Cafeteria lunch: Chaos is served

Parents have no idea what their school-age children eat for lunch. The apple they packed in little Johnny's lunch bag may end up with Sally, or worse, as the projectile in a food fight. We sent a reporter to a local school to find out how lunchtime has changed, and where their kid's food really ends up.

Yali was having a crust-ripping good time, destroying his turkey-on-wheat sandwich in one corner of the cafeteria. Soon he had a pile of crusts and a sandwich that had been whittled down to the size of a drain stopper. Perfect for his pint-sized mouth.

It's "bon appetit" time at the Joseph P. Manning school in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood. The cafeteria here is the perfect place to see what kids eat, trade, and trash at lunchtime.

The wax paper-wrapped tuna sandwiches and last night's stale angel food cake that filled decades of little tummies are long gone. While many parents and nutritionists decry this plastic-wrapped age, a closer look inside lunch boxes and Ziploc bags shows not every family lives in the land of Lunchables and Go-Gurt (squeezable yogurt).

Even cafeteria food has changed. Sleek, plastic-wrapped lunches that look like airline food packs are the norm in the Boston school district. Gone are the days when blue-haired cafeteria ladies glopped sludge onto beige trays. No salad greens wilting under hot lamps, here. Everything from Jamaican Beef Patties (a popular dish, according to many kids) to papaya tidbits are part of the school's menu. Today at Manning elementary, however, the school is serving something a little more down home: peanut-butter- and-jelly sandwiches.

At one end of the kindergarten table, Sophie, a tiny girl with eyes as blue as laundry detergent, was stabbing at her cup of cold chicken noodle soup (she likes it that way) with a fork. Her school lunch was a tad too big for this little pixie. "I'm not going to eat all that," she boomed, staring at her buttered bread, an apple the size of a softball that she had just nibbled on, blueberry yogurt, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, pretzels, and cranberry juice.

Sophie's fellow kindergartners brought their own lunches. Some of it was packed by parents with elegant taste: Babybel cheese, strawberries, and chocolate soy milk. Others had more traditional turkey sandwiches, Cheez-its, and Spaghetti O's in a thermos.

Hanna, a kindergartner at the end of the table, wasn't interested in talking about her lunch or eating it (with a cheese-catsup-butter-and turkey-breast sandwich, who can blame her?). She had jokes to tell. She popped them off one after another (What do kitties put on their mouse burger? Catsup, of course); read the note her Mom wrote her; and also told this reporter a story about her affinity for kiwi fruit and how she once relieved an entire fruit salad of its kiwis without being caught.

A boy named Cooper took time out from his pretzels to show me where he had lost a tooth and wondered if I could help him extract another.

Trading food isn't that common, according to the lunch ladies, but several kids said chips were often traded.

When third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders arrived, homemade lunches decreased, as did the concern, it seemed, with nutrition. Groups of shy girls huddle at tables drinking Pepsi and eating chips; boys like Quamane Williams and Tykee Lyons scuffled in the corner.

They had lost interest in their peanut- butter-and-jelly sandwiches and had started an arm-wrestling contest, which was proving difficult with unwanted oranges rolling around. A boy named Wilfredo, who had a front-row seat, got so excited he knocked over his carton of chocolate milk onto the floor. That got the attention of Shanaya Adams, who preferred to scoop out the peanut butter and jelly with her hands and shovel it into her mouth.

On the other side of the cafeteria, Iroy White, with thick, pipe-cleaner dreadlocks was polishing off a sour red Blow Pop. Today, he said, he settled for "nasty peanut butter and jelly." He, and with most other kids, say that pizza and chalupa tacos are the best.

Five minutes before lunch is over, a "lunch mother," rings a bell. Hearing this, some kids dig in, others continue to jabber, others - using the wet paper towels left on the table - start cleaning up and getting ready for a short recess. Fourth-grader Neale Henry, with a faux diamond gleaming from his ear, assured me that he was trying to get that changed. "I'm trying to change recess to five hours."

As lunchtime comes to a close, kids start taking last bites and pitching the rest into the trash. A slobbery Go-Gurt, a wet granola bar, Trix yogurt, Capri Suns, Mott's apple juice, V-8 Splash, spoons with glops of peanut butter on them. All the slobbered detritus had one thing in common: Most of it wasn't completely eaten.

So just because your kid's Pokemon lunchbox is empty, doesn't mean all the victuals were eaten. Ask them if it was traded or dumped - or, perhaps which student they prefer to arm wrestle.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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