Is Our Children Eating?
Exploring the Nuance of Seattle Public Schools' Institutional Cuisine
In an attempt to celebrate National School Lunch Week (October 9–13), I decided to eat lunch with some of Seattle Public Schools' actual students. I hadn't been in a cafeteria for over a decade, and honestly, in this brave new world where our government heroically refuses to Leave a Child Behind, I was excited to sample the bold—and no doubt flavorful—experiences that this new millennium had to offer in lunch technologies.
A generous couple invited me to Summit K–12 to have lunch with their daughter, whom I'll call Jane, a sixth grader who'll soon turn 12. Jane is pretty much everything you could hope for in a daughter and a student: intelligent and funny, laid-back and creative. "I wish you came on hot-dog day," she said when we met. "You can bounce the hot dog off the table like a rubber ball. It's hilarious."
Jane led me to the cafeteria and explained the nuances of the line. First: "Grab a spork and a tray." I was a little surprised that SPS doesn't use real trays and silverware—the amount of cardboard and plastic tossed out every day seemed staggering for green Seattle. But at least our penchant for trendy multiculturalism held true: Today's entrée was Somali Spaghetti ($1.75 students, $3.50 for adults, free with proof of low parental income). Here is Restaurants and Institutions Magazine describing the entrée: "Spaghetti is on the fall menu at Seattle Public Schools cafeterias but this version includes neither red sauce nor meatballs... the concoction of noodles, beef, fresh carrots, and potatoes is spiked with cilantro."
The problem is that Restaurants and Institutions Magazine obviously never tasted Somali Spaghetti. There is a tasteless but ground-beef-laden red sauce decorating the mushy, overcooked pasta, and the cilantro did indeed "spike" the dish—if Glade were to make a cilantro air freshener, odds are it would taste like this. On the side was a "wheat" roll that was more a dry hunk of Wonder Bread with a light tan, an iceberg-lettuce salad with one mayonnaise-y choice of dressing with the consistency of a bodily fluid, a banana, and some chocolate milk (free with meal, 40 cents purchased separately). There were also cut raw vegetables such as broccoli, but after noticing the teacher in line ahead of me grab a handful and plop them on her tray with her bare hands, I skipped those.
Jane wisely didn't eat the school lunch. Ordinarily, she'd eat a sandwich that her mom made, but, due to a late start this morning, she'd brought a meal that's de rigueur with today's students: an Oscar Mayer Lunchables Mess With Your Mouth Tacos dinner with Free Sour Tongue Teasing Fizz ($3.19 at most QFCs). The distinguishing feature of the Mess With Your Mouth line of Lunchables is that the entrée (in this case, three small tortillas that the consumer fills with room-temperature ground beef in taco sauce that's squeezed from a toothpaste-like tube) is supposed to be covered with crushed Pop Rocks, which are sour and explode in your mouth as you eat the lukewarm mini-taco. Also, you get a bag of Capri Sun Fruit Punch and, in case the sugar you sprinkled on your taco wasn't enough, a box of cherry Nerds.
The one thing that's changed from the wretched school lunches of my youth is the ambiance: Students in Jane's class were happily watching Whoopi Goldberg ham it up in The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, which was shown on a giant screen pulled down over the chalkboard. Jane listed other movies they've watched during lunch: Ice Age, The Haunted Mansion, and Princess Mononoke. Today's film certainly did tone down the great tradition of lunchtime taunting and jeering; most students ate their lunches in silence, instead staring up at the glowing Hollywood mediocrity. Jane's parent didn't know about the in-school movie watching and was visibly bothered by it, referring to it as "pretty gross."
I asked Jane what she would do to improve school lunches: "I would get better pizza that doesn't have cheese that's like rubber. Normal food, you know, like actual normal sandwiches and stuff. Hot dogs that don't bounce. Food that actually looks and tastes like real food." Jane's parent wished that Summit used a lunch program called Blue Plate Express (www.blueplateseattle.com, $3.75 or $4.25 depending on size of portions, milk 50 cents extra, not included with meals). Besides using reusable trays, Blue Plate, which serves a number of private schools in the area, also makes each of their meals from scratch, with no added preservatives or sugar.
I went to Blue Plate's kitchen and tasted some entrées. The macaroni and cheese boasted a genuine roux sauce, made of flour and milk and real cheddar cheese. The lasagna was any kid's dream: a goopy, garlicky wonder. Blue Plate's assistant manager, Sean Narum, said that "one parent in a hundred is unhappy with the price," but he added that they're expanding rapidly, and that if some public schools got on board, the unit price of each meal could possibly dip below the current SPS prices. "We're in the process of learning what the people want," Narum said.
At least somebody's trying to figure out what kids want. I'm not exactly sure why our nation's schools set aside a week to celebrate school lunches—could it be a subconscious institutional cry for help? Any food-service industry that drives its customers to instead choose room-temperature tacos from a tube seasoned with Pop Rocks is obviously failing in its prime directive. The only good thing that could possibly come out of 2006's National School Lunch Week would be if parents finally noticed the gut-churning slop being served to their children, and rioted for change.