The news today of childhood obesity, the food revolution now being created into a reality show with Jamie Oliver, parents are becoming more aware of what their kids are eating and what schools are serving. If you are in Broward County, Florida please vist Food and Nutrition Services for our school districts food service.
In spite of their ubiquity and undeniable necessity, many school cafeterias across the world have fallen victim to hefty criticism regarding their prominent role in the rise of obesity and its related health issues in the United States. Because childhood and adolescent eating habits come to influence those later found in college and work environments, it is integral that they learn and understand how to make the best choices when it comes to selecting nutritious meals and snacks for themselves.
The following facts – whether the titular “shocks” come as negatives or positives – provide a brief, well-rounded glimpse into the fundamentals of what needs vast improving and what is currently opening doors to empowering children and teenagers towards taking charge of their bodies and diets to ensure the most physically stable future possible.
1. The annual mean wage of those serving school cafeteria food is $21,450 a year.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that cafeteria workers in elementary and secondary schools – of which there were around 31,350 in 2008 – earn an average yearly mean wage of $21,450. This comes to around $10.32 per hour. Should the cafeteria worker in question support a family containing four people or more with these wages as the only source of income, he or she would meet the United States Department of Health and Human Services poverty guidelines for the 48 contiguous states and Washington, DC. In Alaska, a family of 3 trying to survive off this salary is considered living in poverty, and the same size would be only just above the criteria in Hawaii. A family of 4 in the latter faces considerable poverty. Working in a cafeteria entails considerable physical taxation, with quite a bit of time spent on the feet. Preparing and reheating large amounts of food requires involved labor that puts quite a bit of stress on the arms, back, and legs especially.
2. Food poisoning is not common, but it happens more than it should.
A 2004 investigative report by Dateline pulled back the curtain on many of the practices and issues associated with preparing and consuming school cafeteria food. Though thankfully considered “isolated incidents” in most areas, the fact that at one point 45 students and a teacher in a St. Louis school all fell ill with food poisoning – some of which had to undergo hospitalization – after eating cafeteria offerings demands pause. Especially considering that, in the same year, 7 students and a teacher in New Jersey suffered from salmonella as a result of opting for cafeteria food. There are numerous reasons for why food poisoning can seep into a school’s meals, too. Inadequate equipment in older schools can lead to poorly cooked food that harbors dangerous bacteria. Bits of edible detritus strewn about the floor can attract pests such as cockroaches and rats.
Some cafeterias, like one in Detroit mentioned in the article, are unable to provide their workers with the supplies needed to sanitize their hands and equipment before preparing meals. These and other serious issues can all lead to the spread of food-borne illnesses. While gratifyingly rare, this still means that many school districts are carelessly playing “Russian roulette” with the very students they are trying to protect and educate. Most cases of food poisoning do not require hospitalization or result in a death, of course, but they can still make the victim feel ill enough to keep from attending classes.
3. School cafeterias can face numerous health violations.
Dateline’s companion piece to the previous article points out the myriad critical health violations that have been slapped on cafeteria workers and establishments. Most of these – such as the presence of vermin, ill employees handling food, improper temperatures, inadequate hand washing, poorly labeled toxic cleaning supplies, dirty utensils and equipment, and cross-contamination – can lead to extreme sickness, hospitalization, and even death depending on the gravity of the offense. School cafeterias generally receive their inspections from the local health department, though some independent agencies may perform them as well. Full reports can be found online through those with their own websites, and those without will provide them in person or over the phone. Invoking the Freedom of Information Act may be a requirement for some of these, however. In order to understand every implication of these reports, reviewing all of the data available through the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Research Information Office will provide all the necessary terms and concepts that go into keeping consumables safe and healthy.
4. Kids really DO go for healthier options!
Stereotype dictates that students gravitate towards unhealthy snacks laden with sugar, caffeine, grease, sodium, preservatives, and other little nasties. The prevalence of vending machines that distribute these “junk foods” (and drinkshas fallen under quite a bit of criticism for its correlation with childhood obesity and associated health problems. However, these vending machines allegedly give the kids what they want as well as generating some modicum of funding for the school. Those with sponsorship by fast food chains and major soda purveyors grow especially reluctant to discourage these unhealthy eating and drinking habits lest Pizza Hut or Pepsi pull out.
A positive article penned by freelance writer and journalist Michael Maser and hosted at Arizona State University looks into how one school cafeteria in Colquitlam, British Columbia, Canada began offering fresh, organic, and whole grain options alongside the usual fare. Even when charging between $2.50 and $4, teachers and students alike flocked towards the soups, salads, and baked goods – voicing their appreciation at the school’s efforts to broaden their offerings and cater to those concerned about ingesting too many unpleasantries. Another case study at an Appleton, Wisconsin alternative school showed promise when students were provided access to free juices and whole-wheat bagels and enthusiastically embraced them over sodas and candy. Kids are far more aware of how to eat healthy than many people believe, and allowing them to make a choice for themselves may very well result in some pleasing surprises.