By Amy Washbush
I’ve recently started volunteering during my kid’s elementary school lunch as a small way to help make the MMSD school meals program better. I help out at service with the kindergarten, first, and second grades. I’ve learned a lot already about what this program is really like and also what change will require.
First, I’ve corrected some of my own misconceptions:
The quality of the food is generally pretty good, at least comparable to what I see served at my workplace’s cafe or from the to-go counter of a typical grocery store. I’ve been impressed by the salads and other fresh produce like carrots and cherry tomatoes. The hot food often looks less appetizing but I really believe this is about the packaging more than anything. Really, can any meal look good steamed up inside a plastic container.
At least at our school, the lunch environment is fun, casual, and fairly calm, not chaotic. Kids eat and talk with their friends, and the school staff assigned to lunch help open packages and visit with them. I enjoy sitting down and having chats with kids in ways that I can’t if I’m helping out in the classroom.
Kids have enough time to eat (again, at least at our school). Kids have about 20-25 minutes to eat their food and they don’t seem rushed. Of course, some eat more quickly than others, but I don’t see kids cramming food in their faces or complaining of not having enough time. (In other words: If you pack your kids’ lunch and some of it’s coming home untouched, it’s likely because they didn’t like it. And if you give them a sweet treat in their lunch, I guarantee you they’re eating that first!)
I’ve also learned some new lessons:
I have new respect for what it’s like to be MMSD food service staff. The one food service professional at our school – which I believe is the staffing level for all MMSD elementary schools – has hardly a moment to spare. Before the lunch service begins, she’s already been at work since before daylight, preparing, serving, cleaning up, and documenting the breakfast service. By the time I arrive, she’s warmed up the hot lunch and set out the cold entree options and the sides, referring to past numbers to estimate the day’s quantities. She’s set out kids’ cards by class for who’s signed up that day for lunch or milk. Then the first group of classes comes and she helps them through the line, encouraging students to try new things in their selections, remembering different kids’ preferences or food restrictions, and checking them out. She helps with packages and spills, while also picking up trays and setting up for the next service. The custodian comes at the end of the service to help with wiping down the tables and sweeping up and then it all starts over again. After the three lunch services and clean up, she’s got paperwork and breakfast prep for the next day before her eight-hour shift is done. (And then she goes to her second job.) I now get why so much of the service is pre-packed, because fresh prep on-site would require time that simply isn’t there at current staffing levels.
Related, the “kitchen”/food service room is very limited in space and equipment. Our school – again, like many elementary schools – does not have a kitchen, but rather a small room that feels like a storage room with added sinks, a refrigerator, and a warming oven. There is no room for prepping ingredients or cooking foods from scratch. Improving school meals will require investing in facilities too.
When I move through the lunch room and help kids with opening food or clean up messes, I get a chance to see what kids with lunch from home are eating too. It seems to me that a lot of parents are struggling with feeding their kids nutritious foods, and spending a good amount of money while at it. I feel this, as I juggle limited time to pack lunches, a limited refrigerator and pantry, and always-shifting preferences. (Last week I mostly packed my first grader leftover pancakes with cream cheese.) To put it bluntly, many of us are not packing the nutritious lunches we want our kids to eat. I know if my kids found the school lunches more appealing, I’d find a lot of relief to my time, my bank account, and my stress about what they’re eating.
So what am I learning altogether? I think there are some things going well, like how the school provides time and a good eating environment for the kids, the committed and savvy food service staff, and, I’d say, the general nutrition and quality of the school food.
But, it’s also apparent that somewhere along the line we decided as a community and a nation that the lowest-cost school food program is the one that we want. The dependence on the “pizza kits” and other Lunchable-likes, the still-thawing fruit juices, Madison’s centralized kitchen and pre-pack service, all the packaging from the food to the individually-wrapped sporks, and in many other schools, the short lunchtimes… this all makes sense when the program is designed to minimize the staff needed, their skills and experience, and the kitchen space and equipment in each school.
But is this actually what we want? “Cheap” does not signify what I think kids deserve in our schools and I think most parents would agree.
For the things that people want for the MMSD school food program – quality, nutritious, and delicious food, and good jobs for school food staff – we need a real investment. We need to invest dollars in more staff and in their professional development, outfitted on-site kitchens, and more locally-produced quality foods.
Want to support improved school food in MMSD? In addition to volunteering at your school (contact your principal), here are some ways:
Voice your support for the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids plan in the proposed Wisconsin biennial budget. If passed, this plan would provide free school breakfast and lunch for all students and bring additional funds to schools through increased reimbursement rates, including for locally-sourced foods. There are three remaining dates in April to testify on behalf of the plan to the Joint Finance Committee and you can also submit comments here or by emailing email@example.com.
Donate to the Child Nutrition Assistance Fund of the Madison Public Schools Foundation. This fund goes directly to MMSD Food & Nutrition and they have plans to use these funds for taste testing new recipes with students, professional development for staff, and expanding scratch cooking.
And, as always, if you want to talk about school food and how you can get involved, contact us!
Families for Justice is a network of people working to dismantle white supremacy in Dane County and beyond through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Learn more here.