With the rise in diet-related chronic illnesses in the past few decades, many are looking to school lunch as a way to nourish children while simultaneously teaching them healthy eating habits. It makes good sense, right? In fact, why would we choose to serve children anything but healthy food for school breakfasts and lunches?

A healthy children’s meal will provide them with the nutrients they need to grow strong and healthy. A healthy meal will teach them what it means to prepare a healthy meal. Healthy meals improve their education, as children are better able to learn when they have a belly full of good-for-you food instead of a tummy ache from junk.

Yet, in too many schools, healthy school lunch is not the reality. It is not that the meal doesn’t meet the USDA guidelines; it is the meal is not prepared properly or the meal is just prepared poorly. 

This week the Hermiston School District is serving what it calls the “Traditional Thanksgiving Meal.” The meal consists of turkey gravy over mashed potatoes, green beans, a roll and choice of milk. First, the turkey gravy just has bits of turkey and the green beans were cold. The best part of meal was the milk. The meal was so poor some parents brought in store-bought meals. As the food service manager at Two Rivers Correctional Institution, I was caught off-guard (no pun intended) by the poor quality of meal being served to our school children. 

The Hermiston School District contracts its food service department out to Chartwells, a private provider of school dining services. While Chartwells follows the federal school lunch program, that doesn’t mean the meals are prepared with care. That was demonstrated by the holiday meal. 

The district charges students who can afford to pay $1 for breakfast and $1.75 for lunch. Based on information provided by the district to me, it is spending about 98 cents per day/per student. The district prepares approximately 4,000 meals per day (1,100 for breakfast and 2,900 for lunch). That is about 58 to 60 percent student participation. The district receives money for its free and reduced program, and Chartwells participates in the federal school commodity program (free specific food commodities).  In addition, the district purchases very little of its total food consumption from local providers. Using basic math skills, you can see that Chartwells spends approximately 35 percent of money it receives on food.

To contrast, at TRCI we spend on average $2.36 per day per inmate for three meals per day and prepare over 5,100 meals per day.  That $2.36 includes special diets such as Kosher, renal, gluten and many more. The calorie count is between 2,800 and 3,200 per day. The meals include fresh fruit, vegetables, fresh-baked items from the bakery and many more items. Many of our fruits and vegetables are purchased from local farmers.

Most people would say that you can’t provide much of a meal for a $1 or $1.50 per meal. I say you can serve a good product.  Making sure green beans are hot is a question about quality, not product.  Providing a one- or two-ounce serving of turkey meat is a purchasing decision. As the quality of meals increase, so will student participation in eating them. If a student knows they are going to get a good, hot meal, then they will eat them.

If you want children to eat healthy meals, you have to demonstrate to them good food quality, proper preparation, proper presentation and good sanitation. That can produce a meal they want to eat. Food consumption is about presentation. Children watch food and cooking channels on television and are coming to expect more for less. Using creativity we can teach them to eat healthy. 

It is hard to do that when I didn’t want to eat the cold green beans.

Mike Mathisen is a Hermiston resident.

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