Parents across the country are struggling right now with their children going back to school in the middle of this pandemic. In the context of this world crisis, the topic of school lunch may not be at the top of the list of worries, but the food that our children eat influences their ability to create healthy immune systems and helps mold their expectations and habits for what is acceptable for good health. Measured by the cafeteria offerings at schools, we are due for a revision.
My first experience with school lunch was in kindergarten. I remember standing in line with my eight cents for milk. It was exciting to know that I was being trusted to hold this money and purchase something. I felt so grown up! At that time, my school only offered milk. A few years later, it began offering ice cream treats. Since my mother didn’t allow “junk food” in our house, this was extra special for me.
By the time I was in eighth grade, school offered lunch and it was streamlined. It was delivered frozen to the school, heated, and served. Pizza days were the only days that I purchased lunch. The pizza was definitely not like the pizza you make at home or order from a restaurant, but it was the highlight of the cafeteria diet.
In high school, vending machines (students could purchase soda, chips, and cookies) and fast food had made their debut. I still bought lunch on pizza days. Other offerings were not unlike those you would find at a mall food court: burgers, fries, tacos. Of course, most teens were very happy with the changes that were being made.
Still, even as a young child, when the cafeteria began offering ice cream, something about it just didn’t seem right to me. That kind of thing wasn’t allowed at home unless it was a special day. We made our own pizza for family night on the weekends. We had ice cream with cake if it was someone’s birthday or another holiday. On the 4th of July, we made ice cream with our big old-fashioned ice cream maker. All the kids got a workout cranking the big canister in the ice. After all that work, we had very small servings because it was divided among so many people. But it sure was delicious! And yes, those foods did include dairy, as I was not brought up vegan. Thankfully, it’s just as easy to make them vegan now. The imitations that the school was serving daily were foods that had rituals, purpose, and reason in my family, and were only reserved for important events, not as an everyday routine. The reason for that was that we were not supposed to eat “junk food” every day, and that made sense.
When I had a young daughter, we were vegetarian. I still can’t believe how lucky we were to have a preschool that had a cook on the premises. Each month, she printed up the menu for parents and on the days where there were no vegetarian options, I packed a lunch from home for my daughter. In fact, I packed her lunch all through grade school. As a teacher, I saw first-hand what was offered in lunches provided by the school. The options overall did not meet my idea of a healthy lunch.
In 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama made progress by improving the guidelines for school lunch nutritional requirements. She was able to remove soda from vending machines in schools, require more whole grains, ensure that fruits and vegetables were offered every day, reduce salt and fat, and limit calories based on children’s ages. No doubt, you probably also remember her promoting planting gardens and getting people to exercise with her “Let’s Move!” initiative. Did you also know that just this year, the Trump administration tried to roll back all those school lunch changes? Fortunately, our president’s efforts were thwarted.
We have major social, medical, and financial problems to solve in this country right now. Again, improving school lunches is undoubtedly not at the top of the list for the current, or even the future administration in Washington, DC. But as the next administration begins tackling our country’s problems, at some point, we will see a positive sway in society’s health in all areas. Wouldn’t we love to see fresh, healthy, tasty vegan school lunches served to our children across the country? Yes, I am an optimist.
 Fadulu, Lola. “Trump Targets Michelle Obama’s School Nutrition Guidelines on Her Birthday.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/us/politics/michelle-obama-school-nutrition-trump.html
Maureen Tierson is a Vegan Lifestyle Coach & Educator. Her passion is to make the world a better place by showing more people that being vegan is doable, healthful and joyful! She lives in Rochester, NY with her beloved rescue pup, Zuzu, where she is pursuing a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition and teaching English to children in China online. Follow her on Instagram @joylovevegan and Facebook.