Free Lunch for the Inner-City Kids – Does Free Mean it Needs to Be Crap?

I just started my new career as a School Counselor at a Brooklyn high school, so I’m learning new things every day. Not just new things about the way city schools work, but also how the teacher’s teach, the counselor’s counsel and the kids learn, write, interact and EAT. I’ve been dismayed too many times over the last 7 weeks on this job when I hear kids say they are going to McDonald’s (conveniently only a few blocks away! They do this on purpose, I swear: for an after-school snack. Another reality check occurred the second week of school when we had our first fire drill. As I walked up the block (and I use the word “up” lightly – our neighborhood was built of a slightly hilly/sloping area), two of the senior girls complained the entire time. We were not “power walking” up the block, we were not sprinting or running. We were barely even walking! To hear a relatively healthy-looking young woman complain that the 3-minute walk up the block was annoying, making her sweat and tiring, was really, really sad. I couldn’t hold my tongue – I had to tell her that it was important she started doing some exercises if this was tough for her. She was too young to feel this way!

First of all, when I was in school, I would’ve given my right leg to get a moment to go outside and just get out of the classroom. My gym teacher (ok, I went to a Catholic High School, so the strict factor was a bit different than it seems to be in the NYC public schools), a slightly overweight, 55-year old nun with a sharp wit and a LOUD whistle, did not show any mercy during our 45-minute gym class. During school I was exercising, moving my body around, at some point of the day. When I walked into a gym class yesterday what I saw was, again, disheartening. Because space is so limited in NYC schools, often there are as many as 200 students in gym “class” in one period. This is at least the case at the school I work at. What results is major overcrowding and disorganization during the one period they are supposed to be active each day. Also, keep in mind that many city public schools also do not have ‘recess’ due to lack of outdoor space (sad, huh… think about all those poor, hormone-crazed middle schoolers! Now wonder I catch them running around the hallways more than they should!). What I saw was 98% of the girls sitting in their gym clothes (if they even chose to change) against the wall, in groups, chatting. All the boys were running around playing an aggressive game of basketball. It was so bizarre and unfortunate. Something is lacking and I am starting to understand what this youth obesity problem is a major problem. I wonder if the schools are doing enough – and I mean the low-income schools. Another thing to keep in mind is that we do not have space and sometimes money to offer more than two or three organized sports for the students as well. That has a major trickle-effect not only with obesity problems, but also with helping keep these kids off the streets during the hours right after school ends. Most kids get into trouble during the few hours after school is over when they are often unsupervised (b/w 3pm and 6pm).

Finally, the straw that broke the camels back was last week when I took a large group of my seniors on a college tour trip. Because our kids are from low-income backgrounds, they are eligible for free lunch. Out of 40 kids on the trip, about 10 requested a free bagged lunch from the school. When I looked in the bag I had mixed feelings. There were cut apples in a baggie (but were already browning at 8AM, making them look pretty unappetizing), apple juice (decent choice, but sugary!) and for their entree – a sad-looking yellow-cheese sandwich on white bread. I know it is a free lunch, but isn’t there any way to get wheat bread for these kids? And yellow American? I know it’s cheap, but it just looks unhealthy and processed. If a kid is hungry, they are going to eat it even if it’s (ewwwww!) on brown bread! I know this issue has been slowly getting better in schools – soda machines have all been eliminated and the snack which is available is fruit), but there’s still snack machines with chips in it. I can not tell you how many kids choose to eat breakfast on the go and then wait till 3PM to use the $2 their guardian/parent gave them for an after-school snack on their late lunch – fast food. This happens. I’ve witnessed it too many times and it makes me sad.

I did have a breakthrough the other day while I was eating my homemade stuffed cabbage at my desk (post/recipe coming soon!) and two students asked me what that was and then asked for a taste. They like it!! Healthy, ground pork stuffed cabbage rolls! And they wanted the recipe! It helped give me hope again that this world is not just filled with fast-food junkies.

Does anyone else have a story to share on this subject? Am I alone in my feelings? Is this stuff happening in higher-income schools or in the suburbs/private schools? I’m curious, please comment if you can.


6 thoughts on “Free Lunch for the Inner-City Kids – Does Free Mean it Needs to Be Crap?

  1. Hi there 🙂 I definitely understand your concerns. I happen to be a school counselor too! (well, i’m still in my internship, but am there often enough to feel like it is my full-time job!) At my school, the lunch menu actually says at the bottom that “each day, school lunches fulfill the food pyramid recommendations for a healthy and balanced lunch…” or something along those lines. But a lot of times, sugary, canned fruits or FRUIT ROLL-UPS are the only thing from the fruit group on the kid’s plates, and two leaves of iceberg lettuce with dressing on top counts as their veggie. Smiley-faced french fries are often the carbs, and fried chicken nuggets are often the protein. Low-fat milk is probably one of the only healthy things I see the kids eating.

    What’s so hard about providing whole-wheat breads and fruit, or at least 100% juice!? BALANCED doesn’t necessarily mean HEALTHY!

    (and how often do you see american cheese show up in foodie blogs? bleah!)

    I’m glad that you got some of your students to see that cabbage is tasty! For one of my projects, I’m sending a newsletter home to parents about healthy habits. I’m going to include a few fun recipes that kids will like to help make and that are healthy too.

    Ok, I will now wrap up the longest blog comment in the history of time 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for the comment, Katie. Really, good luck in your internship. I was there last year, girl! Unpaid and working your buns off. Keep at it! Let me know if any of the kids or parents are responsive to your newsletter. I’d be really curious. Good luck! -amy

  3. I really like your blog and I enjoyed this article. I first got turned on to nutrition when I worked with behavioral disorder teenagers – I was amazed at all the sugar and caffeine they were allowed while being medicated for hyper activity. I’m currently reading the Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and to see how systemic junk food is into our culture and politics is stunning. Thanks for writing this! Best, Maria from Sacred Harvest

  4. Thank you for the kind words, Maria. I’m definitely going to check out the book you recommended. I originally wrote this post just to get my disgust off my chest, but now I’m actually noticing more and more stuff when it comes to these kids eating habits. Let’s continue to talk about it and make others aware – that’s how change can really occur. Thanks again!

  5. I’ve taught in public schools for 15 years, and it is amazing how the food teenagers eat affects not only mood and behavior, but also the ability to learn. It is just a fact that everyone knows that the greatest discipline problems occur in the period after lunch when the kids are crashing off of their sugar highs, and buzzing on caffine. Diet directy affects student performance, and the sad fact is that we are a culture that is inundated with junk food. At schools with a higher SES, the kids will still opt for vending machines over the cafeteria because the cafeteris is largely pre-fabbed steamtable crap from the lowest bidder, who, at my district, happens to be Sodexo–a major corp that has the wherewithall to make a difference, but still feeds kids pizza with french fries as a valid lunch option.
    Jamie Oliver has started a national campaign in Britain on exactly this issue. the “Feed me Better” petition spurred changes in national school lunch standards. It is an ongoing campaign and the journey is fascinating.

  6. bea – thank you so much for this well thought-out comment. we really appreciate it. my husband is british and we often talk about how ahead they are with things that just take a bit of thought and a conscience – environmental issues, social issues (gay marriage) and now obesity issues. i wish america would catch up and really get with it and DO something!
    thanks again.

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