Does Cafeteria Food Make the Grade?

Does Cafeteria Food Make the Grade?

cafeteria-foodby Tammie Ortlieb

While bag lunch is always an option, some kids just want to go through the lunch line. Whether little Johnny thumbs his nose at soup in a thermos, likes to race his buddies to the cafeteria table, or just wants to be like the other kids, chances are at some point he will grab his Styrofoam tray and plunk down his two bucks. While he may be beaming from the big boy experience of buying lunch, you find yourself cringing at the thought of what he actually gets for those two bills. Breakfast on a stick. Walking taco. Peppi pizza salad. Fun on the run. Veggie roll-up. Pizza dippers. What ARE these foods? And how would the typical first grader know if these creations contain meat or dairy products? Even when I talked to the food services supervisor of my children’s school about ingredients of some of the more popular items, I walked away confused. And I’m a grown up. 

Some dedicated school systems such as Oak Grove School in Ojai, California, have turned to organic or vegetarian menu plans. Oak Grove, winner of the 2006 Golden Carrot Award given by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, serves the organic produce grown and harvested by students on school property. Dessert takes a back seat to daily fruit platters containing mango, apples, berries, grapes, kiwi, pineapples, and persimmons, among others. Instead of the typical carton of milk, students choose from soymilk, rice milk, water, iced tea or even hot herbal tea, all free of charge. To earn the prestigious Golden Carrot, Oak Grove demonstrated a commitment to nutrition and an innovative approach to the school lunch program. 

Many school systems, however, outsource their food programs to companies like Sodexho whose job it is to supply loads and loads of food items to schools, prisons, hospitals, military units, retirement centers, and other institutions that lack on site cooks or kitchens. The leading food and facilities management service in North America, Sodexho also provides businesses with grounds maintenance, housekeeping, and plant operations. Not exactly a picture of commitment and focus to natural, organic food choices. With menu options such as ham and cheese melt, chicken nuggets, fried chicken, cheeseburgers, and cheese sandwich and soup, a parent can be hard pressed to find a vegan friendly main course on the typical Sodexho lunch line. 

Worse yet, some schools have turned to the food court approach to school lunch. More prevalent in junior high and high schools, this system incorporates some of the more popular fast food restaurants into the school’s buildings. Focusing on fast food favorites such as burgers, fries, pizza, chicken nuggets, and tacos, the schools set students up for poor health and an energy draining afternoon. More tragically, some college dorms now offer this feature instead of the traditional cafeteria. The students, then, might have three meals a day in fast food fashion. 

What, then, does the doting mother or father do when faced with a monthly lunch schedule that looks more like Mickey D’s take out, or rather IS Mickey D’s take out, than a compilation of nutritious well planned meals? 

Visit your child during the lunch hour. Get up close and personal with those Bosco sticks. Ask lots of questions. I found plenty of vegetarian options on my daughter’s menu, but they all came with meat. Pancakes with sausage. Spaghetti with meatballs. The rule, I learned, was that the meat had to pass the cash register. Once past the register, the child was free to throw it away or to not eat it at all. But what about eliminating the waste (and the yuckness of having food touch meat) by just not putting it on the tray to begin with? No can do, I learned. This, I was repeatedly assured, was definitely not allowed. The meat must pass the cash register. 

Get to know your food services supervisor. Again, ask lots of questions. How many vegetarian options are offered? How would a child know that these options are vegetarian? Ravioli. Meat? No meat? Most likely cheese. What are state or federal nutritional requirements the school must follow? How do the vegetarian options currently sell? Assure the supervisor that even “regular” kids eat spaghetti with marinara and no meatballs. Talk on the phone or sit down and have a personal chat. 

Come armed with a list of low cost vegetarian lunch suggestions. Think of healthy alternatives to the carnivorous, heart attack waiting to happen options currently offered. Think like-ability. Think expense. Think food that meets all necessary requirements. And what about the drinks? Milk in a carton – white or chocolate? Are those the options? Or sugar-laden juice? How about bottled water or soymilk? Come prepared. And know what other schools in your area are doing with their lunch programs. 

Find some menu plans from neighboring school systems. If you have out of town relatives, grab their kids’ lunch menus. These lists, also, are often available online. Brainstorm. Get creative. And don’t be afraid to do some leg work. 

What about the older kids? What about the middle schools and high schools? A parent doesn’t have to stop helping once their child reaches adolescence. Many schools state that they provide options in an effort to encourage these youth to make smart choices. They encourage them to make smart choices, and yet continue to sell candy bars and ice cream cones for lunch. My son’s good friend in seventh grade would buy an ice cream cone every day. This was his entire lunch. And it was allowed. That was definitely not a smart choice. Not for the friend and not for the school. Again, work with the food services supervisor. 

