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Class Notes
What's so bad about lunch?
(Published October 6, 2003)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

If you stuck around until the end of the September school board meeting, you would have gotten a real treat Ė student and elected members of the school board having a serious talk with Superintendent Paul Vance about food. Specifically, school food.

While they may not have a vote, our student school board members do have a voice, and itís worth listening to what they have to say. They said that nobody they know wants to eat cafeteria lunches.

At Bell Multicultural High School, and at other schools across the District, the word in the hallways is that school lunch is bad. Really bad. So bad that there are more kids hanging out in the hallways during lunchtime than there are actually eating. This is partly understandable because at Bell, the cafeteria is an impromptu affair in a temporary facility until construction of the new Bell school building is complete.

I have a confession to make: I love school lunch. I eat it once or twice a week. At $2.75 for adults, itís cheap, and you get an entree, a vegetable or salad, fruit and milk. In the past week Iíve had spaghetti with meatballs with salad and applesauce and a lovely tuna casserole, beans and rice, and a fruit cup. And every time Iíve bought lunch, the cafeteria has been not even half full.

What makes it more perplexing is that most students donít have to pay for lunch. In D.C. Public Schools, there is such a thing as a free lunch! Children from households below certain income thresholds get free or reduced price lunches. Many schools in the District, including Bell, have upwards of 60 percent of students qualifying.

What is going on?

In talking to the kids, there are just a few themes that come up again and again. "The school lunch is nasty." "The cafeteria is too crowded." "I'm not hungry." Each one of these is demonstrably false.

Don't get me wrong. School lunch is not haute cuisine. If youíre looking for gourmet meals, look elsewhere. That said, I eat it, and itís fine Ė and teachers get exactly what the kids get.

Despite, or because of, last yearís stories of unsanitary cafeterias and uneven food quality, the lunches I eat at school are hygenic, nutritious and filling. Donít even think about getting behind the steam tables Ė three cafeteria workers in hairnets come flying at you, warning you out of their approved food-safety clean environment.

Perhaps the problem is that the food just isnít that exciting. Wander through the halls after lunch and you find a cornucopia of empty Frutopia bottles, potato chip wrappers and half-eaten candy bars. The kids are hungry. Someone is eating all the snacks, and Lord knows, theyíre not being eaten in the cafeteria.

So why are kids paying for and chowing down on snacks instead of grabbing a solid, free meal? Well, which would you rather have: a chocolate chip cookie or a scoop of rice? Consider your own decision, and then imagine the decision-making process of a typical live-for-today 15 year old. Snacks are relatively cheap Ė a couple of bucks for a soda, chips and a candy bar Ė and uniquely designed to appeal to kids.

If you read the last issueís column, you'll recall that I like to hang around Mr. Schumannís advanced placement economics class. Well, hereís another tidbit from economics: marketing works! Advertise Coke and Pepsi at our darling 14 to 18 year olds and theyíll drink it down like water. Only, itís water with 39 grams of sugar. Thatís about seven teaspoons, or more visually, 13 lumps of sugar in every can.

Not only that, my students know what sugary snacks do to them. They like the rush. In the past two years of teaching, Iíve had at least 20 different kids ask me to give them some candy before school. Iím no longer shocked, but I used to ask them why they wanted candy. The predictable "I didn't eat breakfast" or "I'm tired and it will wake me up" or my personal favorite, "I want to get hyped!"

Visit a classroom after lunch and you see hyperactive, sugar-fueled kids. Visit a classroom toward the end of the day and you see docile, sugar-crashing lumps. Does this affect student learning? You can be sure.

Furthermore, our students donít seem to know is what a nutritious lunch will do for them. Running with the cross country team on Monday, one young man had to stop because of terrible headaches. A simple explanation: He hadnít eaten breakfast or lunch.

At that September school board meeting, several elected members raised the idea of removing vending machines from the schools as a way to reduce the unhealthily large consumption of sugar drinks, candy and fatty snacks by students. Superintendent Vance wisely pointed out that the principals would be up in arms. Why? Because school vending machine revenue is essentially the only pot of money principals have direct control over. All other funds are dispensed and disbursed through the central budgeting process, in tightly restricted ways. For better or for worse, principals have an incentive to have vending machines and to encourage sales from them.

So what can we do as adults? You give your child a few dollars every day to buy lunch, or youíve signed them up for free lunch. Well, you can lead a child to the school building but you can't make them eat right. So talk to them. Ask them what they eat in school. If they get a free or reduced-price school lunch, don't give them snack money. Make sure they have breakfast.

And get out there, boosters, and raise money for your principals, so they can unchain themselves from the sweet money of vending machines.

***

Matt Wennersten is a third year mathematics teacher at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator