Memories of Lunch Lady Land

Thursday, April 08, 2010

I've been watching Jamie Oliver's show Food Revolution on ABC. In case you haven't heard of it, the British chef is on a mission to stop our raging obesity epidemic and change the way Americans eat - starting with elementary school age children. He successfully paved the way for healthier school food in England and is hoping to do the same here.

Watching the show brings back memories of my own food experiences in the school cafeteria in the 70s and 80s. While we were certainly far from being mini health nuts, I do think we had better food available to us than today's kids. We also didn't look like a bunch of mini Michelin mans walking around the classroom. Maybe some reminiscing offers some insight into how today's school's are contributing to children's weight problems.

*For starters, in the opening episode Jamie saw the kids chowing down on pizza - at 9 AM in the morning or thereabouts. I never ate pizza at my school - for breakfast, that is - because our school never served breakfast to begin with. That was always left to my mom and fortunately, I had the luxury of having a stay-at-home mom who had the time and energy to make me a healthy breakfast.

*Like today's kids, we had chocolate milk available to buy. However, they came in cute little cartons that I would guess held no more than 6 ounces. The kids on Jamie's show buy milk that comes in huge honking containers the size of an energy drink can.

*And speaking of soda, I don't recall seeing a single soda or snack vending machine until I was in high school. They were like the Tooth Fairy in my elementary and even junior high schools - they simply didn't exist.

*Our snack cups consisted of carrot, celery, and cheese sticks. I can't say for certain that we always ate the carrots and celery.

*We weren't given french fries; we were served tater tots. Those may not be more nutrient dense then fries, but at least they could be baked, not fried in oil.

*Dessert consisted of something low fat, like jello cubes or fruit cups. I think cookies and small pieces of cake were luxuries that were offered only once or twice a week.

*We were given juice or punch in small plastic cups, probably holding no more than 4 ounces.

*No one had peanut allergies or an intolerance to dairy. Small peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were available every day.

*Even though we weren't huge fans of vegetables, we could at least identify them. I'm talking about one disturbing segment where Jamie holds up vegetables in front of a class of kids and no one - and I mean no one - can identify common veggies including tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli and eggplant. I guess if the parents at home aren't eating it, the kids would have no clue what it is. This is a huge contrast to my school, which gave regular lessons about nutrition, the four food groups, and the recommended servings to eat. I remember learning about it just about every year, supplemented by animated entertainment and visits by that super nerdy (but healthy) Slim Goodbody. Chalk it up to educational cuts, but I think today we need this kind of lifestyle education in the schools more than ever.

All in all, there wasn't a lot of processed food being served or prepared back in those days. I also didn't even see a truly overweight kid until the 8th grade. We had a couple that would be considered chubby, but certainly not obese.

While I know what kids eat at school is certainly not the only cause of obesity, I do think schools and parents could learn some important lessons from the past. Right now this area is getting a failing grade.


  1. We didn't have cafeteria's in our school, we had a "snack bar" in junior high and a "lunch room" in high school. Balanced meals served in both, but we had pizza in jr. high - wrapped in plastic and kept in warming trays - steamed pizza! It wasn't very appetizing.

    It's the fault of the parents. We were free to buy crap at our schools, but we preferred eating lunch.

    It's also the fault of manufacturers - you never see small cartons of anything anymore, just humongous cans. It's sad, really.

  2. The problem is psychologists,pediatricians,scientists,and even the goverment all decided that children are sensitive and complicated so we as parents/teachers/adults/grown folks need to be careful of their needs,and provide choices,many of them. Psh! It still needs to be you have this or nothing. I am a 30 yr old teacher and parent,so I see where the problems lay at all the time,and its usually the parent who has to rely on someone to tell them how to raise their kid. Whatevs!

  3. I really dig the Jamie Oliver series on trying to get schools to eat healthy. Here in NZ we dont' have school lunches, parents or children pack the lunches here and yes you get the junk food but there's more emphasis on fresh fruit and veges.

  4. I always bought my lunch from home. I might've gotten something in the cafeteria a few times. It's so true that the portion sizes are very big nowadays which is not good. It's a shame that things have gotten so bad nutritionwise in this country since we were kids.

  5. I hope the J-Ol series helps Americans focus a little more on diet. Coming from Europe, I was shocked by the quality of food over here: it's an endemic problem and school food is only one component of that. If you go out to a restaurant here--even pretty good ones--you're given a plate with vast quantities of carbohydrates and empty calories with ingredients that we should all be avoiding (waaaay too much high fructose corn syrup, for instance). You'll find lots of cheap meat, but very few vegetables.

    And on top of that, you're given a portion that's at least twice what any normal human being should be eating in a meal. And this is considered normal.

    This kind of approach to food--fast, cheap and plentiful, but lacking in portion control and balance--is just everywhere.

  6. Totally agree with everyone's comments. Barbara and Amy, interesting about the lack of cafeterias. Out of sight, out of mind on junk food in that case. Would be interesting if they did that here, now.

    @Richard, I get increasingly disgusted with the amount of processed food here in the States and the portion sizes in restaurants. Someone once asked George Burns how he stayed so skinny when he out all of the time and he responded that he only ate half of what was on his plate.

  7. Haha! You know, that's what I try to do too: eat half there and take the rest home for tomorrow.

    I've still put on a good amount of weight since I've been living in the States, though! :D


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