Gimme yer lunch photos
March 8, 2012 1:25 PM   Subscribe

American Lunchroom features reader-submitted photos of school lunchroom food from around the nation.
posted by griphus (64 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
bagel smiles? how have i lived my entire life without bagel smiles?
posted by elizardbits at 1:30 PM on March 8, 2012

Oh, man. This takes me right back to high school. I can taste that pizza now.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:32 PM on March 8, 2012

Yeah, this is why I and my future kids want to move to France.
posted by peacheater at 1:34 PM on March 8, 2012

Chicken Nuggets and Spinach is the saddest photo all year. :-(
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:35 PM on March 8, 2012 [13 favorites]

My oldest daughter attended this school.
posted by Xoebe at 1:35 PM on March 8, 2012

that isn't spinach, it's boiled despair
posted by elizardbits at 1:36 PM on March 8, 2012 [11 favorites]

When I taught high school, the first day I just assumed that I would buy my lunch along with the kids.

Our cafeteria was staffed with people who knew how to cook, as they demonstrated for the Thanksgiving lunch which was prepared entirely by hand. The rest of the 'food' was so starchy and glutinous, that one look at it made me a member of the brown-bag club.

Shall I also mention that if you wanted, and you had money, Papa John's pizza was available for purchase?

And we wonder why our kids are so fat.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:38 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Needs a NotSafeForLunch tag.
posted by usonian at 1:40 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's an oldie but a goodie: Renegade lunch lady Ann Cooper gives a TED talk about reinventing the school lunch.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:40 PM on March 8, 2012

Sure, I hate school food too, but how many of these are intentional? If there's choice that usually means that you can pick something weird, like the none pizza with left beef.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:41 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, you should all follow @ladyofthelunch to find out what you're having for lunch today, you ungrateful little shits.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:42 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Apparently the only two colors available to school lunches are "green" and "despair."
posted by enn at 1:44 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Back when my kids were in grade school, parents were invited to come and go to lunch with their kids at any time.

The school served that rectangular school pizza, and I always went on the days that was served. Lord help me, I loved that stuff.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:48 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

For some people it's bugs. For me it's school lunch. Not gonna look.
posted by scalefree at 1:50 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lord help me, I loved that stuff.

crust soggy yet chewy, cheese stringy yet somehow gritty, sugary tomato sauce an abomination unto the tomato lord, and yet somehow it is so tasty and i kind of want some right now.

there is no logic to childhood comfort foods, apparently.
posted by elizardbits at 1:53 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Forget the food, how can a child have a feeling of selfworth if everyday they eat from a styrofoam tray with plastic knives and forks? What does it say about how much people care for them if everything is throwaway? They're not in prison yet.
posted by Jehan at 1:53 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

These don't actually look that bad to me. There's a fair number of fruits and vegetables and most of the meals contain a bit of variety. Sure, it's not meals I would want as an adult, but given the palates of children, most of them don't seem half bad.

I'm a little worried that someone is planning to put that grape jelly on their cornbread though.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:55 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kids don't care. I survived eating school lunch and the only thing I remember about it is that nacho day was awesome! Back in those days I was always doing some physical sport after school and I simply couldn't eat enough calories. At home I'd finish a bottle of Coke and a box of Cheez-its every other day. I turned out just fine.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:58 PM on March 8, 2012

Forget the food, how can a child have a feeling of selfworth if everyday they eat from a styrofoam tray with plastic knives and forks?

My fellow Americans, under my administration I promise a single pacesetting of Wallace Grande Baroque Sterling to every schoolchild in America!!!
posted by nathancaswell at 2:02 PM on March 8, 2012

PLACE SETTING godddamnit
posted by nathancaswell at 2:03 PM on March 8, 2012

Also, Cream of Wheat is not fucking lunch.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:04 PM on March 8, 2012

I don't know about y'all, but most of these look a lot better than the school lunches I ate 25 years ago.
posted by kamikazegopher at 2:04 PM on March 8, 2012

It's painful to look at. I realize that most of the problem with school lunch menus are that there is a shit ton of red tape in making them up- school lunch reembersment funds are provided by the federal government- so that all the lunches must meet certain standards. Unfortunatly those standards are very hard to change- and food lobbysts (no, really) fight to the teeth to keep school lunches more profitable than healthy.

To be fair, most of the guidlines were made up when the biggest problem was empty bellies- kids literally starving- so calorically dense food like potatos made sense. You would want to stuff the kids with as much calories as quickly as you could as cheaply as you could- so when they went home to no dinner or breakfast it wouldn't be AS BAD.

