My friend, Gavi Rawles, sometimes finds our school’s lunch “unappetizing.” She’s a junior at Berkeley High School, the only public high school in the city of Berkeley. Rawles says that the general consensus on campus is that school lunch is not that good, but some days are better than others.
She gets school lunch often but the line is often long, upwards of 15 minutes, sometimes getting in the way of club meetings. When she gets to the front of the line, she rushes to put in her school ID in a pin pad, which limits each students’ serving to one. She especially dislikes days with chicken or pizza. The chicken comes as one big dry chunk.. It’s so firm that it’s difficult to eat with the plastic forks in the cafeteria — they bend and even sometimes break.
Despite the dislike that many students have for the food the school provides, Rawles said that a good amount of kids get school lunch. At Berkeley High, school lunch is free for everyone, regardless of family income. But not all schools can afford to offer universal free lunches this year.
For some students, the free lunches aren’t enough. “The school limits the portions, so you can only get the meal once. You can’t get more food after,” Rawles said. “The portions are not sufficient for everyone, and nutritional needs. On average it’s pretty good, but I could see it not being enough. I sometimes am still hungry after.”
Students have another alternative besides packing lunch — buying food off campus. But not everyone has the money to do that, and the most expensive food is also usually the most healthy. Getting a balanced meal often means food from a restaurant, which can sometimes be over $15 for one person. Snacks like chips and soda are cheaper, which Rawles said is an unfortunate aspect of people getting food off campus.
But one of the biggest issues for students are the long lines. “The wait times negatively impact me because they can take away half of your lunch,” Rawles said. “So you can’t get food out, [or] you would be late to class. When I’m going to clubs, school lunch takes a lot of time out of my club participation. There have been times where I’ve wanted to talk to my teacher, and then I get school lunch and only have about 15 minutes.”
Some school districts in California have taken steps to improve the quality of meals which attracts students to the school provided food. LAUSD has added menu items such as kung pao chicken, cinnamon rolls, ramen bowls, smoothies, and yogurt and fruit breakfast bowls. West Contra Costa Unified School District invested in a food truck in partnership with a nonprofit to provide scratch-cooked school meals with fresh produce.
Rawles’ experience with school lunch is common for students at large schools, such as Emmie Wolf-Dubin, a ninth grader in Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville, Tennessee.
“There are about 300 kids in one line, and I have to walk down two flights of stairs to get to the cafeteria, so I end up at the back of the line,” Wolf-Dubin said. “Our lunch is 45 minutes, and the line is 20 or 25 minutes.
“At that point, I just sort of quit. I'm a student writer. I'm a student-athlete. I've got homework to do. I've got writing. I've got emailing. I have all of these things going, and I don't necessarily have time to sit in line for however long,” Wolf-Dubin said.
High school students are often told to pack their own lunches, but it’s not exactly that simple. Wolf-Dubin, who lives far away from her school, struggles with the issue of time. “My school starts at 8 a.m., and I live 40 minutes away,” she told me.
“So I'm leaving early, and I'm a teen who isn’t great at waking up. So I don't even have time for a full breakfast — I just drink a protein smoothie every morning. You know, I don't have time to make myself lunch beforehand. And the night before, I'm doing homework, or I'm working, or I'm doing athletics.”
On top of all of this, Wolf-Dubin is vegetarian, and the options aren’t great. Most of what the school serves is meat, and a lot of that is chicken. Even if she wasn’t vegetarian, she wouldn’t be able to eat chicken because it isn’t kosher. But her diet isn’t the only reason she doesn’t eat it.
“I wouldn’t eat some of the meat even if I wasn’t vegetarian — it's just so disgusting,” Wolf-Dubin said. “I look at the hamburgers sometimes, they’ve been frozen and taken out, and they look gray. People don’t eat that.”
As a vegetarian, her main options are pizza, which she describes as “uncooked” with “really cold cheese” and “weird marinara,” and an Uncrustables PB&J. The pizza has pepperoni in the package, and because it touches the pizza, it isn’t kosher even if it is taken off.
This may sound like students are complaining about how gross their food is, but it’s also impacting people’s learning.
“Sometimes I don't eat lunch, and then I'm shaky for the rest of the day,” Wolf-Dubin said. Like other students, she notices physical effects when she doesn’t eat enough. “It sort of struck me the other day when my eraser fell out of my pencil, and I couldn't put it back in — my hands were so shaky.”
Wolf-Dubin is also an athlete, and during her season she needs enough food to run. This means she needs to eat lunch because she can’t run long distances on an empty stomach.
This problem has impacts beyond school and learning. “I’m a teen girl, and I've got a weird relationship with my body outside of sports. It's just we all have this weird body image,” she said. “I skip one meal, and all of a sudden, I’m skipping two. It gets really weird and uncomfortable sometimes.”
Students who are in stable financial and home situations are often in a better position to bring lunch, especially if a parent doesn’t work or works at home. Wolf-Dubin said that underprivileged students are on the receiving end of this issue.
The absence of sufficient school lunch creates problems for people who need the meals the most. “Most people eat meat, so it's less of a big deal, but it's also disgusting. It's not healthy food, and sometimes people don't want to eat it. So they just eat snacks, which isn't healthy either,” Wolf-Dubin said. “A lot of my friends don't eat breakfast in the mornings, so if they skip lunch, they’re not eating until dinner. It's putting kids in this situation, and for a lot of people — this is the one meal they can count on a day.”
Wolf-Dubin said that she would prefer to have a system where students would pay, different from the free lunch system, if it would allow people to get higher quality lunches. As she pointed out, “When the food is literally inedible, it can create a dangerous situation.” With more funding, the situation could be improved for students, Wolf-Dubin said. But, “more money is not something we have.”