School Lunch & The Supermarket Deli

There is a crisis in the Prevor family household. William and Matthew Prevor, ages 12 and 10 respectively, are in revolt. They claim they may soon starve. The cause of the crisis? Hot dogs! The school foodservice department doesn’t know it, but if they copied a great retail deli program, a lot of problems would be solved.

The lunchroom in their school serves a hot lunch every day, and it also offers various options for those who don’t want the featured lunch. One of these options has been the availability of hot dogs every day. It is not that these boys are insensitive to culinary issues, but they shy away from most of the sauces that laden the menu choices and often find the daily lunch selection unexciting. So hot dogs have been their mainstay meal at school.

Recently a health initiative was implemented and changes were made in the school foodservice offerings. The pasta has been switched to whole grain, so the boys have crossed that off their list of options. Vegetables were made mandatory. No big deal; the boys like vegetables, though these are drowned in sauces and the boys often just throw them away. And, sacré bleu, the hot dogs have been scaled back and are only available three days a week. In their place typically offered are black bean burgers, which the boys won’t touch.

As parents, my wife and I are, of course, all in favor of having healthy options available and I would prefer that my children not eat hot dogs every day, but it does seem to me that just eliminating them from the menu is taking the easy way out.  A school is a closed environment; in our school, the children aren’t allowed to go out or even to bring their own lunch – too many concerns about allergies and what not. So restricting choice with the intent of moving children to healthier options is a little dictatorial. Surely the optimal path is to create healthy options that are so good children will, voluntarily, choose to eat them over a less healthy fare.

This will, of course, cost money for quality ingredients, and it will require staff training in culinary technique. It is, however, a much preferable option for three reasons: First, it means the children actually eat. In England’s recent school meal reform movement, there were famous news reports of parents slipping food through school fences because the students found nothing they were willing to eat on Jamie Oliver’s new menu.

Second, by introducing children to desirable healthy options that they prefer over less healthy options, you give the children options that will improve their diets both in and out of school. Finally, it holds the culinary team responsible for their work. If they serve vegetables the students don’t want to eat but force them to eat the vegetables by depriving them of options, that doesn’t require the culinary team to get better or to do a better job.

The whole issue is really a kind of parable as to the great advantage of retail. In foodservice, someone makes decisions for the consumer as to what will be served. Normally, it is not a big problem because consumers retain the right to select where to dine.  So the consumer hankering for a ribeye stays clear of the vegan specialty restaurant. In a school environment, where children don’t have the option of selecting different foodservice providers, such decision-making on behalf of consumers can be oppressive. For families, though, there is a challenge even in selecting restaurants. The day when Mom made meatloaf and everyone was going to like it is passing. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the country is such that Sis is a vegetarian, Brother likes barbecue, Mom wants a salad and Dad is in the mood for Chinese.

There aren’t many restaurants one can go to that will keep that family happy. The great advantage of top deli foodservice offerings is that they offer the incredibly diverse selection that can tantalize the whole family or groups of friends. A group can walk into Wegmans and, yes, one goes for Italian, another Asian, another salad and on and on.

It is not just variety, though; it is quality. It has to be because it has competition, against restaurants, other food stores and, even internally, if the pizza is not great at the store, people will go for the dim sum, which is. So everything becomes good or it gets eliminated from the menu.

So here is the real challenge for school foodservice and those looking to get children to eat healthily: They need to look to college and university foodservice, which has tried to duplicate the appeal of top deli foodservice operators. We need to offer inspiring options.

We don’t need a dose of tyranny in which supposed experts eliminate choices. We need a dose of capitalism, in which the culinary teams are expected and incented to develop great tasting healthy food that children want to eat.