A few days ago I made banana bread and then a buttercup squash-apple soup. I went outside to plant peas while the bread cooled and the soup simmered and when I walked back inside I was enveloped by the soothing, mouthwatering smell of my house. I love that moment; when you walk into your home or a friend’s or perhaps a restaurant and smell the wonderful aroma wafting from the kitchen and know that you are about to eat something good. When I went on my first school tour I was hit by another sort of olfactory food experience; the smell of the school cafeteria. It’s the smell of industrial dishwashers, pizza, tater tots, cleaning supplies, and mystery meat. It’s the smell of an institution; the smell of the system. It was striking to me how the smell of a PUSD cafeteria was, to my memory exactly the same smell of the lunchroom at my first elementary school 1500 miles away in Texas.
All schools, public and private, preach parent involvement these days like a religion. And with good reason…under highly constrained budgets parents (and a supportive principal and teaching staff) are often the difference between enriching classes and none at all. Parents teach art, music, science, and other “electives” at all of the schools I have toured. I might be the type of parent to lead a glee club or to give a talk on astronomy but I can already see exactly where I am going to spend the bulk of my time on my children’s school – working to ensure that the food the school is providing is healthy, sustainable, and delicious. It’s actually rather difficult to obtain detailed information on what goes into the food our children are eating at school. It’s not a primary concern for most parents, particularly affluent ones. But those of us who don’t need the school lunch program likely underestimate how important it is for some children. For example, in 2009 there were nearly 20 million children receiving a free or reduced price lunch. There are many schools where 100% of children qualify for subsidized lunches. In addition to lunch many public schools, including PUSD, offer a school breakfast program. On a personal level it will not be a financial necessity for us to use the school lunch program, however, we many want to. It would surely be convenient not to have to pack a lunch five days a week and there might be times when our kids might want the school lunch, for purposes of fitting in, if for nothing else. The thing is, I can’t in good conscience allow my children to eat what is provided by the school nor can I stand idly by while other children eat them either. When I toured Longfellow I saw the offerings for lunch; a re-heated sausage pizza. At Webster I was there while students in the Pasadena LEARNS after school program received a afternoon snack – some kind of pre-packaged bar and plastic baggies of chocolate milk served out of a plastic bin. I didn’t get a chance to observe the food at Odyssey but the principal sighed when asked about and said “We are working on it”. At McKinley we received a copy of the PUSD monthly lunch menu which featured chicken “patties” and fruit cups. In order to receive federal funding for the breakfast and lunch programs school districts must adhere to rules that emphasize relatively low fat, high carbohydrate meals and do not prioritize fresh fruits or vegetables. I was hungry for more details as to how PUSD implements the program and so I simply called the PUSD Food and Nutrition Services Department to get a few more details. I spoke with Maria who told me that PUSD has five “base” kitchens where all the meals for the day are prepared. The meals are trucked to the approximately two dozen schools without fully functional kitchens each day to then be reheated. There are two PUSD menus; one for all primary schools and one for all secondary schools. I asked about parent involvement and here noticed a flaw in the encouragement of parent involvement at PUSD. Typically parents are involved at the school level. For most issues; fund raising, extra-curricular activities, this level of involvement makes sense and individual principals have a significant amount of latitude with respect to how many aspects of their school are run. But because the school lunch program is administered at the district level it is very difficult for parents to become involved and the food services representative said that they didn’t have any mechanism for parent input nor had their been many requests from parents save some parents who wanted to develop a separate menu for pre-K programs. The representative did offer that the operations supervisor did appreciate suggestions from parents regarding additions to the menu. I saw how school food: funded by the state and federal governments; regulated by federal mandate; administered by the district; and primarily utilized by low-income families can fall through the cracks in the floor of parent involvement.
I don’t even have a child in public school yet, but this issue has me riled. What is more important than the food that we eat and how we take care of some of the most vulnerable members of society – our children?