Thanks partly to the efforts of first lady Michelle Obama, most school districts are trying to make school lunches more nutritious and less fattening. But there is more to lunch than food, and many schools are missing opportunities for teachable moments.
If you are older than 50, you may remember when students had enough time at lunch to go home and eat with their mothers. These days, Mother is most likely at work, and lunch is a school activity (as is breakfast for many low-income children).
I remember my first day at Greenwich Country Day School after seven years in a public elementary school. The biggest difference between the two schools was lunch. At the private school, there was no cafeteria; there was a dining room. Every day at noon, we dined at big round tables. We sat on chairs, not benches. A teacher or another adult sat at each table, and children took turns going to a counter to get platters of food. We used real plates and stainless-steel cutlery, not plastic forks and trays. The adult at the table led the conversation, and everyone was expected to participate. Children took turns clearing off and cleaning the table at the end of the meal.
I still remember conversations from those lunches 50 years ago. Lunch was part of the instruction and treated as part of the school’s mission, which is to “enable all children in our care to discover and to develop what is finest in themselves — to achieve the highest standards in their studies, in their play, and in their character.”
Greenwich Country Day is one of the country’s wealthiest schools, but civilized dining can be an integral part of any educational institution. Echo Hill Outdoor School in rural Maryland, where I also used to work, operates on less than a shoestring budget. The dining hall is a rustic screened building. Echo Hill uses its hour-long lunch period for adult-led conversation, songs about the environment and a measurement of how much food was wasted. Lunch is part of the curriculum, but it is so relaxed that kids don’t realize they are learning something of value.
Delancey Street, widely considered to be one of the country’s most effective drug treatment programs, teaches the most hard-core addicts to dine graciously at tables with white tablecloths and lovely place settings. Dining, like working, is an important part of being human. At Delancey Street, people who have never worked run successful businesses within the treatment program, and people who never sat down to a family dinner learn that dining slowly with others at an attractive table is one of life’s joys.
A few years ago I asked the principal of a really awful middle school — where few seventh-graders could read at grade level and the “opportunity” class watched violent movies — to name his most important accomplishment. He replied, “Feeding 1,100 students in 29 minutes.” I wanted to ask him: What’s the rush? Why do children have to go home at 3 o’clock when their parents don’t get off work until 5 o’clock? Why not have a long, civilized lunch?
Since that conversation, I have visited dozens of schools in Texas, California and Maryland. There is a dreary sameness to the cafeterias. They remind me of the cafeterias in jails. School cafeterias are generally clean and efficient, but they are not inviting places where conversation can develop. They do not enable children to discover or develop what is finest in themselves.
Although most public-school cafeterias are terribly noisy, the worst school lunch I’ve had was absolutely silent. In 1984, when my son was a first-grader in Bryan, Texas, he invited me to his school for lunch. There was a traffic light in the room, and it shone red throughout the lunch period, so nobody was allowed to talk. A teacher later told me that the noise was too deafening if children talked at lunch, so they always left the light on red. Unless we are training our children to be monks and nuns, silent meals serve no educational function.
It is generally accepted that American families do not eat together as much as they used to. For this reason, it is more important than ever that school lunches become occasions for civilized conversation and behavior. With a few changes, school lunch can be an important part of the curriculum and part of the long process of transmitting the best values to the next generation.
Wendy Costa is an educational coordinator at Mount Harmon Plantation in Earleville, Md., and helped found University High School on the California State University campus at Fresno. She served on the Bryan, Texas, school board from 1984 to 1990.