Cafeteria conundrum

School lunches have come a long way, so why are so many of us still reluctant to have our kids eat them?

September 06, 2011|By Rob Levine

My daughter Arielle had her first day of kindergarten last week. Parents were invited to stay in the classroom through circle time. As I sat cross-legged next to my wife on our portion of the magic circle, I listened to morning announcements with a renewed sense of interest — not as a parent, but as a food marketer.

I have spent a good portion of the past 13 years working with manufacturers to sell food and beverage products into school lunch programs. And while I'm well versed in federal and state guidelines, including "bread equivalents," whole grain requirements, commodity programs and menu cycles, I have not looked at school lunch from the vantage point of the gatekeeper audience: parents.

For the first day of school, Thunder Hill Elementary offered popcorn chicken with a whole grain roll and veggie pizza as a meatless alternative. I had to chuckle. I could easily guess the manufacturer of each of those items. I knew that they were good, high-quality products. Why then, as a "back-of-house insider," did we send Arielle to school with an insulated L.L. Bean lunchbox filled with her favorite lunch and snack, rather than having her purchase a fresh meal in the cafeteria?

When we filled out the litany of forms that kick off the school year, we were offered the opportunity to prepay for a full year of lunch for less than $500. On paper, it isn't a bad deal: less than $3 per day, plus we would never have to think about what to pack again. Also, we would have the comfort of knowing that if Arielle eats on the full-week menu cycle, she will be meeting carefully calculated government requirements from a health and wellness perspective.

Nevertheless, we declined. The 8.5-by-11-inch, folded program pamphlet that they provided us was dry and boring, quoted U.S. Department of Agriculture guidance, and used terminology foreign to people not well versed in school food service. Plus, we had our own experiences to overcome. As a child, I only bought lunch on attractive, themed days — Breakfast for Lunch, Taco Tuesday, Pizza Friday. My wife and I laughed over some of the more memorable lunches, such as green hot dogs on St. Patrick's Day, an attempt at Chinese food, and the much-derided Meatloaf Monday.

Sadly, there was also an unfortunate stigma attached to school lunch, particularly if you had a "lunch ticket," which meant that either your parents prepaid for the week, or — more likely — you were on a subsidized free and reduced lunch program.

Even though we knew better and would benefit from the convenience of a lunch program, we were reluctant to force Arielle into a program that we avoided as children and that on the surface did not look all that good. It felt like the equivalent of bringing yourself to patronize that "hole in the wall" restaurant that's supposed to have great food. It is a little bit scary at first, and it feels better if you have heard good things from a few trusted sources.

Most of her friends brown bag, and she has a few favorite things that, with some negotiation, are relatively easy to assemble each night. And although we did not opt in for the full year, we have no doubt that, like her dad, she will choose to participate on a per-diem basis on some of the theme days.

Each year, our agency is asked by clients to provide an overview of school food service. And each year, participation is a key concern of K-12 school food service directors. Government funding of free and reduced lunch is tied to total student participation in the program. In effect, the district and underprivileged children benefit from the participation of students who pay full price for school lunch.

And yet, there is an entire segment of dual-income, professional, middle- and upper-class parents who could benefit from the ease and value of a school lunch program but choose to brown bag all or most of the time. The question that the districts have to ask is: Have they made the program attractive to this segment? Have they positioned it as a viable alternative that they can feel good about? Have they helped them to understand that the programs have evolved since our elementary school days in the 1980s?

My sense is that if some type of effort were put into packaging, positioning and promoting their offerings, the program would receive greater consideration from — well, from people like me. This may include humanizing the program and giving it context. School lunch professionals are among the most dedicated and compassionate food professionals I have met. Most are registered dietitians with post-secondary degrees. Simply knowing that the people making menu decisions are caring and credentialed would go a long way with parents. Connecting parents to these professionals and giving them a voice in menu offerings would go even further.

Another consideration is educating parents on school nutrition standards, in real and understandable terms. What, exactly, is a "serving" of whole grain, and how do school food service directors ensure that kids will actually eat it? Also, simply revealing the manufacturers who make the chicken nuggets, pizza and pasta in school lunches would appeal to the brand preference of concerned parents. In many cases, they are the same trusted brands that are served in the home.

Putting more effort into promoting school food service would take some work, but in the end, both schools and families would find they have a lot to gain.

Rob Levine, a father of two, lives in Ellicott City. He works in the field of food marketing. His email is rglevinejr@gmail.com.

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