And, for pete’s sake, don’t forget the vending machines. Many schools are transitioning out the soda and replacing it with bottled water. Some, however, still offer the sugary juice and sport drink alternatives. Stop at the office and grab one of those little guest tags, then do some wandering of the halls. How many machines are around? Where are they? What’s on the inside?

Older children can get personally involved in transitioning a school lunch program from trash to treasure. Maybe your high schooler wants to start up a vegetarian club. She could send around petitions lobbying for more healthful vegetarian options. She and her friends could make posters letting others know about plant based lunch items. Or they could write letters to food services describing the changes they would like to see. 

In discussing the lack of nutritious plant based options with the food supervisor at my local high school, I was assured that the school offers plenty of vegetarian choices. I’ve seen those foods. They are white, starchy, and mostly covered with cheese. Not exactly the picture of nutrition. Except for the salad. There is salad. Just what every teenager in America craves. Salad. And, the food services guy continued, there are veggie burgers on Tuesday. 

Veggie burgers on Tuesday? Well, hallelujah, praise the vegetarian gods. And I was assured by the food services representative that they always put out at least four whole patties!! Well, what the heck am I griping about?! Four veggie burgers every darned Tuesday. I encouraged my daughter, who normally brings lunch due to the anemic plant-based choices, to have all of her friends buy on Veggie Burger Tuesday. Often, she says, the “burgers” are gone by the time she and her friends even go through the line. And the kids frequently don’t let the staff know that this would have been their choice. The teens choose, instead, a bagel with or without the cream cheese or a pretzel with or without the nacho cheese. Empower your child to speak up and make her wishes known. Encourage her and her group of friends to vote with their dollars. The school will continue to provide what gets sold. And an afternoon’s worth of learning can’t happen on refined carbohydrates and a can of sugar water. 

Nutritious eating in the schools comes down to education—education of the school employees in food services, education of your student in making smart choices, and education of the other parents in ways that they can impact the food program. 

If, however, you find yourself butting your head against the brick and mortar wall, there’s always the brown paper bag (or the environmentally friendly reusable lunchbox!). Options here are always nutritious and plentiful beyond compare. I remember calling my mother on the night before my oldest child started first grade. I was in a sweat, panicked because I didn’t know what to put in the darned lunchbox. My son is allergic to peanuts, so the standby peanut butter and jelly was never going to happen. What the heck else does a mother pack for a nutritious lunch? Criminies!! My mother began spouting off a list the proverbial mile long. By the time she was finished I took a deep breath and headed into the kitchen. School wasn’t going to be so scary after all. 

Granny’s Great Lunchbox Ideas:

  • apple slices with peanut butter for dipping (be sure to squirt the apples with a little lemon juice)
  • apple smile sandwich (spread peanut butter on a slice of bread, cut a vegan marshmallow in half, use the halves for eyes, use an apple slice for the smile, top with another slice of bread, for lunch take off the top slice and see the smile) 
  • tropical wrap (spread vegan cream cheese on a tortilla, top with shredded carrots, crushed pineapple, and raisins, wrap and cut in half on a diagonal)
  • fresh fruit salad
  • strawberry mice (body-big strawberry, ears-slivers of almonds, eyes-small vegan chocolate chips, nose-regular size chocolate chip, tail-pull stem off strawberry and stick a small piece of fruit leather into the hole of the strawberry)
  • pb&j patty (make peanut butter and jelly sandwich, use cookie cutter to cut into a big circular sandwich, pinch edges closed with a fork)
  • pasta salad
  • pita wedges with hummus
  • spaghetti
  • fun on the run (soy yogurt, baby carrots, crackers)
  • vegan pizza
  • ants on a log (celery spread with vegan cream cheese and raisins, or celery spread with peanut butter and raisins)
  • big thermos of tomato soup
  • trail mix (theme it: tropical with dried pineapple/mango/coconut and macadamia nuts, Boy/Girl Scout with dry cereal/raisins/sunflower seeds and carob chips, fruity with dried cranberries/banana chips/carob chips and cashews, favorites with all the things your child likes best!)

For more yummy lunchbox ideas check out Better Than Peanut Butter & Jelly: Quick Vegetarian Meals Your Kids Will Love! Revised Edition by Marty Mattare and Wendy Muldawar. 


Tammie Ortlieb

Author: Tammie Ortlieb

Freelance writer and former instructor of psychology, Tammie has a Masters Degree in Developmental Psychology with special emphasis on child and adolescent development. She maintains a blog at and is the author of Outside the Lines and Freeing my Inner Blonde which can both be found at She’s a book nerd, a health nerd, and a huge glass of soymilk half full kind of gal.

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