Guest blogger: School food service director on ingredients: "*** Our resident food service director Ms A is back to share more information from her unique perspective. Read her previous post on pizza ***
The Ingredient list and what it suggests about school food
It can be as easy as peeling a label off the cardboard packaging and taping it to a wall, yet posting ingredient lists of food served in school cafeterias isn’t standard policy. In my last piece for Mrs. Q, I blogged that there are 62 ingredients in my school’s pizza. This information created a buzz among readers because that is a surprising number of ingredients for a plain slice. But what is more surprising is that so few of you have access to this information. It’s standard for processed foods to come with an ingredient list at the supermarket, and it should be the same in school.
For parents and students, displaying ingredients just makes so much sense. Everyone can make informed decisions about what they’re eating, especially those with food allergies or sensitivities.
For me, the reasons are somewhat different. I would love it if parents demanded that they have easily accessible information. Why?
Posting ingredient lists allows everyone to talk about the food openly and dispels misinformation about school food and the school kitchen. Parents may make negative assumptions about the food coming out of the school kitchen, while the kitchen staff might feel the need to defend the food or be less than completely honest about it. It’s a truly unfortunate situation. Make no mistake - no one is thrilled about frozen and canned food, but such is the state of school food.
At my school no one sees nutrition information except the kitchen staff and our health director. I’m not sure how this came to pass in my school or elsewhere. Parental demand for ingredient lists would bring a level of transparency to school food and shine light on everyone’s dirty little secret.
Making ingredient lists available allows us to begin having concrete discussions about school lunch. We all know that school lunch needs improvement, so let’s come up with a list of priorities based on the most basic components of school lunch, the ingredients that go into the food. It’s a start to a conversation about explicit problems in school foods and the types food changes needed. It might be opening Pandora’s box, but at least it’s better than sitting on the issue.
With information available, it is easier to hold those who make purchasing decisions accountable for what they buy. The truth about school food is often in the ingredient lists. Gauging improvement is much easier and more reliable with two ingredient lists side by side.
Knowledge is power
Having ingredient lists easily accessible still doesn’t solve the underlying problems. It simply places information into the hands of the school community so that no one can ignore the facts any longer. The initiative, budget, and determination to carry out change do not come with ingredient lists. Parental demand for ingredient lists, however, signals to your school that the community cares about its food. It is a starting point, and one that may help your school cafeteria garner the support it needs to switch from thaw-and-serve to meals cooked in the school’s kitchen.
I help run a school cafeteria, and I’m excited to be part of the movement to shake up school lunch in the years to come. I can’t do it on my own because I don’t have control over many aspects of the cafeteria. I’m very lucky that my cafeteria has had the support to make many changes already that place my school ahead of the curve. There’s still a long way to go, and I need community support.
Recently, I put up a few ingredient lists to highlight an improvement. We began purchasing fresh, locally made bagels without the artificial dough conditioners that our frozen bagels came with. I bet other schools that have made positive changes are also making more information about their school food available. Sadly, it seems that the majority of schools out there are slow to make improvements. Demanding ingredients lists from your school might be a call to action.
Ms. A can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and her blog Brave New Lunch.
NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally, and are not receiving compensation.