TASTE HYDE PARK: Reflections on School Lunch


School Lunch. Yuck. I think I lived off of tater-tots for lunch during my elementary school years. Universal kid favorites like pizza and chicken nuggets just weren’t the same in the school lunch room. Neither was the dining experience.

The lunchroom is where I first experienced milk coming out of my (and at some point everyone’s) nose. I learned that a pat of butter will stick to the ceiling for years if thrown just right. I was robbed (well, someone took my lunch money) and sometimes ridiculed for getting “free lunch” and probably at some point someone put a booger on my lunch tray without my knowing it.

While attending the “Envisioning the Chicago Free School” community-event this month at Augustana Lutheran Church, I found myself in the kitchen area and wondered what lunch would be like when the school opens in the fall. The appliances were modern and the counters and cabinets were sleek and clean. I imagined the kids having crepes for breakfast, local and sustainable ingredients being delivered by cargo bikes, an espresso machine perhaps…(for parent/teacher meetings).

The main room has huge floor to ceiling windows, looking out on the lawn and across 55th Street at the firehouse. Lots of light and room to move around, unlike the some of the dreary lunchrooms I remember being herded into as a kid.

I went to the Albany Free School’s website and read the history of the school’s food program. I tried recalling memories of my own school lunches. I found the guidelines that the USDA put into place with the help of Mrs. Obama. I read some news stories about lunchroom controversies across the nation. It was all informative but hard to piece together.

Then I found the CPS menu for the month of February, 2014. I realized the best source of information would be from my 11-year-old son. He is not a picky eater but like me he is skeptical of the lunch menu and was surprised when I asked him to try the curried chicken at Ray School on Thursday.

Curry Chicken? Yes. It is a special recipe by kids from CPS through a USDA sponsored contest and was added to the menu this week. According to my lunchroom source, the chicken was good and all the other kids were saying so too. Who would have thought? Public school kids are making the recipes while sharing it with their peers and all of it according to USDA guidelines.

I was glad to get some thoughts from the Chicago Free School’s Lauren Beitler also this week on the subject. The school will allow children to have input in every aspect of their learning environment and I imagined that the opportunity for learning about nutrition, health and everything else going on in the kitchen would possibly be part of the curriculum.

“Cooking with children is a powerful learning experience on a number of levels. It’s a hands-on way for them to apply knowledge from other subjects – for example adding fractions to double a recipe or thinking about chemical reactions to get bread that is perfectly leavened. It develops their abilities to plan and organize complex, multi-step tasks. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem when they make something themselves that looks and tastes delicious. It empowers them to know that they can take care of their own basic needs through cooking. And it gives them a powerful incentive to expand their tastes and try something new – when a child cooks something, they are always excited to eat it. Plus cooking and eating together builds community as students see that they can create something that others appreciate and enjoy,” said Beitler.

So, the school lunchroom can almost be like a communal kitchen, where students and their teachers come together to create something for everyone to enjoy and they learn basic and eventually advanced skills that they can apply to everyday life.

Makes me wish I was a kid again.