No matter how many vitamin-rich greens and whole grains you have at your disposal, there isn’t always time to pack a lunch for your busy student. Plenty of elementary age children aren’t quite ready for the responsibility that comes with the chopping, and your average teenager doesn’t know how to make lunch unless there’s an app for it on their incredibly expensive phone. The school cafeteria can present a convenient alternative when there just isn’t time for sandwich preparation.
For kids from lower-income families, government-subsidized cafeteria lunches are the only way they get an adequate lunch, and until there are better ways to solve the problem of hungry kids in America, school cafeterias are their only option.
But what is your school not telling you about what’s being ladled on those plates? There’s a lot of hubbub about getting healthier food in school lunches, but tofu nuggets can only do so much good if they come with a side of mouse poop du jour. And while children are busy learning long division, their immune systems may have to learn to cope with an onslaught of unchecked bacteria. All over the country, health inspectors are coming back with stomach-turning reports of a few special ingredients well within reach of your child’s lunchtime food supply. Here’s what they found:
1.) Mold. Even if your child’s school is regularly visited by health inspectors, that doesn’t guarantee the shutdown of a cafeteria that has more credibility as a petri dish than a lunchtime destination. Mold was discovered recently in several schools in Oregon, and although the inspector recommended a treatment for the mold, no health violations were reported. In Florida, one school that had “heavy mold” in their freezer – mold that had been noted a year previous during another health inspection – passed the test. What does mold have to do to give a cafeteria kitchen failing grade? Evolve until it develops powers of speech and then say something, really, really mean?
2.) Rodent droppings. Schools that have been discovered to serve food in staggeringly poo-infested conditions are not always compelled to report their unsafe dining conditions to parents. In their defense, parents are notoriously touchy about children being fed food contaminated with feces. Recently, a principal was fired and cafeteria workers faced disciplinary action after a student became sick to her stomach after eating nachos that contained mouse droppings. Meanwhile other cafeterias in Chicago, New York City and Hartford, Connecticut — where inspectors have uncovered what may be enough mouse droppings to build a new school, entirely from mouse droppings — never notified parents of their health inspection failures and continued to serve lunch as they combated their vermin issue.
3.) Cockroaches. Cockroaches recently outwitted some health inspectors by cleverly hiding in the dark, a trick that has been working really well for them since the dawn of time. In 22 public schools in Orange County, Florida, cockroaches weren’t spotted during the daytime, revealing their (huge) numbers only when a nighttime inspection was finally conducted. Some schools were forced to throw away dry food because of possible cockroach contamination. A recent inspection of several schools in Portland, Oregon also turned up evidence of cockroaches in dry storage areas, despite the assurance from the Director for Nutrition Services that the management of Portland public school cafeterias perform their own inspections once a week.
4.) Foreign objects. Where do shards of plastic belong on the food pyramid, again? Vermin and mold infestations aren’t the only dangers that have been spooned onto plates by public school lunch ladies. Sometimes, the food-related danger is imported. Recently, the USDA stopped the Central Valley Meat Company from shipping large quantities of meat to several states, specifically intended for school lunches. The cause of the stoppage was the discovery that the meat may contain small bits of plastic.
Even more distressing than the plastic, The Central Valley Meat Company had won the bid for providing meat for children’s lunches in spite of the fact that the company had already been investigated for selling tainted meat.
5.) Lies. The most important ingredient in any meal is honesty. Children already approach mealtime with the suspicion of a hardboiled detective, even when you’re telling them the absolute truth about how broccoli will make them big and strong. “Maybe,” they think, eyeing the alien plant matter, “but at what cost?”
Imagine how cynical the kids would become if their own school created a program of propaganda to hoodwink parents into thinking their children were being fed healthy, appetizing meals. A precocious 11-year-old recently released a documentary with footage from his cafeteria. Zachary Maxwell snuck a recorder into his school at lunchtime, revealing a lineup of truly unsavory offerings, quite unlike the glamour shots of lasagna the Department of Education had disseminated to unwitting New York City parents. His documentary is entitled “Yuck: A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary About School Lunch.” It has already earned him several awards and, let’s assume, the endless admiration and gratitude of his classmates.
6.) Viruses. Of course, there are some health concerns that can’t be controlled by health inspectors. There are variables that are more difficult to control, like infected cafeteria workers. It only takes one sick cafeteria worker to quickly spread a virus through improper food handling. In 2005, one cafeteria worker who had recently suffered from a stomach virus reported for work, chopped lettuce without gloves, and brought about a bout of food poisoning that shall forever haunt the memories of those who attended Trinity High School that fateful day.
Schools in Oregon also recently found out what dangers a virus in the cafeteria can pose. After approximately 100 school children became ill, investigators reported that students who ate in the cafeteria were much more likely to have become ill from the stomach virus than those who did not.
Government programs have recently put in place to encourage regular school inspections, as well as healthier menu options. But you can’t throw a few baby carrots at the overwhelming problem of unhealthy school cafeteria food and expect the problem to resolve itself. Organizations like No Kid Hungry are working to spread nutrition education so more parents can learn how to more affordably cook for their children at home, lessening their dependence on (potentially hazardous and unhealthy) school cafeterias.
Do you pack lunches for your kids, or do you let them eat at the school cafeteria? How do you feel about the breakfast and lunch programs at your local schools? Let us know in the comments section!