Fresh Ideas: Better days at the school lunch table

According to a common stereotype, people who are 85 years old prefer a mental diet of reminiscence to thinking about the present day. Not my mother-in-law. She has a quick rebuttal for anyone who prefers to dwell in “the good old days” theme by referring to them as “the gristly past.”

This anti-nostalgic frame of mind certainly applies to the meals served during my school days. I have few warm memories about hot lunch.

Fortunately, my exposure to these school meals was limited, because 90 percent of my lunches were carried to school from home in lunch pails or brown paper bags. These packages often contained leftovers from recent marvelous meals. They also often featured in-season fruits and vegetables, often grown ourselves or nearby from orchards and fields in southwest Michigan.

Elsewhere in the lunchroom, the story was far different. The only vegetable I remember seeing on those trays was a purple, steaming, threatening mass known as “stewed beets.” Many people have tried to convince me of the merits of the beet, but I can’t get over the mayhem that was done to that noble root crop during my school lunch days.

Please note that those school lunches were consumed during the administrations of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Foodservice, and  in particular school foodservice, has come a long way in the intervening years, with fresh-cut produce playing a leading role.

One big reason for this is the stepped-up efforts of industry organizations such as United Fresh and the Produce Marketing Association and their donations of salad bars to schools.

Another is the effective partnership of businesses such as Indianapolis Fruit Co. (featured in our cover story on page XX) and school foodservice departments.

Those are only a few reasons why students at every level are eating much better at school these days than they used to. And if anyone knows of a school cafeteria that has solved the problem of serving great stewed beets, please let me know.

Lee Dean, editorial director

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