City Journal published my article on school lunch recently, “If you serve it, will they eat it?” The gist is this: a number of districts are doing some fascinating things to upgrade school lunches. This is partly in response to changing federal standards, but also in response to the foodie culture that’s taking over chunks of the food industry in general. If people who think about food are increasingly into buying local, and working with “whole foods,” then school nutrition directors — who also think a lot about food — are going to be influenced by the same impulses. So you’re starting to see salad bars, better presentation, taste-tests for new veggies, and ethnic dishes. A lot of food is still kid-friendly, but it’s healthier versions of kid-friendly. So pizza has whole grain crust, etc.
Of course, all this runs into the issue of human nature. Kids are human beings, much like adult humans. Adult humans behave in funny ways around food. We often claim to want healthy food, but then don’t buy it in practice. McDonalds has confessed to shareholders that salads account for about 2-3 percent of sales. People want to see salads there, but then they don’t buy them. Likewise, people feel good about going to Subway — pitched as a healthy fast-food alternative — but then once inside, they buy sandwiches with fatty meats and mayonnaise, and indulge in chips and non-diet soda as a reward for going to such a healthy restaurant. After the stricter federal nutrition standards went into effect in schools, the number of paid daily lunches dropped precipitously. Many families who had a choice decided that if schools were going to make you eat dark green vegetables, hummus, and whole grains, they were going to send the kids with bologna sandwiches and fruit roll-ups from home instead.
In other words, the usual story — that parents want healthy meals, and schools are resisting — has it close to backwards. All this would be kind of funny, except that school meals aren’t exactly reimbursed at a generous rate, meaning that margins require volume. If fewer kids buy lunches, it is that much harder to make the economics work.
My soon-to-be second grader elected to buy lunch all last year. The school’s options seemed better to him than a bagel with cream cheese sent from home (since a PB&J sandwich is no longer kosher many places). He had more variety, and while I can see from the logs that he bought himself dessert, too, I would have sent cookies or gummies from home, so I can’t exactly complain about that. I told him that if I found he was purchasing multiple bits of junk daily, we’d start sending lunch, and so far that seems to have kept him in line.
As I’ve been writing about school lunch, I’ve been struck by some proclamations from people that they would “never” let their kids buy. I wonder if some of this is holdover from people’s memories of the tater tots of yore, or also that in the Pinterest era, lunch box fare has become something of a competitive art form. In any case, even if people usually bring lunch from home, buying once a week seems like a good way to save a bit of packing time and introduce a bit more variety.
Do your kids buy lunch or bring it? Why?
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