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When Did the Sandwich Become a Punishment?

Reposted with permission.

MSNBC has a story up today about a practice that’s old news for school food services directors, but may not be widely known by TLT (The Lunch Tray) readers — i.e., quietly giving “alternative” meals to students who come through the lunch line without the ability to pay.

One of the biggest challenges faced by school districts is getting students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch to actually sign up for those federal benefits. When students do so, it means more money in a district’s coffers for the betterment of everyone’s school food. (The reasons for students’ nonparticipation vary — you can read my post “Why Hungry Kids Sometimes Still Go Hungry in American Schools?” for more information.)

So what does a school do when a hungry kid comes through the lunch line with no meal card? Some schools serve the full meal — but then eventually wind up raising prices for paying students to subsidize these give-aways. But other schools, as MSNBC describes in its story today, instead offer a bare-bones “alternative meal” to non-paying students in hopes that this practice will create an incentive for financially disadvantaged families to finally fill out their paperwork.

What was especially interesting to me is that the dreaded “alternative meal” usually consists of a plain cheese or peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk or a juice, and sometimes a piece a fruit — a meal that MSNBC describes as “bland” and “unappetizing.”

While I don’t mean to minimize the plight of financially disadvantaged students, I couldn’t help but think how much I’d rather have my child eat a simple sandwich than some of the highly processed food my own district regularly serves. And I know I’m not alone. When I had my op-ed about school food in the Houston Chronicle last summer, many readers wrote in to say, “Hey, whatever happened to the good, old-fashioned sandwich?”

When our Food Services Parent Advisory Committee has asked our district why we can’t serve more sandwiches as part of the regular menu, we’ve been told that the logistics surrounding the assembly and delivery of individual sandwiches to 300 campuses would result in a dried out, unappetizing end product.

But logistics aside, “Wilma,” TLT’s anonymous school food professional, once informed me that sandwiches, when served in her own district, have been a non-starter with kids. She told me they linger sadly on the lunch line with only one or two takers.

What’s going on here? Has the prevalence of what I call “doctored junk food” (nutritionally enhanced pizza, burgers, corn dogs, nuggets and Frito Pie) on school menus rendered the cold sandwich somehow “uncool” among kids? Is it poor execution by cafeterias? When did the sandwich become a punishment?

Let me know if you have any insights to share. (TLT readers who are school food professionals – that means YOU, especially.)

[Thanks to friend Andrew Golub for the early morning tip about the MSNBC story.]


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