School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. QTo understand the problem of school lunch in America, try the following experiment. Go to the supermarket and buy ingredients for a single meal for your family — or a group of friends. Limit yourself to 90 cents per person. If that sounds like too little, consider that it’s about what cafeteria administrators have to spend on the ingredients for kids’ lunches each day.

Cafeteria workers face another major challenge too: as many as half of all school cafeterias in America have no cooking equipment. Such “kitchens” are really reheating centers that no longer require skilled cooks–button-pushing clerks will do. 

And what kind of food are they churning out? Last fall, a teacher in a Midwestern school district decided to find out. Mrs. Q — she remains anonymous to avoid losing her job — is eating in her school’s cafeteria every day for the entire school year and documenting the experience, with snapshots. Her blog, Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project, provides a rare and often unpalatable window into what’s cooking in our public-school cafeterias–and we couldn’t resist sharing it with you. For this slide show, we lifted a few representative images and dsscriptions from Mrs. Q’s blog — with her permision, of course.

For more on the school lunch issue, see Grist’s extensive coverage of the topic, particularly Tom Philpott’s recent piece “Why even the childless should care about school lunches.”

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School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. Q

Today’s menu: Spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans, a breadstick, chocolate milk, and a blue-raspberry icee thing.

As far as school lunches go, this one is pretty good. The meat sauce over penne was passable, and the green beans were OK too. I ate all of main stuff, but I only took one bite of the breadstick, which was too chewy yet semi-hard, and the blue raspberry thingy…I took one suck and knew it was not for me. Of course, I drank all the chocolate milk.

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School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. Q

Chicken patty with peas, two slices of bread, fruit cup, and chocolate milk.

There was sauce on the patty. I guess it was tomato sauce, but it was tasteless and of course you can see that it was burnt. The fruit cup was partially frozen. In fact, I stabbed it with my spork.

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. Q

Peanut butter and jelly graham cracker sandwich, apple juice, fruit cup (peaches), and milk.

I could barely eat this meal, so I didn’t. And then I was deliriously ravenous driving to get my little one.

And then it got worse.

I got sick when I got home. I can’t say what exactly did it. Whether it was the lunch (I ate only half of one sandwich) or the not eating enough (also family history of vertigo) or taking a vitamin toward the end of the day without much in my stomach or just plain getting sick…

I noticed a LOT of kids with packed lunches today. Maybe they knew something I didn’t.

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. QCheese croissant, broccoli, fruit jello, and milk (not pictured).

Stale. Enough said.

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. Q

Hamburger, wheat bun, fries, pear, and milk.

I was happy to eat fruit today!

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. Q Bagel dog (turkey), tater tots, apple, and milk.

A dear friend of mine had a family member who owned an apple orchard. She told me, “Never eat around the stem because when they spray, the pesticide collects in the top.” It wasn’t soon after that I started eating only organic apples. Of course, I don’t have a choice in this project. I try to sample every food, but I find it really hard to take a bite of the apple.

 

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. Q Meatloaf, bread, fruit cup, mystery greens (!), and milk

To qualify for the label “meatloaf,” I think meat should be baked in a loaf pan and then sliced. So given that definition, it is obvious that what I ate today is not meatloaf, but instead a meat patty.

And I was so thrilled to see what I assumed to be spinach! I was floored. But then when I took a bite, they were so very bitter. After work I chatted with my mom about it, and she thinks they are collard greens. But I’m not sure it was. All I can say is that this was the first time I could not finish my veggies during this experiment.

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. Q

Mac and cheese, mixed veggies, breadstick, fruit cup, and milk.

I can’t tell how the mac and cheese looks in the photo (I think it looks ok, but my husband doesn’t agree). What I can tell you was that it was very cheesy. It’s probably something the kids really enjoyed. You know, it wasn’t that bad and I’m not trying to be nice. All I’m doing is comparing this meal to the other school lunches that I’ve eaten and I can say that this ranks a little higher than most. I was able to eat everything but the fruit cup.

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. Q“Tex-Mex,” beans, tortilla chips, and banana.

What “Tex-Mex” refers to is taco meat over rice with a little cheese on top. I enjoy comfort food and this is nice.

I took a close-up of the beans, which are darker on the top (at first glance you think “black beans”) and lighter on the inside (then you think “pinto beans”). I don’t know what kind of beans they were, but I’ve always liked refried beans. They were OK.

 

 

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. QChicken nuggets, carrots, corn muffin, fruit jello, and milk.

I can’t remember how this meal tasted. Even just a couple hours after I consumed it, I have no idea what flavors were present. I don’t remember a texture jumping out at me. I don’t remember eating the corn muffin. It’s like I blocked it out. The other day I ate the fruit jello and I thought it was fabulous. Today I took a couple sporkfuls and that was it. Could my taste buds have amnesia? Or worse have they deserted me? Whatever the case the little buds that remain in my mouth may need therapy.

 

School lunchPhoto courtesy Mrs. QCheese sandwich, tater tots, pretzels, fruit icee, and milk (not pictured).

I ate most of the cheese sandwich. In case you were wondering the tater tots count as the veggie here. Yes, I’ll say it again—tater tots (or fries for that matter) count as a veggie. I know. I was shocked too but now I just shrug.

Then the fruit icee bar! The packaging has been upgraded. AND it is 100% juice so that’s an improvement. I was able on it suck on it and I didn’t pucker up from a massive influx of sweet hitting my taste buds.