Now the problem is empty calories- cheap food served at home and cheap food served at school and ends up with fat, malnurished kids.

end of it all- my future children will be brown bagging. goddamn.
posted by Blisterlips at 2:05 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stay away from me-eee...
posted by Kloryne at 2:10 PM on March 8, 2012

Welp, those are some of the saddest "meals" I've ever laid eyes on. But what I really want to know: is ketchup still officially considered a vegetable?
posted by pyrex at 2:12 PM on March 8, 2012

Also, Cream of Wheat is not fucking lunch.

you're right, but it was labled "breakfast"
posted by Blisterlips at 2:14 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

is ketchup still officially considered a vegetable?

It's probably been reclassified a "nutriceutical", with the packets now identified as "dosage-controlled portion-pacs".
posted by aramaic at 2:16 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

rectangular school pizza

Oh god, yes. I was usually a brown-bagger, but I was all about pizza day. They served it with tater tots and salad (lettuce) with ranch dressing (which we dipped our tots in).

Since I was in the second lunch session, any leftover tots were offered after everyone went through the line. Glorious.
posted by Fleebnork at 2:23 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

peacheater: "Yeah, this is why I and my future kids want to move to France"

You're right, there !

I wish you could see what the kids eat in some of the schools I've been working at, and the smile on the face of the kids when they knew that that cook is on duty.
posted by nicolin at 2:27 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Horrifying, for the most part...

As a kid in the '60's our school lunches were awesome. A real cafeteria with real lunchladies making real food! Fresh baked everything! And if you were careful enough you could hide the spinach in your milk carton and go back for seconds!

That changed in the '70's and by the end of the decade it was all prefab crap.
posted by wallabear at 2:30 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also: is that 3 things of dressing I see in this salad? I imagine just one of those cups contain more calories than the chicken + croutons + salad combined. Make the damn salad more interesting and maybe students wouldn't want to drown it in dressing.
posted by pyrex at 2:38 PM on March 8, 2012

I recognized a Mrs Q lunch right away. I'm always floored by how they're packaged.

Our school is trying to bring in a hot lunch program a couple of days a week next year - an excellent one - but I kind of wish my kid could be exposed to crappy school lunches now and then, even just so that she has the cultural reference points later on. She's eight and has not yet experienced lunchroom staples such as tater tots and square pizza and five cent pretzel rods. Sure, she'll have memories of curried fish and chickpeas on rice, but it's not the same. Oh dear - how is it I love to make my kid really fun lunches, but am feeling like a negligent mother because she's never eaten ice cream from a tiny plastic cup with a small wooden paddle served to her by ladies in hairnets?
posted by peagood at 2:41 PM on March 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

I missed the "food" part and was expecting actual lunch rooms. I am oddly disappointed.
posted by deborah at 2:41 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My god, it's full of starch.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:45 PM on March 8, 2012 [10 favorites]

Even the saddest lunch photos there (hello, nuggets and spinach) look approximately one million times more nutritious and palatable than the sludge I was served in Baltimore City Public School during the 80s/90s. I really wish someone had a picture of THAT, just for nostalgia purposes and to believe that things have at least gotten a little better since then?
posted by joan_holloway at 2:46 PM on March 8, 2012

You know, I spent most of my school lunch eating days in California and Arizona. I remember that I enjoyed lunch and that it was something to look forward to.

Every day the lunch ladies either made fresh yeast rolls or corn bread (in Arizona). Yum!

We made fun of it, but the lunch was pretty tasty.

Some of my favorites:

Bubbly Cheese Wheelies (toasted English muffins with cheese)
Chlli beans and corn bread
Beef Stew
Enchiladas (we called them lumps because they were HUGE)

And a dish that will stay in my brain forever Barf Beef in Gravy. Ground beef in an oniony brown gravy over mashed potatoes. You got a trough of the stuff and it was very good.

There was always a veg or salad and fruit. Sheet cake, jello and every so often a cookie was dessert.

Now THAT was lunch.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:47 PM on March 8, 2012

And now that I've looked at all the photos, some of those trays don't have much food on them. I hope that's the kid's choice and not the school.
posted by deborah at 2:50 PM on March 8, 2012

Ah, the square pizza. That takes me back.

I wish there was a photo somewhere of some of the god-awful slop we were served in Junior High, circa 1987.

I think the absolute worst was some sort of Jell-O salad; I don't remember what they called it. Basically they took everything left over for the week....bits of ground beef, remnants from iceberg lettuce salads, macaroni noodles...and then they suspended it all in green Jell-O.

