Is Our Children Eating?

by Kriston Capps


The answer: yes! Just not very well.

All the talk about school lunch had me wondering what in fact cafeterias serve at schools today. The truth about school lunch is a bit grimmer than I recalled from back in the day when I would file into the lunchroom, grab a tray, and face the prospect of daily ostracism whatever food the school saw fit to feed me.

In D.C. public schools, lunch (and breakfast) are managed by Chartwells School Dining Services — a company that probably serves the food at the schools wherever you live, too. According to the company Web site, Chartwells currently manages more than 550 public school districts, serving around 2.5 million children at 4,000 grade, junior, and high schools.

Chartwells serves children?! That’s right. Millions of them.

It’s a little confusing, but Chartwells has one lunch menu for six specific elementary schools and another one for all the rest. No idea why. Here‘s what Chartwells serving to District kids at Oyster, Adams, Powell, CW Harris, Nalle, and Garfield for the rest of the week:

Turkey taco meat
Cheese roll-up
Shredded lettuce and diced tomato
Fresh apple

Tony’s Wedge Pizza
Tossed salad with light dressing
Mixed fruit cocktail

Michelle Rhee must like these kids best, because they get Pizza Friday. If a kid doesn’t want pizza (?!), there’s an alternative option available: Turkey and cheese on wheat bread, featured vegetable, fruit. (Note, however, that when a child chooses turkey on wheat over pizza, he is indicating to his peers that he would like to be beaten up.)

For those Pizza Friday–less kids in the Skinner box other elementary schools, Chartwells is serving:

Fish fillet on whole wheat bun
Hash browns
Tossed salad with Italian dressing

Bean and cheese burrito
Corn muffin
Diced carrots
Fresh orange

The middle school menu offers a choice between a yellow food + a vegetable or a yellow food + a fruit. The high school menu offers no choice, presumably in order to impart a valuable lesson about life after graduation.

March, as it happens, is National Nutrition Month, and Chartwells is celebrating, sort of, at D.C. school cafeterias:

In honor of National Nutrition Month, Chartwells is highlighting the Mediterranean diet and its many health benefits. People in this region of the world dine regularly on whole grains, olive oil, beans and legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and yogurt. They don’t think of their eating habits as a diet plan; it’s simply their way of life, and one that can help protect against heart disease, diabetes, cancer—and even help maintain a healthy weight. Many scientists believe the health benefits of eating and living the Mediterranean way result from a diet rich in micronutrients, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats, along with being physically active.

Look for more Mediterranean Diet information in your cafeteria!

That’s depressing as hell. Note that everything about the Mediterranean diet is presented as a contradistinction to the American diet: Their way of life (unlike ours) protects against heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. Their way of preparing foods (unlike ours) conveys micronutrients, antioxidants, etc. Their foods are centered around whole grains, olive oil, beans and legumes, yogurt—unlike ours. Chartwells isn’t serving Mediterranean food so much as letting kids know that it’s an option to be admired, but not actually emulated.

Leaving aside the nutritional quality of the meals on Chartwells’s menu, the meta-message that the menu sends is one that comes with costs. Meals always star a signature meat, usually a breaded chicken product or French bread pizza. Lunch is never merely a simple salad, a hearty soup. Granted, these meals cost D.C. students just $1.25 per student. (I guess that some additional cost for providing school lunches comes from the

Chartwells charges D.C. students between $1.25 and $1.50 for meals. Maybe taxes go toward cafeteria facilities and equipment, raising the actual costs of feeding students (I don’t know). But there are other real costs associated with poor nutritional habits, such as adolescent diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other prevalent ailments linked to eating. I know that it might not make sense to some parents or school administrators to talk about externalities when it comes to lunch monies—the cold, hard jangle in students’ pockets—but my very presumptive guess is that when you do factor in the effects on public health and the environment of engendering malnutritional and nonsustainable meals and eating habits, the cost of Chartwells goes up while the cost of alternatives goes down.

The other inconvenient truth about Chartwells is that it’s a monopoly. There isn’t room for another caterer in a high-school cafeteria, so the major competition for these meals comes from home. I don’t think Alice Waters is wrong to look at the current system and find it fantastically wrong, worth restructuring from the grassroots up, so to speak. But Waters is probably going to wind up sitting at the lonely weirdos’ table if she means to introduce her program in DCPS cafeterias.

Photo by bookgrl


12 responses to “Is Our Children Eating?

  1. Years ago, I did an investigative story about school lunches in southwest Florida. (Imagine selling that to an editor…) It turned out to be on the most interesting things that I ever reported.

    The news about school lunches gets far more grim when you track what the kids actually *eat.* That salad? That orange? Yes, it’s there to make it seem like a balanced lunch. Where do those end up? I stood by a trash can at schools for more than two weeks, and found that about 65% of whole fresh fruit that is served to middle school kids ends up in the trash.

    Also, most middle and high schools offer kids the option to purchase additional items. So often, you see kids with two to three extra sandwiches or pieces of pizza.

  2. I just left this on an older Ben Smith post, but it’s probably more appropriate here–there was an article this week in the Capital Times (Madison, WI) on the MMSD’s school lunch program and efforts by some parents to change it. I thought it was quite thorough (disclaimer: I’m one of those complaining “kindergarten mothers” the head cook disparages).

  3. Kathleen–that is fascinating. Is the piece online anywhere? I’d love to read it.

  4. There is nothing wrong with the meals nutritionally. Run the nutritional values and see what comes up.

  5. Pingback: Cafeteria Food That Would Give You A Heart Attack, If You Hadn’t Just Had A Bypass « The Internet Food Association

  6. While there are systemic problems with school lunches, the core of the problem is resources. Yes, all schools can do better, but remember that Chartwells is ultimately a client of the school that hires it. And the schools are limited by the budgets that they prepare. And the budgets are limited by a) the reimbursement rates from the federal school lunch program (about $2.50 for food, labor and overhead costs per meal) and b) the willingness for a school to put additional money into the lunch program – which rarely happens. Most school food services are required to be revenue neutral. At minimum, all schools need more funding from the Child Nutrition Act which is up for re-authorization this year.

    Wanna sign a petition to get more money into school food?

  7. Pingback: Michelle Rhee Throws Down…In the Kitchen? « The Internet Food Association

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  9. Pingback: Secretary Duncan wants a Revolution? |

  10. Pingback: Michelle Rhee Throws Down…In the Kitchen? |

  11. Pingback: Cafeteria Food That Would Give You A Heart Attack, If You Hadn’t Just Had A Bypass |

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