California Education: Failing Kids?

Part One – Food

Food might not be the first thing you think about when trying to assess whether an education system is working, but believe me, hungry kids are not going to learn much! Here in Alameda, kids spend 180 days at school – about half the year. If they are going to be healthy, and learn, they had better be getting a good school lunch.

Intrigued by a recent video from Evan Edinger on YouTube about the differences between US and UK primary/elementary school lunches, I thought I’d do a little research of my own. I’ve been unimpressed by the school lunches our kids are offered here in Alameda, and I do remember my own being better, at least some of the time.

Here is the video. Below, my own research.

US vs UK primary school lunches.

Alameda Lunches

One of the most amusing segments of the video is where Evan reads mozzarella sticks as a lunch option in the US for one day. Sounds bad? Well, tomorrow my 8 year old has “Cheesy Bread Stick w/ Marinara Dipping Cup” – yup, a single bread stick and some tomato sauce to dip it in.

August Academy of Alameda Elementary Menu

OK, there are some options that do sound more like lunch (pizza on Monday, chicken nuggets, hamburger), but none of them are what any reasonable person would call healthy options. At best, these are fast food/junk food.

Worse, they are all pre-packed in trays and heated, often in plastic wrap. Both my kids refused to eat several of the options on that menu last year because they said the condensation in the bags meant the food was soggy. Remember that bread stick above? Most likely it will be plastic wrapped and soggy by the time it is served.

The website where these menus are found has this to say about nutrition:

The winning recipe for a healthy lifestyle includes a combination of both good nutrition and physical activity. Your body needs a variety of nutrient rich foods to grow and prevent illness. And your body also needs to move and exercise every day.

Key things you need to know about leading a healthy lifestyle are:

* Eat a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables and whole grain products
* Control portion sizes and never “supersize”
* Get active for at least 60 minutes, five times a week for ages 6-18
* Avoid tobacco and illegal drugs all together

Well-nourished students have higher test scores, increased school attendance, improved concentration, and improved classroom behavior. Students, who are physically fit, sleep better and are better able to handle the physical and emotional challenges that they encounter during the day.

Alameda Unified School District – School Nutrition and Fitness

Hard to correlate that list there with the menu above (and two of the items are not even related to food). I guess they managed to keep the portion size down since it is just a bread stick. According to my kids, there are no vegetables (the 8 year old is not complaining about this), but they do get a piece of fruit each day, and a small carton of 1% milk (skimmed for UK readers), optionally chocolate flavoured.

California produces over 13% of the nation’s agricultural production value, and half the nation’s US-grown fruit and vegetables, Healthy food is grown locally, right here in California, and yet our elementary schools are serving junk food.

Environmental Impact

Aside from being unhealthy, and unappetizing, these pre-portioned lunch packs are a disaster for the environment. Every day, all the kids who have school lunch throw away all that packaging. Single use plastic wraps, the trays, foil wraps etc. Generating huge amounts of unnecessary waste.

East Sussex, UK

How are things different in the UK? I went to the county where I grew up, East Sussex, and pulled up the menu for primary schools:

East Sussex Primary School Menu

First thing that stands out is there are two real meals each day. With vegetables, and a dessert even. You might also notice there are salads and baked potatoes available every day. The bread is freshly baked too (not reheated in a plastic bag). Sure, if you look on there you will find a burger (Thursday of week three to save you hunting), but you will also find roast turkey, vegetable korma, Chinese chicken noodles and more.

As the video highlighted, another huge difference is these are served on real plates with real cutlery. The food is freshly cooked (not just reheated), and served from large trays onto the plates when the kids ask for it. Real food, on real plates. Better for the kids, better for the environment.

Too Expensive

i’m sure the immediate reaction will be that the UK food is too expensive and it would never work in California (the world’s fifth largest economy!). Sure, California is offering free school lunches to everybody. In East Sussex at least, they are free for some, but cost £2.05 for others (about $2.50). That is similar to the price we were paying pre-pandemic for the junk food lunches. If anybody cared, lunches absolutely could be better here and still be free.

Still don’t believe me? Check out this menu:

Academy of Alameda Middle School Menu

That is the middle school menu for the same school. Older kids, larger portions but still free to everybody. Three or four options each day, including proper food, not just junk food, and the closest that gets to a bread stick with marinara dip is a grilled cheese sandwich. Oh, and notice that side bar where they offer two types of pizza, a sandwich or salad daily too. It can be done, and it can still be free, The elementary school menu is a disgrace.

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