Letter From a Lunch Lady

In last week’s newsletter (click here to sign up, if you haven’t already) I wrote about school lunch programs, and how they cut costs by serving pre-made food in boxes rather than cooking. I got this letter in response.


I am a lunch lady at my local public school. What you said in your newsletter about schools not wanting to hire people to actually COOK, is correct. They don’t want to SPEND THE MONEY on employees taking all the time it would take to make things from scratch, or even partially from scratch.

The school I work for serves about 1000 (maybe a little less) students. We cook all of the food at one school and then it gets transported to all of the other schools (elementary, middle school). Currently we don’t even “technically” have a head cook, a lady is filling in for the head cook position until they (the school/our boss) figures out what to do. Almost everything we cook is already pre-manufactured … out of a box/can, add water, etc.

Sometimes we’ll serve something like “goulash” which is made with hamburger, noodles, seasonings, tomato sauce … that’s about the closest we get to making anything “from scratch”.

Schools do not want to spend the money it would take to have employees in the kitchen cooking healthy meals, it would take too much time, too many hours. With all the budget cuts, it’s much cheaper to just buy stuff that can be slapped on a pan and cooked. I don’t like it, but that’s a fact.

Since I started working at this job (about three years ago) we’ve had about 4 employees either quit or retire and none of those positions were filled by anyone. The rest of us have just had to adapt and keep going.

Another thing that is unbelievable to me is the commodities we get from the government! It’s CRAP! Sometimes we get meat and one wonders what is in it! We’ll get stuff from the government that doesn’t have an ingredient list on it! We got bags and bags of trail mix recently … nuts, fruits etc (pretty healthy in this case, actually) except that there were NOWHERE on the boxes or bags that told a person what exactly was in the trail mix! I do need to give credit however, several times we have received whole wheat dried pasta/noodles to use. But in most cases, what we receive in commodities looks like someone’s rejects.

I’m not sure what the answer is … especially with all the budget cuts schools are making. It’s a vicious cycle, however, ‘cuz the more crap food you feed the kids, the more behavior problems you’re going to have. And what about what the kids eat at home? I guess one could say that if you feed them well at breakfast and lunch for nine months, it’s kind of like building on a solid foundation? Maybe that will plant seeds for healthier eating and living in the rest of their lives when they’re not at school? I don’t know the answers, I just know it’s frustrating.


This is Drew again. I wonder if it really is cheaper serving the processed foods. The reason food manufacturers love them is the higher profit margin. In general the more highly processed a food is the more it costs and the more profit there is in it.

Home cooks have a hard time matching the cost of pre-made, because you can’t buy fresh food in bulk and still use it before it goes bad. But institutional kitchens — schools, hospitals, etc. — can do large orders and keep waste to a minimum. With good planning, of course.

So why is the school lunch program so committed to packaged, processed food? Is it because large companies score large contracts with the politicians in charge? Hiring thousands of qualified cooks to work in schools across the country might be cheaper, but doesn’t leave an opening for steering large contracts. Gah, I’m sounding like a conspiracy nut.

When I was in the Marines, there were people back in the kitchen cooking from scratch 20 hours a day. It might not have always been the tastiest food, but it wasn’t re-heated from a box. If the U.S.M.C. — which was still using Korean War-era flak jackets at boot camp in the 90s — could save money buying prepared foods, they’d have done it.

Are there any current military people or family members reading this? Are they still cooking from scratch, or are they doing the same thing as the school lunches?