School lunch angst

In all my writing and thinking about school lunch, there is one thing I haven’t really touched on: the social element. It’s a rather large oversight, considering it’s what most kids remember and what happens between kids and teachers/staff in that environment can make or break the lunch experience—more even than what they eat, how it’s packaged, etc.

I suppose parents of brown baggers (like me) focus on nutrition and making the food look cute or tasty because those are things you can control—whereas someone being mean to your kid in the lunch room isn’t really something you can prevent.  But the massive importance of the social/environment came home to me this week as I sent my tearful son off to his second week of Grade 1.

It must be said that this is a guy who really likes school and his teacher, and has always been a great eater. School lunch—eaten in a crowded gym with at least 150 other kids —however, has his knickers in a knot. He was warned by his big brother about the rules and chaos and the tough supervision so he has likely been girding himself for difficulty. But Monday morning, week II he was crying and begging us to come get him for lunch or at least send him to daycare. According to him, every day last week something went wrong at noon hour.

Day 1: He didn’t know where to put the lunchbox when he was finished and he cried.
Day 2: Someone laughed at the robot keychain on his lunchbox (the previous week he insisted we buy a pair of red pants because it came with said keychain).
Day 3: A girl screamed in his face to move over.
Day 4: He went around the corner in the playground and the supervisor blew the whistle at him. He cried.

Not a huge deal, nothing horrific (like, say, a snake in his rice and beans), but tough on a sensitive little six year old.

Most of his complaints actually have little to do with the environment the school creates. Still, it’s part of a whole. And a wake-up call for me since our 11 year old (who’s been doing this for 6 years now) is only now telling us how chaotic and difficult lunch can be. He says he is squished at his seat, the bench is so low he can barely see his lunchbox and often they don’t have enough time to eat their food. Sharing is strictly forbidden. They’re hustled out the door and reprimanded for dilly-dallying. Basically, they scarf back their food as quickly as possible to get outside and away.

Yesterday my older son said, in a tone of lament, “Poor him (little bro). Most people only start hating lunch by Christmas.”

Wow. Surely it doesn’t have to be so terrible. Researching What’s for Lunch? I read about a school in Britain that changed the atmosphere of its chaotic lunch room simply by adding curtains and having kids design their own table cloths. (See the School Food Trust’s site, here, for more case studies about how schools in Britain improved the lunch experience.)

It baffles me that eating should be considered an ordeal rather than fun or even an educational opportunity. Yes, the part-time lunch supervisors are under-paid and the space isn’t big enough and the kids are loud and there are probably too many of them, but…. but!

I’m going to counsel my First Grader to buck up and sit beside someone who doesn’t laugh at his things or shout in his face but there must be ways of improving the general atmosphere. I’m sure our little school would be receptive to making lunch a happier, less fraught space. Stay tuned.

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