Dye says her students wont eat foods theyre not used to, even if theyre free. If she were to offer an unfamiliar entrée, she would probably serve 10 percent fewer meals. And since her revenue comes
from federal per-meal reimbursements, she needs to serve as many meals as she can. That would not be good for the budget, she said. Our livelihood depends on those per-meal reimbursements.
So even though it doesnt encourage healthy eating habits, fast-food fare dominates Dyes menu. Entrees this month included cheeseburgers, hotdogs and chicken strips. French fries and batter bite fries made an appearance about once a week.
I dont think its good to give them pizza every day, Dye said. But thats what they want. Weve got to get them to come in and eat because otherwise we dont get the money.
Dye could offer all the healthy, home-style items she wants. But just like the blackberries, the unfamiliar items wouldnt end up on students trays. Faced with a tight budget and kids raised on fast
food, shes better off sticking to pizza and chicken nuggets.