Notes From the Field: An Instructive Visit to My Kids’ Cafeteria

I blog about kids and food daily, especially school food, but I’m embarrassed to admit that last Friday was the first time in a long while that I’ve actually been in my own children’s school cafeteria during lunch.

I came that day especially to see the debut of the acorn squash that’s been much touted in my school district as one of the new menu improvements.  But when I got to the lunch room, my friend Cheryl (a dedicated monitor of what’s going on in our cafeteria) said that the promised squash wasn’t being served.  Sure enough, when I looked at kids’ trays I saw a depressingly beige/brown meal of fried fish (with a slice of cheese inserted under the fried coating — why?),  a roll (which did look like it contained some whole wheat flour), canned fruit cocktail, baked apples and a brownie.

But when I went to the serving line to ask about the whereabouts of the squash, I was told I was looking right at it — what Cheryl and I (and no doubt the kids) had mistaken for baked apples was in fact the new acorn squash.  No one in the serving line was telling the kids what it was, and there was no printed menu or sign to inform them.

The problem, of course, is that when you pick up your fork and expect to taste baked apples but get something else entirely, you’re likely to wonder what the heck is wrong with the apples.   And in fact, looking around, I saw tray after tray with barely touched (or entirely untouched) squash.

I’ve already gone on record in my Houston Chronicle editorial about the critical need for student education about any new foods that are added to the menu.  The acorn squash mix-up is a perfect demonstration of my point.  If a parent volunteer had stood up on the stage in our lunch room and explained what was on kids’ trays, and maybe even offered a little incentive like an “I Tried It!” sticker for taking a nibble, perhaps less squash would’ve ended up in the trash that day.

As for the actual flavor of the squash, I asked my daughter’s friend for a bite (which she was more than happy to provide since she refused to touch it) and was a bit taken aback.  It was sweet but lacking any hint of the promised cinnamon.  Worse, there was a decidedly greasy note going on – not butter, which would have been nice, but rather an off-putting (at least to me) oily flavor.  (But who knows if the kids would’ve had the same reaction.  Many of them loved their cheesy fried fish, which I found too gross to even look at.)

Reformers like Dr. Susan Rubin urge us to visit our lunchrooms often, to taste the food, to take pictures, and to talk to kids, because what we see printed on the school menu is often inaccurate or misleading.  Indeed, bloggers like Mrs. Q and Ed Bruske are doing that every single day in their own schools and their photos and descriptions are invaluable for showing us what’s really happening “on the ground.”

After Friday’s acorn squash experience, I plan on following their lead and becoming a semi-regular fixture in my kids’ lunchroom.   Stay tuned.

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