Making the most out of National School Lunch Week

Published 2:59 pm Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Attending school in the 1960’s and 70’s, bringing your lunch was the uncool thing for a student to do. It was far better to have a lunch made by the cafeteria ladies where one day it could be a hamburger and french fries dripping with grease, with loads of ketchup and mayonnaise piled on; or a slice of pizza heaped high with mozzarella cheese; or chicken and mashed potatoes, soaking in calorie-laden brown gravy. Not to mention the array of desserts we could top that high calorie meal with from the sugary and warm chocolate chip cookies to the fat-drenched ice cream and blueberry pies.

Bringing into that social pandemonium a brown paper bag with a few — and by lunchtime — stale and crumbled chips, along with a soggy peanut butter and jelly or boring bologna sandwich, all tucked next to a warm soda can was not something most students wanted to do.

Unfortunately, those kind of carbohydrate-packed, high calorie, fat-filled eating habits are now known to not be the healthy and nutritious meals growing children need. Thus, the school lunch has evolved over the years into a nutritional meal thanks to federal mandates and guidelines.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

And while those guidelines require the school cafeteria crew to follow specific recipes and serve specific portions to ensure that each student receives the proper nutrition for the day as well as the allotted number of calories someone their age should be consuming, it has also had the reverse affect on the concept of the school lunch — now buying lunch is considered ‘uncool’ and many students would rather bring a lunch than buy, controlling the quantity and the quality (and not always nutritional) of what they eat.

“Kids eat with their eyes and because of the portion disproportion we have in the South, and the super sizes and bigger super sizes and huge portions they are exposed to everyday, the kids don’t think we are serving them enough,” explained Pearl River Central School Food Service Director Sheila Amacker. “And sometimes they see cafeteria food as not as appealing.”

That, she said, combined with the need many of today’s youths have developed for food that “tastes good,” — something that in their minds would happen with more salt, or mayonnaise, or sugar, all ingredients that while they may add taste, have zero nutritional value — many students opt to pack a lunch rather than buy.

Enter National School Lunch Week, a federal program held each October to raise awareness of the nutritional value of a school-made lunch and to encourage more students and families to take advantage of the opportunity. “It is a big thing,” explained Amacker. “Each year we do something different to try and encourage participation.”

Like, for instance she said, one year the cafeteria ladies had a hat contest and each lunchroom lady personally designed a hat. “They paid for all the materials themselves,” said Amacker, noting that some were quite ingenious and creative, adopting food themes, for example vegetables, or juices, or whole grains. Then, each child who passed through the lunch line would have the opportunity to vote on the hat they liked best. “The kids would see the workers with the hats and vote,” said Amacker.

Another year, the cafeteria crew adopted an Old West theme, with the cafeteria ladies dressing like cowboys and cowgirls, Native Americans and ranch hands, and for lunch served barbecue and beans. Another time they had a backwards day, serving a breakfast for lunch, complete with grits. “Normally the theme is derived from the national program,” continued Amacker. “We want to encourage participation. We would like for the kids who bring a bag lunch to school to try the school lunch.”

Noting that many students have the thought in their mind that lunch from the cafeteria is terrible, she said that it is often not easy to get them to even try. “Some do not even want to try for whether they feel uncomfortable or they like toting their own special little lunch box,” she said. “Sometimes they think cafeteria food is not as good.”

This year, she said, PRCSD decided not to alter the lunch schedule, instead opted for a program which encouraged student participation. For example, she explained, at the upper and lower elementary schools and at Pearl River Central Center for Alternative Education — the former St. Michael’s Academy campus — students who pass through the lunch line have the chance to win small token gifts, such as stickers, pencils, and erasers. “We use to be able to give them a little bag of candy, but the (federally mandated) guidelines won’t let us do that any more,” said Amacker.

She explained that one individual tray from each classroom will have a hidden sticker on it and the lucky student with that tray wins. “That means that every day there will be 75 winners — one from each classroom,” continued Amacker. “If we can only get one student who was bringing their lunch to switch to the school lunch, that would be great.”

Pointing out that many students bringing their own lunches would actually qualify for the free or reduced breakfast and lunch program, Amacker said that if the students were utilizing the school meals, parents could be confident their child was receiving the best nutritional care.

As for the stigma some people may associate with the reduced and free breakfast and lunch program, Amacker said, the federal guidelines required “overt identification” preventing classmates, teachers, or administration from knowing who is on the program and who is not. “Each student has a lunch card and it acts like a debit card,” explained Amacker. “So no one knows if you paid in advance or have a free lunch.”

Continuing, Amacker said she encouraged parents to use the pay in advance option, pointing out that when a student pays on a daily basis, the process can slow the lunch line, thus giving the students less time to actually eat their meals. PRC schools have a half hour lunch — Federal law only requires a 25-minute lunch break. “Some parents are concerned their kids don’t have enough time to eat, but if they pay in advance, that would speed things up,” said Amacker. The 31 school district cafeteria employees fix and serve lunch to 2350 students.

In addition, she said, students would also benefit by taking advantage of the breakfast program, adding that number was up this year by 75 for a total of approximately 950 students. “Kids need a good breakfast, they can’t focus if they are hungry,” said Amacker. And one of the ways to reach more students, she continued, was the cafeteria crew came up with an innovative idea involving the upper grade levels — if the students won’t come to you, go to them.

“As you know, to students, the cafeteria is not the coolest place,” explained Amacker. “Kids don’t want to seen in the cafeteria — the courtyard is the place to hang out and talk to friends — so we brought the breakfast to them.”

Using coolers and pre-packaged biscuits, breakfast sandwiches, and juices, Amacker and the lunch program secretary, Shelly Penton, serve the breakfast in the courtyard each morning to the high school students. “We picked up about another 75 students — I’m proud of that,” she said.

Continuing, Amacker concluded, “We nourish the body so their teachers can nourish the mind.”