Do you remember school lunches as a kid? There were days you really wanted to eat the cafeteria option (chili and cinnamon rolls…mmmm) and days you definitely wanted to avoid (“meat” loaf…yech!) It was hit-or-miss most of the other days, but we were always fed and cared for by our wonderful lunch ladies.
When my youngest started full-day school–finally–I went in search of a part-time job to keep me busy. I mean, one can only clean the house and go shopping so much, right? But it had to be a job that I could do without hiring a sitter, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth the money I’d make. So I sent an application in to our school district to become a Lunch Lady.
Despite the rash of sh** my own kids give me, I really, REALLY love my job. I love being able to work while my kids are at school, and have the same days off with them. It’s nice to have a bit of extra pocket money, too. I enjoy seeing the kids at my school, and knowing that I’m providing not just food but also a smile, a laugh, or a hug to every single kid that comes through my line. We lunch ladies get a bad rap for being mean, crotchety, horrible cooks, with hairy moles and ugly hairnets. But I am here to tell you that’s just not the truth! Here’s 10 things we really wish you knew about us, and about school lunches:
1. Our food is actually pretty good.
I know. I eat it on my shift, almost every day. The nutritionists and dieticians who work at the district levels work tirelessly to create appealing menus, and we taste-test each new menu item with real kids. Every day we offer at least one fruit and several vegetables, including freshly tossed green salads. Some of our dips and dressings are even made from scratch each morning!
2. It’s rather healthy, too!
You might glance at your kid’s menu and see pizza and chicken fingers. But I see whole-grain pizza crust with real cheese, and juicy chicken breast pieces baked in whole-grain breading. There are healthier ways to make popular, kid-friendly foods! Every lunch is required to have at least one fruit or veggie serving, and kids are welcome to take more. Even the ala carte snack items offered by some schools are required to meet minimum requirements. Yes, we sell Cheetos, but they are a whole-grain, reduced sodium version available only to schools.
3. If you really want to know your kid, come to lunch with them.
Lunch time is the only time of day that many kids, especially in middle and high school, get to socialize with their friends. Joining your child in the cafeteria is a great way to get a pulse on who they’re hanging out with, what they talk about, and who they are when they’re not with you. We’re happy to serve you a lunch, too!
4. We’d never let a kid go hungry, but…
We’re bound by a lot of rules. We don’t try to make your or your kid’s life hard, but the truth is the rules are in place to make the school lunch system work for everyone. If we are caught breaking the rules, it means big trouble with the Department of Education. Sometimes, we run out of popular lunch choices before your kid gets to the cafeteria. We try our best to serve them something they’ll like. Sometimes, parents forget to send money or kids over-spend on snacks, and they don’t have enough for lunch. When that happens we’re allowed to let them charge a set number of lunches, we call home to notify parents of the negative balance, and after that we can’t give them any more entrees. But we can and do load up their trays with rolls, milk, fruits, veggies, and salad so they don’t go hungry.
5. The new menu requirements aren’t to blame for gross lunches.
Those pictures of “disgusting” school lunches? Yeah, have you ever taken a picture of enchilada casserole that didn’t look like a pile of mush? Sorry, but we don’t have the budget to keep a professional food stylist on our payroll. The Federal standards don’t tell us what to serve, they just tell us the nutritional requirements it has to meet. It’s up to each district to choose yummy, kid-approved foods that meet those requirements. So if you don’t like the looks of your kid’s lunch tray, take it up with the district not the FLOTUS. And there’s often a big difference between what kids are offered and what they choose to take. We can offer a rainbow of fresh fruits and veggies, but if they choose canned pears every day that’s on them.
6. School lunches benefit more than just the kids.
One of the biggest criticisms against school lunch is the amount of waste. In order to ensure that we have enough to serve every kid, we do have to prepare extra food. Since we can’t re-serve that food the next day, and we aren’t allowed to take it home (oh how I wish…especially on lasagna day!), we freeze our leftover cooked entrees and the local food bank comes to pick it up. We’re helping to solve hunger in our communities, one lasagna pan at a time.
7. We work hard to serve quality food.
We’re very picky. We inspect every cucumber, every grape…and if it doesn’t look fresh and appetizing, we don’t serve it. We wash our hands and change gloves dozens of times each day. We take temperatures of all hot and cold items multiple times throughout the cooking and serving stages, to make certain that everything served is safe and tasty. We would never serve anything to your kid that we wouldn’t serve to our own.
8. Our kitchen floors are cleaner than yours.
Wash, rinse, and sanitize. Every surface, every day, mutiple times per day. Does that happen in your home kitchen?
9. Fill out the Free Lunch application–please!
You’d probably be surprised at the income limits set for free and reduced lunch. I’ll bet they’re higher than you think. Even if you are pretty sure you won’t qualify, and even if your kid never gets a school lunch, I beg you to fill out those forms. The Free and Reduced lunch program is the primary way that low-income schools are identified, which entitles them to grant money and special programs that benefit ALL kids.
10. THIS lunch lady doesn’t exist:
Nor does this one:
Or these gals:
We’re mostly a bunch of moms and grandmas, (a few guys, too!) who live to feed your kids’ minds and tummies with a smile. So as the new school year begins, take a day to experience lunch with your kid and thank their lunch ladies (believe me, we don’t hear “thank you” enough). And please fill out those danged Free and Reduced forms!
disclaimer: I’m a real, live lunch lady in an actual school district, somewhere in suburban Denver. I really do love my job, and I really do eat our school lunches.