research: detroit school lunch

i was dreading the idea of going to eat school lunch.  my memories of school lunch are far from positive, and yet here i was volunteering to do research and go eat a school lunch.  by the time the day came to eat, i was wondering, who’s great idea was this any way?  oh that’s right it was mine.

i find myself in a situation helping to establish the school meal program at a school i’m serving on the board for, and what better way to research school meals, than having one?  i couldn’t come up with one and so around lunch this last week i found myself sitting at a table eating lunch with about eight high schools students.  this is my meal.

beforesome canned peaches, salad, buttermilk dressing, breadsticks stuffed with cheese and some pizza dipping sauce.  it wasn’t nearly so grim as i’d expected.  i dug in and my research partner julia started quizing the youth.

the youth certainly didn’t mence words – they were not pleased with their lunch, ranking the overall quality of the food they were reciveing as below adverage to what they had recived in other schools.  this meal ranked as an adverage below adverage meal (in other words it was bad)

many had spent time in suburban schools and ranked the meals at those locations much better.    they had a general disdane for most of the meal, but absolute hated for one item in particular –


the peas.  we could not find a single student that had even tried them let alone consume the usda recommended serving (which i got to admit seemed pretty big even to this pea lover).  my fellow researcher and i had arrived too late to be provided with a serving on our tray, but for testing purposes the students were more than willing to share theirs and watched in amusement as we consumed a spork full.

while i certainly wouldn’t call them the best peas in the world, my biggest complaint was that they were cold, on account of them sitting on a tray for the whole lunch period, and that they could use some salt or some sort of seasoning.  it wasn’t so much that they were bad, it was more that they weren’t good.

beetleaflooking closely into my salad i was able to find this beet green and bay romaine leaf, i choose to skip the dressing, as the shredded cheese provided more than enough flavor for me.  while certainly not gourmet, this wasn’t just a salad of iceburg lettuce (though it was dominated by it).  i proudly finished my plate, but looking around, it appeared that only my research assistant and i were nervous about not being granted entry to the clean plate club.


the students all remarked on the desire for choices, be that the ablity to choose what goes on your salad, or to be able to purchase snacks like cookies, and chips.  the school we were eating at didn’t allow snacks to be sold, trying to encougage the students to eat as high a quality diet as possible.  when asked what they would want, many said they wanted “real food”, it had to have meat, and they really wanted some french fries.  many said they ate healthy at home, but the food at school was not cooked properly or wasn’t seasoned properly (the technical term they used is “nasty”)

talking with teachers about the school meals – it was quite apparent that none of them were eating the school lunch.  that seems an obvious indicator of the quality of the meals – if they are not desirable for adults, why would they be desirable for students.  some of this comes back to some very paternalistic ideas – that people should be thankful for what they have.  the great majority of student eating school lunches in detroit get free or reduced lunch, and i think many policy makers, and those who elect them would argue that students should be thankful that they get anything.  even if we don’t believe that  good food is a basic human right (for the record i do), i think we all can agree that making sure that our next generation of leaders is well feed and well educated is an investment in our future.  just because students are coming from a low income community like detroit, and just because they are recieving free and reduced lunch doesn’t mean that they should be recivieing sub standard food.

much of this has to do with policy – the maximum rembursement that a school can recieve for a lunch program is 2.79 a meal – and that’s not just for the food ingredents, that’s the whole thing; cooking, packaging, transportation, labor etc.  you try doing better.

and this is the space that those working the school lunch program had to work. kitchenthey have a oven to warm things up, and a warmer to keep things warm.  that’s pretty much it, plus a sink a fridge and a freezer.

my fellow researcher and i both agreed that our meal was “sufficent” i didn’t feel my best afterwords – eating wheat and large amounts of cheese is not on my daily menu, but otherwise i didn’t think it was so bad.

while many of the concerns that the students expressed are legit and deserve attention, i think we in this country do little to develop our youths eating habits.  healthly eating habits are learned and take time.  when introducing a new vegetable it is recommended that you serve it at least 30 times in a three month span – changing the texture and presentation as often as possible.

how many of our hard working parents have time to cook that much, research methods of cooking, or even the patience to put up with all that rejection of their cooking?  but schools could be a great place to do this.

right now we view school lunch as a necessary evil, something we have to provide so our students are fed and able to learn, something that is mandated must happen.  it’s it time we realize that healthy eating could be one of the most important lessons we teach our youth.  many of the lessons i was taught have faded from my memory, having little use in my day to day world, but one thing i do everyday is eat.  can’t we use school lunch as a valuable time for teaching instead of just a time for filling of youth with nutrients?

going forth in trying to develop the food system for the school i’m working with, i realize just how difficult it will be to balance the ideals of the school, the requirements of the usda, the desires of the students, and the harsh reality of the small amounts of money available to pay for these lunchs.

despite the student disdain for their meal, i think the hard working folks at the detroit public schools lunch service are doing a good job, trying their damnedest in a very difficult situation.  i’m hoping that we are able to do as well, and a bit better.

special thanks to the students, teachers, cafeteria workers, and administration at catherine ferguson academy for allowing us to eat lunch, and answer so many of our questions.

if you are not familiar with cfa, it’s quite a remarkable school to pregnant and teen moms.  there was a movie made a few years ago about the school and the farm attached to it.  if you have not seen it you can check the trailer our here.


3 responses to “research: detroit school lunch

  1. Patrick that was a remarkable thing you did, and the story is powerful. Thanks for sharing! So many of us say we want to take action to address youth food culture, and you are leading the way.

  2. Thank you for this. It’s a much more complex problem, as you note, than just “give them good food and they’ll eat it!” For every hipster parent who brags about their kid eating sushi and kale there are probably five mothers like me, tearing their hair out over a kid who despite their best efforts refuses to eat anything green. If children don’t have access to fruits and vegetables young (and preferably pre-solid-food young, because breastfeeding can help form a good palate starting from birth) they will never develop a taste for them.So those token beet greens and canned peaches might not be so bad; having good foods even in less than ideal forms at every meal normalizes them, so when they are older and more adventurous maybe sauteed kale is something they will try because “meals include a vegetable and a fruit” was something they learned as schoolchildren, implicitly. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where we had a vegetable at every meal and dessert rarely, and for my friends who grew up with the opposite it’s been a struggle to develop healthy eating habits as adults. Throw in poverty and lack of access to decent food and school is where good habits have the best chance of being formed.

    I know you’re involved with what I think is the real solution–have a garden at every school and get kids involved in growing their own “real” food. I’ve seen my own kids devour a plant’s worth of grape tomatoes that they wouldn’t touch in the “from the store” version. The school lunch system is such a monolith and so hard to change for many reasons, but (literally) ground-up solutions do make a difference

  3. I don’t know enough about DPS’ food service — is everything prepared at a central facility and shipped out to the schools to be served, or is there ever anything prepared on site (at CFA or any other school)? Does CFA get to incorporate any of the produce from the farm into their meal choices in any meaningful way?

    As for the difficulty of getting kids to eat their vegetables … is this a universal phenomena? Or something we’ve manufactured in the first world and the west? My daughter’s interest in certain foods has oscillated wildly. (Then again, I go through my phases.) Variety, choices, and reasonable portions (with the option for a refill) seem to have helped encourage her to eat well. Not sure what that looks like at an institutional level. But maybe that is the crux of the problem: the institutionalization of eating, which, at it’s core, is a very intimate and small experience.

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