I shit you not.
posted by kaseijin at 2:56 PM on March 8, 2012

They're not in prison yet

Are you sure? Other than a judge on the front end and no 24X7 guards.....
posted by rough ashlar at 3:00 PM on March 8, 2012

This one feels like a reinterpretation of the Mexican standoff scene from Resevoir Dogs.
posted by Kabanos at 3:00 PM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the absolute worst was some sort of Jell-O salad; I don't remember what they called it. Basically they took everything left over for the week....bits of ground beef, remnants from iceberg lettuce salads, macaroni noodles...and then they suspended it all in green Jell-O.

This is a felony in eleven states.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:08 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Holy crap, peagood, that lunchbox of yours is a work of art! I now imagine you as the lady in this great Bento box tutorial. Got any more photos? :-D

Back to mass-distributed meals: as a comparison to these piles of sadness, I'd love to see similar photos from the armed forces. Do the corporations who provide school lunches also supply the various branches? I'm sure they're as valuable if not more so to lobbyists.
posted by pyrex at 3:08 PM on March 8, 2012

I remember a $2.20 lunch special that was very popular at my high school:

$1.00 fries
$0.20 gravy
$0.75 can of coke
$0.25 single cigarette sold illegally to minors at the nearby corner store
posted by Kabanos at 3:17 PM on March 8, 2012

Suddenly dead frogs dancing don't look so bad.
posted by Splunge at 3:20 PM on March 8, 2012

Hmm, I don't remember much from my early institutional lunches phase, except hooray! nachos and square pizza. But I distinctly recall back in college, when I almost cried tears of joy in the dining hall when I found out it was Indian Day.
posted by indubitable at 3:24 PM on March 8, 2012

So sad seeing all this pre-packaged crap. How can anything nutritious come out of a cellophane wrapper?

I remember having really good school lunches growing up in Florida, at least in grade school and middle school. Everything was prepared on site, including soft yeasty dinner rolls that came with every meal. I wonder if southern style cooking just meshes better with institutional cooking? I remember lots of collard greens, mac and cheese, corn, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. We also had a large hispanic population, so that meant wonderful lunches like arroz con pollo, picadillo, black beans and rice, and best of all, cuban sandwiches. In junior high, the cuban sandwich was always a second option, if you didn't like the main dish of the day. One of the lunch ladies would come around to our homeroom each morning and take orders for cuban sandwiches. They were served on real cuban bread from a local bakery.

As a kid, I never understood the conventional attitude about yucky school lunches. But looking at a lot of these pathetic examples, I can see that I was insanely lucky.
posted by amusebuche at 4:09 PM on March 8, 2012

I grew up preferring not to eat lunch at school at all rather than eat the food the school provided. By my senior year, I think I moved up to having an ice cream bar or something. I then went on to teach in a school which didn't even have a lunch program (by choice) until a couple years ago - every single kid brought lunch from home. The school where I currently teach has food that rivals most of the restaurants I go to... but for tuition just under 40K, you'd hope that would be the case, I guess.
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:46 PM on March 8, 2012

For everyone pining for the square school pizza of their youth - When I arrived in New England my roommate/gf(now ex)introduced me to Ellios. My god, it was like a little bomb of remembrance went off in my brain...

Sadly only available in the NorthEastern US, now that I moved back home to Tennessee...
posted by pupdog at 4:50 PM on March 8, 2012

These don't actually look that bad to me.

Me neither. I was gonna say "Challenge: Find a vegetarian entree that doesn't have cheese." but then there's Carrots, Broccoli, Cauliflower on the first page.

The San Francisco elementary school district has 1 non-cheese vegetarian option for all of March (PDF for menu link.)

Y'all noticed this hasn't been updated in well over a year, right ... ?

But I distinctly recall back in college, when I almost cried tears of joy in the dining hall when I found out it was Indian Day.

My college was all-you-can-eat with a decent chef at my dorm area. I swear I had 18 pieces of London Broil one night (before I went veggie), and would devour full loaves of freshly baked wheat bread. That's actually where I became vegetarian because the veggie food was so good. (Mmmmmm, walnut loaf.)

Oh lord to be 19 again!
posted by mrgrimm at 4:57 PM on March 8, 2012

amusebuche: "I wonder if southern style cooking just meshes better with institutional cooking?"

Looking through all these pages and with my understanding of American school food, this is what I've been wondering myself. Is Southern cooking really this represented in the rest of the country? I'm Swedish but my experience is split between brown-bags and school-provided lunches.

