Brown Bag Lunch...May It Rest In Peace


This morning brought news that some CPS schools are banning brown bag lunches.  Let us all pause for a moment of silence, join hands and sing Kumbaya.

Go ahead take a minute to dab your tears as yet another warm and fuzzy childhood memory from days gone by tossed in to the recycle bin.  Nah, better toss that one in the trash…send it to a landfill…make sure that recollection is history.

Today’s children are being raised in a different world than the one many of us remember.  The school cafeteria has become ground zero for all that is wrong in the world.  If a kid is a tub-a-lub, it has to be the parents fault, right?

Certainly not the fact that every sport/afterschool activity requires a snack list passed out with the schedule and uniform.  And, definitely not the fact that kids don’t participate in recess any more.  And without question, chubby kids and their expanding waistlines cannot possibly be a result of the lack of unsupervised, out-door activity that used to take place until the street lights came on and signified your immediate return to the home front. 

Nah, nothing to do with that.  Kids unhealthy habits are because parents are packing their lunches.  Yeah, that is the reason.  Nail hit on head.  Baloney.

The time has come to bow our heads and remember the brown bag lunch…it has been replaced by the “if everyone else is eating cafeteria food so should your kid” mentality. 

Welcome to the new world.  


Remember the good old days (my catholic grammar school did not house a cafeteria), when our moms would pack the standard brown bag.  1 can of Pepsi/Coke (wrapped in foil to guarantee it would be just as cold when it was opened as when it first went in the bag)…1 peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white (crusts optional)…a baggie of potato chips (hand plucked from the big bag at home)…a homemade brownie or chocolate chip cookies…or a ho-ho/ding-dong/twinkie (for the less creative/overly-tired mothers)…and a napkin with some well wishes written upon it was included on top.

Today brings many more choices sandwich filling wise, spicy chip offerings in the prepackaged variety, and homemade anything is deadly when the kid with the peanut allergy is sitting next to your kid and his made-at-home-deliciousness in the cafeteria.

At this point the school decides to become the food police and passes the “everyone-will-eat-the-same-thing” law.  If they all eat the same thing chances are school receptionists will not have to deal with sorting out the various e-mails, phone calls and written correspondence they have become accustomed to since the brown bag has met the new parent.

“Hi, this is Mrs. So-and-So.  Billy came home from school and said Timmy had jalepeno chips with his peanut butter sandwich today at lunch.  One, Billy is highly allergic…and two, please tell Timmy’s mom to stop doing that…thanks to Billy’s aversion to gluten, spicy chips are not tolerated and cause a rash.  Knowing he is different causes him great difficulty.  Perhaps Timmy’s mom can send something else.”

I have a few years’ experience added to my “jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none” resume thanks to my time spent in the kids’ cafeteria over at Our Lady Tied in a Blue Ribbon Catholic Elementary.  And thanks to that experience, I have an opinion.  Here goes nothing.

After clocking over 24.5 hours a week in my position as “casual associate”, I believe I can tell you a couple of things.  First and foremost, our prepackaged, ready to heat and serve lunches were anything but healthy.

Sure the description sounded nice and tasty on paper menu sent to the unsuspecting parent filling out the monthly order form.  Trouble was when the kid saw the actual meal; sadly, not what mom would make.  Really, who wants two ounces of a mystery-meat-sloppy-joe served on a stale whole wheat bun?  And I do not care how well-intended, the spoonful of tasteless green beans did nothing to “compliment it” even if the menu said it would.

The half an orange served in the cold pack often went uneaten (mom usually peels those and look around the cafeteria…she is not here) and the sugar-free snickerdoodle came cracked and thus deemed inedible by the discerning eater. 

In the three years clocking in, I found most of the “healthy menu choices” ended up in the garbage can.  Ravenous kids returned to the classroom afterward and subsequently went home ready for more than a snack before dinner.

Truth is nothing about those lunches were appetizing, delicious, or (I am sorry to admit it) nutritious. 

Most hot lunch programs at various schools today are funded by the federal government.  If a student qualifies, a free/reduced lunch is provided.  During my tenure at Our Lady Wrapped in A Blue Ribbon, twelve of the 695 students qualified for free/reduced lunch.

