Thursday, March 4, 2010

Two Girls, Multiple Food Issues

By Caryn Ernst

I hate making lunches for my kids to take to school. I get too hung up on trying to find something that’s moderately healthy, balanced, easy to pack AND likely to be eaten. Instead, my husband makes the lunches, as he’s happy to use any variety of items that are likely to be consumed and he’s not overly concerned with the rest of it.

We have the added challenge that Leah (7) and Ada (5) are both lactose intolerant and Ada is also gluten sensitive (and a picky eater). Every week we read the menu for the school lunches, cross off the ones they can’t eat and let them choose which of the remaining they’re willing to eat. That usually leaves Ada with one school lunch per week, and Leah two or three.

I know the school lunches are highly processed. I assume they have lots of preservatives. And I doubt they’d be my personal top choice for lunch. But I really appreciate having a hot lunch program at school. I know how challenging it is to come up with healthy, satisfying meals for just my two kids with their preferences and food limitations. I can only imagine how challenging it is to come up with a menu for an entire school district that also meets those requirements, at a cost that most families can afford.

I grew up in a family with six kids. We ate hot lunches at school every day, out of necessity. I remember our school cafeteria with an actual kitchen and a staff of people who cooked the foods that day. I’m sure there are tremendous cost savings in having centralized purchasing and food preparation. And in a school district with such a large percentage of free and reduced lunches, this savings is critical.

But the high level of centralization and the inability to do any food preparation at the schools leaves us with few options to make school food healthier and fresher, and no options for linking food and nutrition with school gardens and other school-based initiatives. It also means that the school lunch staff are disconnected from the food and can’t answer basic questions about what’s in the food.

Last week, Ada went to school planning on having the beef and bean chili, which meets her dietary requirements. When she saw that grilled cheese sandwiches were being served, she asked the staff if there was gluten in the sandwich, explaining that she can’t eat anything with gluten. The staff assured her that the sandwich was safe for her to eat. Of course, a white bread sandwich is loaded with gluten. I had to explain to Ada that she can’t count on the lunch staff to know what’s in the food they’re serving and to help her pick foods that are safe for her. She needs to do that based on her own knowledge – a tough requirement for a 5 year old.

Preparing and serving food to 30,000 to 40,000 kids with widely disparate food requirements and preferences, while keeping the costs affordable, is no small task. But I think we have to find ways to have more of that food prepared at the school to make it fresher, healthier and more connected to the school, its staff and its students.


  1. I think you raise an important issue here about school lunch safety for kids with food allergies. I live in fear that a school staff person would tell my son that a food is safe for him to eat without really understanding the ingredients or fully understanding his food allergies. I fully stand behind more nutritious food in DC schools, but also a MUCH better approach to keeping kids with food allergies safe.

  2. It pretty sad that someone who works with food did not know that bread=gluten. I'm not asking that the cafeteria workers be nutrition experts or even that they know what it in the processed food they heat up; but bread is gluten? Seriously, is there no training at all?