18 December 2015

Daily ebb and flood of young eaters wasting food

the menu for hot lunch is turkey with gravy on mashed potatoes; pizza option (R)
 Long gone are the times of war time rationing and recycling of fats, fiber, bone, tin, and so on. The slogan of the 1990s onward at the municipal level has been "reduce - recycle - reuse" but school buildings and their districts typically are preoccupied with convenience and lack of complication since their attention is taken up with educational outcomes measurable by standardized tests, not necessarily the more intangible results of eating habits and other lifelong attitudes that students take from grade level to grade level until at last they reach the age of majority, vote, earn money and consume what is necessary for livelihood and also what may be unnecessary but fits into the large sector of Discretionary Income. 

This picture from the food server's standpoint looks across the heated serving line to the cafetorium (dual use as dining space and stage front seating for performances and other school or community events, with overflow space when the folding wall connects to the adjoining gymnasium). The logistics have been tweaked in the 16 years since the building opened in 1999. Recess was a big attraction to many and so they'd tip much of their lunch into the bin before excusing themselves to play. To respond the school changed the sequence so that recess begins the sequence and lunch concludes it. Minutes have been calculated to line them up and move them through the serving line with barcode scanner to track choices longitudinally (brown bag is a cold lunch option, but comes on a Styrofoam tray - no bag in sight; pizza is a daily menu item -alternating from triangle slices to rectangle cheese stuffed crust; and the day's hot lunch - 15 menus that rotate daily; almost no students carry a lunch pail or bag from home and come through the line merely for a choice of white, chocolate, or strawberry flavored milk).

Usually 3 or 4 dining room monitors hover like a pit crew, ready equipped with spare packets of plastic flatware and straws for those dropped or lost, and armed with scissors to snip plastic containers open. They catch spills, tamp down rising voice levels, coach the slow eaters along, and at the end they give a 2 minute warning with a call-and-response rhythmic clap (1-2, 1-2-3) and hand gestures (finger to lips or the raised hand showing the universal, school wide code for voice level 1 - the lowest). 

It would be instructive to mount a time-lapse camera above the waste bins to gauge each grade level's rate of non-eating in general, as well as patterns specific to each of the 15 menus in the rotation. This daily ritual, five times a week during he 180 day school year, is a powerful and mostly non-verbalized lesson in (lack of) respect for food, the pressure of time to eat something, and the need to get along institutionally (not getting out of hand for the sake of the whole assembly there dining). And among a few of the food line servers there is a routine to instill the rudiments of giving and receiving, as in "would you like a roll with your turkey and gravy on mashed potato?" (the menu for the photo here) : Yes, please? No, thank you? You know what to say.

In summary, an important part of schooling happens outside the curriculum, lesson plans, desktops or LCD projector screens. A few decades ago a seriously injured writer turned to his classmates who'd graduated from high school maybe 20 years earlier to ask them what parts of their learning mattered still today; or what things they'd discovered to be truly useful and important in life that *should* be broached during the growing up years. Apart from literacy and numeracy, the survey responses included things like: what is normal development of one's body (range of normal), ways to find and keep a job, how to get along with difficult people, what pitfalls and advice concerning personal finance and the world of investments should one be familiar with, what are some of the sources of contentment and meaning in one's life. In the case of the 20-25 minutes allowed for eating at the elementary school, pictured here, there is socialization going on, but also great material waste and habits to accept and continue to do the same uncritically and unconsciously. Surely there must be other, better ways to carry out this important and pleasurable activity around the school district and indeed the entire country.

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