Lunch Ladies

During the recent and not-so-recent controvery about school lunches, breakfasts, and snacks, as well as lunchesand sometimes dinners, I would like to share some few stories.

I went to parochial school, beginning in the 70s.  Before this time, when children after first communicaion were supposed to be in mass, the prospect of 500+ hungry 2-8th graders loomed large. Accordingly, some schools served breakfast as well as lunch. Some smaller schools dissuaded children from bring their own lunch, so they would end up have sufficient scale to pay the cooks and for the food.

Public school districts vary in the meal service provided, and based on what the majority of culturally-diverse people will actually eat/be able to eat, and what their families can afford: what is served and not served varies.

There is even wide variance among assisted living facilities and nursing homes, hospitals.

For all meals, there are [something got deleted:  will fill in].  Now, many of our parents either owned very specictible restaurants, or had done.  [something missing too!]

Health and nutrition standards are set by the state,  federal government, and local school boards, at public institutions.  This means places like grocery stores, bakeries, etc. often can not donate leftover food (ex., day-old bread) to public institutions.  That's why several restaurants, etc., will donate food to so-called "soup kitchens", and other entities:  they can't donate them to public schools or hospitals (again, the risk is too high).  They are not donating food that has been served to anyone:  that would be crazy.  It is also a reason many public institutions can only reuse or donate certain types of leftovers they have prepared but not served.

So now I'm launching into my parochial school hot lunches story.  One would generally bring in lunch money once a week.  Occasionally, someone's parents or that student would totally forget to ask about lunch money.  I remember some kids having to help with after-school cleaning to work off various tuition and lunch fees;  that pretty much ended for high school, when everyone could get more lucrative part time jobs.

But the grade school / junior high had a big problem:  the lunch ladies were embezzling.  Semis would pull in and unload all the food that had been paid for, and somehow it never appeared in the "hot meals."  Hamburger day consisted of a TVP patty and two slices of white bread.  I don't remember any condiments.  Obviously, we just made dough balls of the bread and threw them at each other, or the cafeteria ceiling.  Hamburger day was followed by chili day, for obvious reasons.  But with the addition of tomatoes and real beans, the ground TVP was sort of good.  Other meals consisted of all starch:  canned applesauce, canned corn, and mashed potatoes, maybe two fish sticks.  Now, many of our parents ran respectible restaurants, bakeries, catering establishments (even for local hospitals).  Somebody ran the numbers.  And lo and behold, the lunch ladies were fired for embezzling.

During the chaos of "what do do now," I at least remember it this way, my sister always got to bring her own lunch, because she was allergic to milk, wheat, and honestly, I don't remember, probably a lot of other stuff.  So she was an exemplar.  As I remember, she had a great red tupperware lunch box, with tiny tupperware containers for carrot sticks and another for sliced fruit, etc.  My family also had an array of thermous containers with a wide mouth for hot soup, chili, stew, narrow ones for hot tea or cold juice.  This is still a problem today, as so many people are allergic to peanuts, cucumbers, mangoes that they can't even be near them.  This was before insulated lunch bags.  So balogni and cheese would get sweaty, anything with mayo like tuna salad or egg salad would be a bit dubious, braunschiger with onions (that I loved) would smell up the classroom.  (It was also a problem because unlike my kindergarten in public school, we didn't have lockers.)

This is still a problem for public school, which generally offers hot meal or bring-your-own.   If your parents don't have enough time or money to pay lunch money, they probably don't have time or money to make lunches, until they can show children how to make our own.  A person I went through school with, son of a single Dad, came every day with a deli sandwich.  I have waited in line at grocery store checkouts with Moms buying her lunch and the kid's lunches, which were generally lunchables and carrot sticks, and maybe a frozen burrito for herself to heat up at work.  Which brings to mind:  do schools not have microwaves for students, yet?

I support the school vending machines not having Regular soda and candy bars, because some kids were eating that instead of lunch.

This brings us to back to institutional food, at hospitals, in the military, and in retirement homes.  Trains and planes are definitely offering more options (especially since one can't bring food or water through security on planes), but.  Hospitals are under three different types of pressure:  people are generally not healthy in hospitals, delivering three hot meals a day for a thousand people is not very practical, people with allergies and certain other problems haven't been fully diagnosed yet, and, above and beyond that, many aren't particularly well fed when they arrive.  This has supported a variety of packaged foods for easy delivery, like Ensure, Jello in cups, various sorts of canned fruit cups, denial of hot herbal tea for no good reason, and no 100% fruit juice.  Not only is it ridiculously expensive for the patient, pre-diabetic or severely allegic to ingredients used as filler (corn starch, corn syrup, soy, wheat).  You may get advice for food ordering from nutritionsts who don't know you, and haven't had the opportunity to know you.

For example, the first time I was in the hospital, through the ER, was for severe abdoninal pain.  I had thrown up the contrast they gave me for the CT scan, and otherwise ejected it; all over the machine.  MY specialist internist, GYN, and Gastroenterologist all said, yes, there were somethings in each of their specialties that would need to be done, but ruled out ectopic pregnancy, appendicitis, and lower GI blockage.  They expected my main problem would be allergies, and I would need IV contrast and a more state of the art machine.  I said, if you let me go today, I will see you all during the week, and see an allergist (the next day was my birthday, I just wanted to be warm and on the couch).   (The night nurse had, against orders, allowed me some hot herbal tea and ice chips).  The nutritionist came in and said, "no fiber, but I can't let you leave until you've eaten (and passed, etc.) << I hadn't eaten for a day and a half, hadn't been allowed a bottle of water, and had already established that there was absolutely nothing left in my system.

So I said, "I would like some scrambled eggs.  Plain yogurt."  She said, "You missed breakfast."  I said, ok, a plain chicken breast.

I got a chicken breast covered with beef white flour gravy, mashed potatoes, formerly canned green beans that had been cooked to death, no butter, no flavoring possible, some sort of white flour bread product, a cup of jello, and a fruit (salad) cup.  You know, the kind that would have half a marischo cherry in it.  So I scraped off the gravy.  I had a bag that my sister and husband brought me (containing a cashmere sweat suit and warm socks):  there went all the items in containers.  In the coming weeks, I learned I was allergic to every item on the tray, except the chicken.  With two other nutritionists, I ran through, "no one is allergic to millet and quinoa (I am), small amounts of this and that, in a rotation diet (that means I don't react until reactions snowball), and that future allergy tests have to be through a blood draw (scratch tests bring on shock).  The next time I was in the hospital, my sister brought me some food I could eat, and being able to eat nothing for breakfast, tried to skip it.  But in the intervening years, hospital nutritionists had gotten a lot better!  I was able to order my own meals, and not "one from this group, one from that, etc."

Yet, while the VA caf was excellent for visitors, and they provided fruit and granola bars, free, it was still quite grim for patients in rooms.  Scrambled eggs, some outmeal that wasn't the instant kind was all; I snuck him a diet coke.

Food banks and former soup kitchens allow people who have the opportunity to cook (gas and electric) ingredients, even run CSAs where the food is free for those who can't pay, or who run better food lines, or restaurant-style cafeterias, where people can order only what they want.  Schools are doing a better job at seeking which kids are underfed (many are responsible for feeding younger siblings), with food to take home (dinner), and at least good lunch and food to take home in the summer.  But many, including in North Powder, OR, have stopped running food drives in the same way, when they found that many non-perishable items they'd provided kids were getting returned "to help other kids."  Assisted living apartments have had a slightly different problem:  at least one place rethought box lunches and fruit (to eat in one's apartment or picnic) because they were being saved for grandkid's visiting, to be able to offer something.


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