Lost in Lunch Lady Land

“Woke up in the morning, put on my new plastic glove. Served some reheated salsbury steak with a little slice of love…”

If you recognize the above quote, I assume you have seen arguably the greatest Saturday Night Live skit of all time, Adam Sandler on the guitar and Chris Farley starring as, The Lunch Lady. This topic, the mother of the school lunchroom, shall be served as the honorary first of my foodie rants here with The In Crowd. Recently, I had the pure joy of revisiting this nearly twenty-year old video clip of Farley high-kicking his way into a land where hoagies, grinders, and meatloaf sandwiches live happily with the tater tots and casseroles. Aside from a strange craving for vending machine bean and cheese burritos, this video also left me wondering about the lunch ladies of today.  More specifically, where they stand in the declining state of government provided public school lunches, and how they compare to one special lady I met while I was working as an English teacher in Spain.

Before I begin my tirade on why food in our schools is a shameful joke, I’ll hone in on Isabel, someone who changed how I feel about the women and the food of the school cafeteria. Isabel, you should know, is the most angelic being to ever use an immersion blender. We worked together at the same public primary school in a suburb of Madrid, Spain. While I was doing my best dodging snot rockets and miming the five senses, Isabel was greeting daily deliveries of eggs, meat and produce, whipping up homemade Spanish classics like tortilla and paella with the same conviction as Julia Childs, and scrubbing down cast iron skillets clean from varying types of fatty pork bits. Isabel came to school every morning, dressed in full on lunch lady uniform, including hairnet and orthopedic Velcro shoes, yet she carried herself like someone in heels heading up an elevator to some Wilshire Blvd. penthouse. Without skipping a single day, her eyes were always rimmed with sea foam green eyeliner that made her look not like a tinker bell hooker, but stunning. It was like she was a 65-year old mermaid fresh out of the Mediterranean, and madre mia she could really throw down in the kitchen.

The clock finally says 11:00am, two hours of peeling kids from my legs and ankles have passed, which means it’s time for a midmorning snack. I walk from the school’s main building, across the playground, past the preschool and into the cafeteria. I initially expect the offerings to be nothing more than an Uncrustable or a McDonald’s inspired breakfast Poptart. But wait, what’s that my ears are hearing? That could only be one thing…fried potatoes…gracias. Today has already handed me three kids with nosebleeds, a slew of loose teeth, two full-blown tantrums, and a Metro strike, so I clearly deserve something fried. Instead of a Rice Krispy Treat packaged in 1997, I am greeted with two copper pans each spanning two feet in diameter, filled with a bed of fried potatoes, morsels of chorizo, onion, and littered with fried to perfection eggs, yolks the color of turmeric coursing over everything. Ahhhh glorious satisfaction, I sit down and fill up, washing it all down with fresh brewed coffee and steamed milk.

I could literally gush about what I ate at school for lunch for years, if not lifetimes. I also admit that it was the school lunches, not the sole satisfaction of positively influencing growing minds that kept me coming to school everyday. Teaching is hard, harder than I ever imagined. Actually, I never want to be a teacher again, and I more than ever understand the necessity of summer vacation. Upon my return to the US, mostly while sitting in L.A. traffic, I would ruminate in the past few years, and one person I could not get out of my mind was Isabel. How could it be after all that I had done and seen, eaten and drunk, Isabel the lunch lady stands at the forefront amidst my frequent Madrid flash backs.

The food system I came home to saddens and disappoints me. I shall warn you all now that the following paragraphs of this article were written by Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver’s lovechild, so brace yourselves for that. Here in the US, nearly 31 million children depend on the government’s subsidized National School Lunch Program. For some, it means 2/3 of food consumed daily comes from the school cafeteria. I understand that is a very large financial burden, and thus it has never been top priority for government spending. Not to mention, the deep ties our nation’s meat, dairy, corn, and soy industries have on USDA policies makes it very difficult to break free from these food groups. What did become very clear, given the two years I spent working in the Spanish public school system, is that both kids and teachers need to be nourished, and it is possible to do given some, although big, changes.  

When was the last time, if ever, you thought of your childhood lunch lady as a princess? Instead, we have this image of a middle age, hairnet wearing, bad breathed, lipstick outside the lines, overweight woman who dishes up nonedible sludge from a tray the spent the last five years in a freezer. It is absolutely impossible that all lunch ladies really appear like this, but after decades of increasingly poorer food options, this image has stuck like white on rice. I hypothesize that this illustration of lunchroom ladies would change, if only we could change what is being served. I know that if my job was to feed, but what I was being given to feed was best used to stuff a sixth grader’s bra, it would be impossible to find pride in my work.

I thought of Isabel as a modern day super hero, a real person working hard to positively influence the lives of others. What allowed her to be this hero was the food that came into her kitchen every day, real, whole food that turned me into a meat eating, dessert after every meal kind of gal. I know, you are probably assuming that I became a sluggish version of myself, looking like Kirstie Alley circa 2007, but I didn’t, and I didn’t have a parasite either. I believe that putting whole foods into your body, made from scratch in a loosely balanced manner, is far healthier than any diet bar, on-the-go shake, or factory made microwaved meal. I’m not saying what I ate is healthy for all people and I am not prescribing America’s children pork fat as a wholesome option, although I can’t say I’m entirely against it either. All I am trying to get at is, food in schools needs to be whole upon arrival, where it is then made into simple, but nourishing meals that are affordable and good.

That being said, the solution to this problem is of course costly and requires huge changes on a systemic level. In terms of the system I’m referring to, if you want to learn more about it, Birke Baehr frames this discussion in a marvelously simple way, and with great hand gestures. And while the lunchroom I experienced in Madrid perhaps is a far off reality for public schools stateside, I think there is growing awareness regarding the treatment of food in the 21st century. I do think Europe’s restricted use of GMO products also gives them an advantage when it comes to government sponsored food programs, which is an industry that this country is profiting from and does not reject. It’s a huge bonus as well that the food culture throughout much of Europe takes great pride in lunching and dining for hours with loads of wine and company.

Don’t fret America. I think we can all agree Birke and other eager, like-minded homeschoolers will tip the balance, and everything will be fine. In fact, actress Amy Pohler is rumored to reverse this ugly lunch lady stigma by portraying a fierce but pretty, crime fighting lunch lady, a story based on author Jarrett Krosoczka’s “Lunch Lady” series. Before we know it, the Lunch Lady will be making a comeback bigger than Britney and saving the world. The difficult part is finding a way to replace the faux with the whole on such a large scale. If only Chris Farley, I mean The Lunch Lady, where here to help us (sigh)...  

Guest Author Kim Brounstein is a lover of food and music, a former UCLA Bruin, and a Los Angeles native. She has come back to the United States after spending two glorious years teaching English (and a bit of yoga) in Spain.


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