How School Lunches Exemplify the Issue of Ed Reform

How School Lunches Exemplify the Issue of Ed Reform


I can remember the menus in mimeographed blue Courier font as if it were yesterday -- Tuesday: Sloppy Joes, Baked Beans, Fruit Cup, Milk. The food itself -- object of ridicule, bane for some, sustenance for others -- makes me think how the school lunch mirrors the issues related to current educational reform.

Consider the pastiche of influences which comprise the school lunch: long-established sweetheart arrangements between the government and the private sector (in this case agribusiness, particularly the meat and dairy industries); a government-imposed set of nutrition standards (imagine the uproar if "reformers" tried to impose a standardized testing regime to measure attainment of those standards!); the need to minimize expense as much as possible; the school as sole or major source of nutrition for millions of students; concerned parents with a usually muted voice; schoolchildren who are no longer seen as just nutritional recipients, but no one is quite sure how to balance their needs and wishes (I wonder how often anyone has bothered to ask them so far? Not that they have the answers either, but shouldn't they at least be in on the discussion?)

The perceived quality of school lunches depends to a large extent on your socioeconomic status and degree of investment in education. Many parents see school lunches as a vast wasteland of nutritional mediocrity. Invested parents often pack their kids' lunches; some of them are more nutritious, some of them not. A kids' homemade school lunch is, in fact, a complex product of parental control, child preferences, parental surrender, advertising influences, peer influences, individual food intolerances, and sometimes heated negotiations, the result being a highly variable and ever-changing nutritional package. (Trust me -- I've made thousands of them!)

The result: school lunches are commonly seen as nutritional mediocrity in practice. When I was a kid it was One Menu Fits All; apparently schoolkids often have choices now, but some parents object to this as undermining the goal of a "balanced meal." To what extent are busy parents outsourcing their children's nutrition to their schools - the way they've outsourced various other responsibilities to schools, some say for several decades? (“It’s your job to teach my child good manners, not to bully, and how to clean up their mess, not mine.”)

At the same time, it is safe to say that the US's National School Lunch Program fills an essential need, perhaps is even a life saver in some cases, given that it served over 3 billion free or reduced-priced lunches to almost 20 million students in 2009. From this perspective, I find myself wondering if parents of disadvantaged kids, and perhaps a lot of big city school leaders, see the current push for standardized testing and "uniformly high standards" in the same way -- as the only path for disadvantaged children to have any chance at all at a decent education. Never mind that others might perceive it as mediocre quality; it's better than the alternative, which is nothing. I still think it's a bad idea, but maybe it's a more understandable one in that context.

Like education itself, the school lunch program is a cultural bridge between society and its members, and a vital connection with its more disaffected ones. Not to mention the school breakfast, which in Philadelphia now exemplifies even more richly the complexity of the issue. In Philly, school principals are being held accountable for students' reading scores, math scores -- and school breakfast consumption -- report cards and all. Advocates point to the huge number of Philly schoolchildren who were not getting school breakfasts (over 100K, or about 2/3 of the eligible population); detractors pointed out that some of the kids may have been getting breakfast at home. The Pennsylvania Department of Education removed one of the barriers to this plan by allowing classroom breakfast, if served in the presence of a teacher, to be counted as instructional time. Brilliant? Scandalously outrageous? IMO it's simply...complex. It may not be the best solution, but at least it recognizes the importance of child nutrition, which is more than we can say for the formulas which evaluate teachers based on student standardized test scores.

The one big difference between school lunches and school reform: although Philadelphia decided to hold principals accountable for administration of school breakfasts, no one has yet figured out how to blame teachers for any deficiencies in school lunches. (Though I Googled it just to make sure...)

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