I keep seeing Facebook posts about how it’s almost time for school again and it made me think of my time as a school RD. A little over a year ago, I packed up my apron and said goodbye to child nutrition. After 6 years of menu planning, diet modifications, HACCP fun and “lunch ladies”, I decided to change paths and work in clinical nutrition instead. It was definitely a bittersweet change for me because I was privileged to work with some amazing coworkers, many of whom I still keep in touch with.
I have wanted to write this post for some time, but I thought it would be best to let my thoughts settle after making such a big career change. I think a year is plenty of time to reflect on my time working in the schools so I’d like to share an insider’s perspective of what it’s like working with the national school breakfast/lunch program. I find that many parents have their opinions about school meals yet hardly anyone understands how the program works, how it’s funded or what it’s like to work behind the scenes.
Here are 5 facts I think everyone should know about school meals:
1. School meal programs support themselves financially: It’s a misconception that schools receive an annual lump sum of money for school meals. School meal programs are considered a separate financial entity from the school system and they stay afloat financially by selling school meals. Yep, that means they need to sell a certain number of meals in order to buy equipment, pay staff salary/benefits and buy food products. They receive federal reimbursements per meals sold and get more reimbursement for free meals. The concept is basically like running a restaurant but in schools. Now imagine going down the street an opening up a restaurant…. being given super strict menu planning requirements…. and having really limited funds per meal. Welcome to school nutrition! And also, wealthier school districts have to rely on a la carte sales for their income because they are not getting reimbursed as much for free meals.
2. Schools follow strict menu-planning guidelines based off of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Do you make sure that on a weekly average, your meals contain less than X amount of saturated fat? No added trans fat? Do you serve yourself a specific number of leafy greens, orange vegetables and legumes each week? Do you only eat whole grain products, even things like crackers with your soup or croutons? Because these are the guidelines schools have to follow. They go through state and federal reviews to ensure that they are following guidelines and can lose funding if they aren’t. So the next time you make spaghetti with white pasta or eat a saltine cracker with your salad, just remember that those products aren’t considered healthy enough to be sold in schools.
3. Someone has to be accountable when a child can’t pay for a meal. A 3rd grader comes through the lunch line with a hot meal and doesn’t have lunch money. Maybe he forgot it. Maybe his mom doesn’t have any money to give him and she didn’t qualify for free/reduced meals. So what happens now? The federal government says that child nutrition programs cannot absorb the cost of that meal. So who pays for this meal? Should the meal be taken away from this child? Hell no. Does the school pay for this meal? Do they have funds to do that? Maybe $1.50 does not seem like a lot, but multiply this by every student who comes through the line without money and suddenly a bigger problem exists. I have dealt with yearly negative balances exceeding $15,000 before. School nutrition programs are being told that they need to find a way to recoup this money. A lot of time, energy and labor goes into trying to do this. These resources could be used for other things to benefit school meals programs. I don’t have a good solution to this problem but I feel like all parents should know it is an issue.
4. Please end the peanut wars. Food allergies are more prevalent than ever and can pose major health risks to students. It kills me to see parents fighting back against food restrictions related to food allergies. Please have a discussion with a small child who has a peanut-related anaphylactic reaction and ask them what it feels like to sit at a designated table or be scared they will have a reaction at school. Is this child’s fear and embarrassment worth it so that another child should be allowed to pack their favorite sandwich?
5. School nutrition workers are just like other people in public education. What I mean is that they are overworked and underpaid. Preparing and serving hundreds of meals within a few short hours is not easy, although these employees can make it look that way. Sometimes it made me sad to see how other school employees did not appreciate how difficult it is to work in a kitchen. School kitchens are hot, hectic and fast-paced. Please thank your cafeteria workers when you go through the lunch line, because their jobs are not easy.
Menu Planning Frustrations
Being a child nutrition supervisor was pretty challenging for me. Lots of thoughts, opinions and cost factors go into consideration when planning school meals. I am people-pleaser by nature and when it came to planning menus, I felt like I couldn’t do anything right:
- Kids wanted meals to be modeled after fast food.
- Some parents wanted meals to be organic, all-natural, gluten-free, hormone-free, etc.
- Other parents didn’t care if their kids ate at all.
- Teachers wanted meals to be simple, quick to serve and as less messy as possible.
- Staff wanted meals to be simple to prepare.
- The boss wanted meals to stick within a budget.
- And oh yeah, the government has a very, very, verrrry specific set of meal-planning guidelines that you have to adhere to.
Needless to say, I felt like planning school menus were like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
I recently moved and while unpacking a box of things, found a letter personally written to me from a parent. It was requesting that I never put Mexican food on the menu again because her daughter hated Mexican food. I would get things like this all the time. It honestly made me laugh but also served as a reminder about how it seemed like someone was always REALLY upset about the menus.
We Can All Play a Part in Healthier Schools
Something I would like to ask of anyone reading this blog post who is a teacher or has a child in public schools: Please consider moving towards making schools a healthier place all around. This could include simple things like:
- Asking parents visiting for lunch to not bring fast food
- Encouraging parents to bring not-so-bad items for class celebrations
- Ditching candy as rewards
- Limiting fundraisers to non-food items (the school system where I did hosted a big basketball game between staff members and it was a big hit)
- Encourage physical activity when possible
These are just a few ideas. I felt like the spotlight was always on how healthy the menu was, but then I would walk by a classroom and see kids learning to count with skittles. Or students selling candy bars as a fundraiser. I agree that schools need to be healthier but we should all be looking at how we can be part of the bigger picture.
Looking Back and Moving Forward
I came into child nutrition at probably one of the most challenging times when schools were presented with new meal requirements. With change came many growing pains. I think I did my best to try to adapt to all of the new menu guideline changes with an open mind and a positive attitude, but it was hard. I worked well over 50 hours per week, took work home, and always felt stressed out about ways I could make menus healthier while keeping our sales up. The way school meal programs are structured and funded is not setting them up for success… many programs are just keeping their heads above water trying to break even financially to be able to keep the wheel turning.
At the end of the day, I want to have a career that makes me feel fulfilled and I want to feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives. I am glad to have the perspective of working with school meals but I feel much more fulfilled working in clinical dietetics. Being a school dietitian or just any school nutrition professional is not easy, and I definitely admire anyone who takes on that challenge <3