During my days in international schools back in Africa, all my lunches were brown-bagged and mostly adequate (my mom wasn't very educated nutritional-wise back in the day) and in some cases I augmented the bag with in-school options (I wasn't very nutritionally educated either; British meat-pies FTW!).

Then I got to experience boarding school which was all-the-way school food; breakfast, dinner, and lunch. Breakfast, at least, was up to us. Pretty much a buffet of typically Swedish breakfast food; bread, jam, cereal, cheese, cold cuts, milk, fruit, etc. Mostly cold stuff. No complaints :-J

Most days lunch was something warm obviously but pre-prepped, like most schools in the country; pasta, pizza, meat, potatoes, rice, hamburgers, pancakes, etc. Typical mixed Swedish "husmanskost"/cheaply produced international stuff - not bad but never great.

Dinner would usually follow the "husmanskost" style but could deviate at random. Some days we were given raw materials to cook at will, but most days we received containers of individual parts of the mandated meal as was dictated by the school kitchen. Most of the time the meals were fine, but I especially remember the time we received a batch of boiled potatoes that turned out to be rotten, and we didn't discover this fact until it was dinner time.
posted by pyrex at 5:03 PM on March 8, 2012

Sadly lacking in vegetables.

Needs moar ketchup!
posted by BlueHorse at 5:38 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Worse still is that most schools in districts of any size don't do their own food prep anymore. The food is prepared at a central location in the morning, then distributed to schools by lunchtime. (Or before, in which case they must be held at a safe temperature somehow.) So it's not even freshly, locally prepared crap. It's bussed-in crap. It's worse than airline food, and this is what a lot of our kids eat every day -- especially those the over 20 million kids who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.

It's fucked up. Buying whole or minimally processed ingredients and cooking them in a simple, healthy way ought to be much more financially feasible than buying trucked-in, packaged, processed products and then bussing them around town. But for whatever reason, the system -- the infrastructure, and the politics -- just isn't set up that way.

There needs to be a bigger revolt. Jamie Oliver is seen as too much fluff, I think. Parents need to get upset about this. (But I fear what happens is that parents who can afford it just send their kids to school with a healthier brown bag. Meanwhile, parents who can't, and whose kids rely on the government-funded and government-prescribed menu, get screwed. Again. Regarding one more thing.)

Also, those poor, poor Brooklyn kids. Their meals looked worst of all.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:26 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also also, I guess I'm biased by the meals I was served in school, in the 80s and 90s in a small Texas town with only one elementary, junior high, and high school. We didn't like it at the time, but looking back I recognize how good we had it. "BBQ" beef. "BBQ" hot dogs (once a month, presumably to stretch the budget). Chicken fried steak. Fried chicken. Enchiladas. Chicken and dumplings. Fresh-baked yeast rolls whose scent started wafting down the hallways at about 10:30 every morning. Fresh-baked cobblers.

I guess those menu items would come no where near passing the USDA's current requirements, but that food is a hell of a lot more honest if you ask me, and those lunch ladies actually MADE it, and for my kid I'd choose it over this one any damn day.

posted by mudpuppie at 6:31 PM on March 8, 2012

Surprised no one has linked to this yet:

The Pink Slime in Your Kid's School Lunch.

Yeah, we pack him a lunch. Sandwich, fruit, juice, another fruit or maybe a nut bar or a cheese stick. Every day.
posted by emjaybee at 6:39 PM on March 8, 2012

We had really good school lunches at my high school. Everything was made in-house and nearly all from scratch. I never ate the plate lunch, though. I'd go through the a la carte line and get a baked potato (loaded with cheese and sour cream) or a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, a packet of Philadelphia cream cheese (to squeeze on the chips, DUH), and a can of Coke. I think I might have had an apple the day my braces came off. Other than that, I ate crap.

My daughter attends our local elementary school (as did my son before her) and the district does okay w/r/t food. It's not stellar by any means and I pack her lunches more often than not. My son, on the other hand, goes to a private school (yay merit scholarships!) and their lunches are amazing. The school hired a chef (a real chef!) years ago and he overhauled the entire system. I interviewed him once (years before my kid started school here) for a culinary school paper and he mentioned that the lunch ladies there weren't too happy with him for changing everything about the way they did things. But things changed anyway and the school even won the American Culinary Federation's school lunch award one year. It's real food, mostly made from scratch: curried chicken and vegetables with naan bread, cheese quesadillas and black beans, homemade tomato soup with garlic french bread grilled cheese.