Now, the school cannot provide government subsidized lunches for twelve and yummy ones for the other 683 kids.  What kind of message would that send?  So it was crap-ola for all.

And, crap it was.  The company I worked for dropped off uneaten lunches at the homeless shelter each day if they were not going to be used.  I remember being at a softball game in Grant Park one spring evening.  A homeless guy was opening what looked like one of our 4×6 “cold packs”.

He grabbed the orange out of it and tossed the remaining contents along with the entire “hot pack” (main entree) into the trash while muttering “Man, I ain’t that hungry”.

My last day serving school lunches was about three years ago.  The grub cost about $3.15 a day and included a 6 oz. carton of milk.  Milk could also be purchased for $.35 ala carte.

Think about what $15.75 could realistically get you in the grocery store; definitely cover the cost of lunch for your kid for a week…and then some.  Send the extra with him/her and they can buy a carton of milk.

In my time working with the kids in the lunchroom I could spot a kid on a steady “cafeteria provided lunch” a mile away…the kid was bloated and blown up like a balloon–seriously, you could have popped the kid with a pin.

CPS administrators/principals responsible for banning brown bag lunches should be sent to time out and forced to eat a cafeteria provided lunch for a week.  Something tells me kids will be back to bringing their own food from home in no time.

If you are a parent that has an income that only allows a school provided free/reduced lunch, your hands are tied and sometimes the most nutritious meal is that school hot lunch.  But if you can afford to pack your kids’ lunch…you should be able to provide that service without the principal taking that option away from you.  Especially under the assumption that the cafeteria knows better–what they are selling is gross–at least that is the opinion of this former cafeteria worker.

I tell you the truth when I say at least 50% of the hot lunches I served ended up in the trash.  An additional 25% saved (fruit/juices/animal crackers) and placed on a counter for kids who forgot a lunch or had the strange need to sample one of the delicasies.

At least unwanted items mom sends can be traded up for something better…and chances are schools will save on trash bags…when food is sent from home I would bet nearly half of the offerings will not end up in the garbage.


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  • Guilty. My kids buy the hot lunch at school everyday, and I'm glad for its variety. If my kiddos brought a bag lunch it would consist of a pb/j sandwich, chips, and grapes EVERY SINGLE DAY!!

  • In reply to jofel:

    nothing wrong with purchasing school lunch...just as long as you don't buy into the fact it is matter what the gov't says ketchup is NOT A vegetable :)

  • In reply to jofel:

    I have very fond memories of my parents empowering my siblings and I to make our own lunches. We had reponsibilities; something you dont always see in today's spoiled youth. It was my responsibility to make lunches the night before and being that I loved a practical joke, I got great joy in sending the bro ans sis to school with a mustard only sandwich or a ketchup and pb and j. The laughs we still get over those lunches are worth more than all the cheese pizza and fruit cups in the world.

  • In reply to jofel:

    Totally agree. Well said. I think the lunches at our school are almost to $4 now. I only subbed for hot lunch once and that was enough for me. The waste just killed me. Well, that and realizing half the cost of the meal was for all the cute packaging.

  • In reply to jofel:

    So well said..I have been penning a similar aritcle for years without much luck for coming up with something coherent (although I don't believe our state or school district has banned brown bag lunches), but everything you stated is so spot on. As a volunteer and substitute teacher's aid at my local district I can loosely verify all of your data. I must say though, my kids eat school lunch. I was so tired of their lunch being smooshed in the bottom of their bag because they hadn't eaten a darn thing that I succumbed to school lunch and feel guilty about it everyday! I am a foodie blog writer but am just overwhelmed when it comes to feeding the darn kids! Some weeks are definitely worse than others. I'm sure school lunch is a great money maker too, as ours run about $3.75 a day. so I remain a hypocrite in this endeavor to change the lunch system. But I do concur with your message and am inspired anew with an attempt to tackle the issue of childhood nutrition.

  • In reply to Donata:

    Don't feel guilty about your kids purchasing food from the lunchroom...there are days my kids do too! The difference between us and them is we don't kid ourselves into thinking the stuff is good for them. Everyone can cheat every now and then. My kids usually carry a lunch from home 3 or 4 days a week...they are suckers for "Bosco Stick Thursday"...yep, that's healthy eating ;)

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