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April 17, 2014 / Rick Swann

School Cafeteria Food

I ate cafeteria food growing up. Based on that experience, over the years of teaching in public schools I have avoided eating cafeteria food as much as possible. Here in Seattle we have a central kitchen, so food is always cooked or packaged ahead of time and trucked out to schools each day where it is disbursed to students.

My first school as a teacher was an elementary school across a field from a junior high school. The students insisted that their cafeteria food was leftovers from the junior high school, particularly the students with older siblings who went there. The older kids had more choices (they could order a burger and fries for lunch, for instance) and the myth was that the younger kids didn’t get those choices because the “good stuff” was all eaten up. Unfortunately, the good stuff isn’t good for you.

That’s one of the areas where school gardens are showing promise. Numerous studies show that kids are more likely to eat fresh foods and vegetables that they grow themselves or pick themselves. Seeing food produced and meeting the people who produce it also leads to better eating habits.

There are groups working to change traditional cafeteria fare. Right now the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference is happening in Dallas. I attended the last conference in Burlington, VT and was impressed by all the people dedicated to giving kids healthier food choices in school lunches. After all, this represents the bulk of food intake each day for many children across America.The sponsors of the conference, the National Farm to School Network (, has a mission of giving students access to healthy, local foods as well a educational opportunities around good nutrition such as farm field trips, cooking lessons, and, of course, school gardens.

The National Farm to School Network has active chapters in every state. Find out what is going on in your area and make sure that your local school is participating in some way. At the least, work to ensure that there is a salad bar in your cafeteria with fresh, locally sources, fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, whenever you write something, good editing eliminates chunks of your work. This poem was cut from Our School Garden!, but I will offer it up now:


Our lunch is leftovers from the junior high—

That’s why we rarely get pizza and fries.


We get Sloppy Joes and canned green peas,

Slimy spinach and soggy beans.


What I desire is a veggie that snaps.

Maybe with rice in a lettuce wrap.


I wouldn’t have said this a year ago

When my favorite food was cookie dough,


But eating healthy isn’t hard when

The food is from our school garden.

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