What's really surprising is that the real food at my son's school doesn't cost much more than the food at my daughter's school. I'm pleased that next school year my daughter will join my son (yay more merit scholarships!) and she'll be able to get away from chicken nuggets and iceberg lettuce salads.
posted by cooker girl at 6:45 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Looking at those pictures made me instantly ask myself, "What did I eat for lunch in high school again?" and then when I remembered, "oh my god, what did I eat for lunch in high school?!" I knew college and half-way decent dorm food with access to plenty of healthy options changed my palate, but I hadn't realized how much it had changed my palate. Now I cannot even conceive of regularly eating the shit I was served in high school lunches. My regular high school lunch was a breaded chicken sandwich with mayo (bland, mystery chicken meat) and fries (terrible fries) or some similar terrible tasting and terrible for you combination. Dining hall food at UC Berkeley was orders of magnitude better (those salad bars! all organic produce! multiple vegetarian and vegan options!), and yet I knew plenty of people who complained about it.

The state of school lunches is just so depressing. How can we expect children to grow up to make smart food choices when the stuff we're serving them at school is both unappetizing and unhealthy? My sixth grade class noticed the hypocrisy, and we wrote letters to the district asking for healthier options for a letter-writing assignment. The district's response? They offered yogurt as a snack option, and we still got the same institutional slop.
posted by yasaman at 7:35 PM on March 8, 2012

School lunches from around the world. A culture that feeds crappy food to children isn't much of a culture.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:28 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, I was always envious of the kids in books and movies who lived places where schools had cafeterias. Now I am not.

On the other hand, I ate an unfilled plain white bread roll, an apple, and two chocolate biscuits every day for lunch for thirteen years, so I'm not sure my nutritional situation or taste experience was any better.
posted by lollusc at 1:38 AM on March 9, 2012

Sad also to see so much styrofoam! At least when they fed us the crap we got in grade school, it was on washable, reusable trays.
posted by statolith at 6:19 AM on March 9, 2012

debra -
I missed the "food" part and was expecting actual lunch rooms. I am oddly disappointed.

I missed it as well, and was very disappointed. Strange how much I wanted to see the actual rooms.

But now I believe I have a project. When I get it up and running I'll post it over at Projects.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 6:23 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like Fleebnork mentions, our elementary school would also do something with the leftover tater tots once everyone had gone through the lunch line. For $2.00, they'd rip off a cookie-sheet-sized piece of aluminum foil and plunk several massive scoops of tots onto it, wrap it into a package, and present it to you.

And yet I wonder why I crave carbs.
posted by rachaelfaith at 6:54 AM on March 9, 2012

Thank you, pyrex! Now I want a piano soundtrack, a narrator and a dog standing by when I make lunches. Not my dog - because my dog is a bit of a jerk. Here are two other lunches and a breakfast from this past Halloween (and the dog who is NOT HELPFUL).

notmuchofa Confession, but I work in our school's lunchroom. We don't serve food, but I'm a supervisor. I don't ever really judge what kids bring, because they rarely pack their own lunches, and hey, I'm not perfect either. But it's such a great chance to make your kid's day better. Lunch is a time for some comfort from a rough day at school (and a torture chamber of its own for some kids) and we have kids that cry if they don't get what they're expecting in their lunch. As much as I looked forward to fish sticks and tater tots on Fridays at school when I was in third grade, one little boy in our lunchroom wants his thermos of Campbell's chicken soup every day; and every time I help him open it, I wait with bated breath as much as he does to see if it's going to be there - and brace for the tears when it's not. For littler kids, food's not just fuel. I wonder when that changes?

For our low-income families, on the day the cheques come in, they'll often show up with something like poutine and a can of pop for their kids as a treat. It goes back to the "Developing a Taste for Shitty Food" and "Extra Money Has to Be Spent Right Goddamn Now!" from the post on the blue not too long ago that linked to the "5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor". Lunchroom food is the taste of childhood for me - equal parts comfort, luxury and poverty. For me it was a treat to buy the hamburger at the school's cafeteria, and to this day, I yearn for soft white buns and the spongy flat texture of "beef" that kind of melds them to the patty. For me, comfort is a Swiss cheese, Miracle Whip and Wonder Bread sandwich made by my mom. We didn't have much money until their fortunes changed I was in Fifth grade. Though I agree with mudpuppie too, about what well-off parents do when school programs are substandard, as my kid gets a healthier bagged lunch than even our frou frou organic-multicultural-real food lunch program will provide. But it's not yet comfort food for her - so far, it's comforting that I try to do silly things to make her day better in it. I realize that as an adult, the square pizza is equally repulsive and vaguely tantalizing - and I'm curious about what sentimental associations my kid will make about food thirty years from now.
posted by peagood at 7:57 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

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