School Lunch: Now It’s Personal

September 08, 2010

by Mark Bishop, HSC deputy director

Big changes are taking place in my household this week: my son is starting pre-K! We made the decision about which school he’d attend months ago, but now another decision looms: my wife and I now have to decide if he will bring a lunch from home or eat the standard school lunch.

What to do, what to do.

At first, I has assumed that the school lunch option wouldn’t be available for the pre-K kids and I’d have no choice but to pack lunches for Henry. I’d go out and purchase a bento box, get creative, and start visiting Weelicious even more frequently than I already do for lunch ideas. However, last week we learned that 4-year-olds in pre-K at Henry’s school do go through the lunch line.

We were comforted to learn that the kids his age get to use the cafeteria before the bigger kids get there, but we don’t yet know many other details such as how much choice he will have or how in the heck he’s going to carry his lunch tray back to his classroom where the little kids dine. (He has a hard enough time wandering around the house with a cup of dry cereal without most of it ending up on the floor!)

Professionally, we’ve been working with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for years, and this year brought a major milestone in that work: CPS adopted new nutrition guidelines for school food. The meals meet the Gold standard of the HealthierUS School Challenge and move the district closer to meeting the Institute of Medicine standards. This means more produce, more whole grains, and other healthy changes. CPS is increasing the purchases of regional fruits and vegetables. They are eliminating sugary cereal for breakfast and got rid of the infamous breakfast donut. They’ve been conducting training for food service staff so they are ready to prepare fresh food and veggies! They are even expanding salad bars throughout the system.

I’ve tasted samples from the new menus on several occasions over the past few months. In every case, the meals were really good. Good enough that I’d be happy for my son to eat them daily. (I’d be happy to eat them daily myself.) But we all know that there is a difference between preparing a meal for 50-100 people and serving a meal to a school full of students. CPS has more than 400,000 students and serves more than 60 million meals per year. Is the food going to be what we want it to be, what I want it to be?

Suddenly, school lunch is no longer just a professional passion: now it’s personal.

Of course we’ve been mulling over the pros and cons. On one hand, packing a lunch would mean that I get to control what food is put in front of Henry for lunch (though I still wouldn’t control what he actually eats). I love to cook, especially for Henry, and I have to say that I’m excited about the prospect of filling a little bento box with healthy food every day! I don’t know exactly what the school food would look like. And I don’t want Henry to have the option of chocolate milk every day.

And on the other hand, I really believe that the food will be good. Ideologically, I want to participate in the school lunch program. I believe that participating is part of making positive change. To be a good member of my school wellness team, I should experience the program and let Henry experience it as well.

After talking through these (and plenty of other) pros and cons, we’ve decided to participate in the school lunch program. Participating is important to me. And my gut is that the school lunches will be significantly better this year.

I’m excited to visit the school and check on Henry during lunch time. I want to see what he’s eating and what he’s not eating, what he and his classmates like and what they leave on the tray.

Professionally, I’ve seen the new nutrition standards and tried samples of the food; now I’m looking forward to seeing the new menus in action where they really matter: on lunch trays in front of kids.

I know this will give me a new perspective on the issue: as we think of kids across the city and across the country in our work to improve school food, I’ll be thinking of my own child at lunch time as well.