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At Affluent Suburban High School, Still Waiting for a Healthy Meal

Posted: Aug 29, 2012


EDITOR’S NOTE: Caie Kelley, 16, is a public high school student in Orinda, an affluent, suburban community in the Bay Area. With only a tiny fraction of Orinda students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, district schools are not required to abide by federal nutrition guidelines. As a result, many students choose to purchase their meals off campus, which is not an option that all can afford.

ORINDA, Calif. -- I spent my entire lunch waiting for this? A couple pieces of wimpy, paling lettuce, a packet of dressing and a tiny container of unrecognizable meat that I surmise is chicken, rests in front of me. So much for “freshly made, gourmet chicken Caesar salad!” I consider my other options. Pizza? No, it’s too greasy, and has a reputation for causing sickness. Cookies? That could work, though they are often rock solid. Leftover bagels, bruised fruit, packaged muffins and vending machine chips are my only other options. You know, I’m not actually that hungry. I think I’ll just wait.

Cafeteria lunches. Or, I should say, the reason I’m always starving and I bring my own food to school. Interestingly, my high school is lucky enough to have a nice cafeteria. There are plenty of tables, high white ceilings, big bright windows and a long counter of food. Outside, there are many dining nooks nestled under trees, and a wide quad area for sunny days. The lunch area is set up for success, in other words, and part of the reason why I was excited to graduate from middle school and come here was because it was so much bigger, and I thought therefore better, than the lunch areas I had seen before. And it is, in many ways, a great place to eat.

However, the lines, the prices and the food itself are where it all goes wrong. A meal costs five dollars, which adds up quickly. The cheapest drink is a dollar, and anything extra, such as cream cheese for bagels, costs another 25 cents. This factor alone means that I often can’t afford anything substantial on days where I only have two dollars and need the food to last. I can get vending machine food, and that’s about it. I was talking to a friend about the pricey lunches once, and she laughed at my concern.

“Think about it, we live in a wealthy Orinda bubble. Half the kids here have stay-at-home moms who drop food off to their kids every day, and the rest buy organic sandwiches elsewhere. I think the school’s reasoning is, if you can’t deal with the disgusting food, which is pretty common, then you should be able to afford to buy it somewhere else. ” That’s pretty true, and lucky for them, I remember thinking, but I have a single mom who doesn’t have quite so much free time.

Orinda is a small, affluent and predominantly white neighborhood. Our public schools, and our lunches, reflect that. In elementary school, we enjoyed a fresh salad bar and meals prepared daily by dedicated parents. In middle school, the moms ran an all-organic “Bulldog Kennel,” which served fruit parfaits, Greek salads, and other healthy delicacies. In high school, since most kids drive their own cars, the meals are purchased outside of the cafeteria or made at home. Perhaps that is why the food is such low quality – nobody buys it.

But that’s not entirely true, because another problem with school lunches are the lines. It’s not uncommon to waste an entire lunch period waiting in line. Our brunch, one of only two breaks during the school day, lasts for seven minutes. It takes around five minutes just to walk from class, leaving about two minutes to eat, socialize, and take a break from the stress-filled, seven-period day. It requires a specialized skill to maneuver the crowds and purchase a meal in that time. Shockingly, brunch doesn’t serve its purpose as a time for relaxation.

Instead, I look forward to lunch, which is half an hour (or twenty minutes, subtracting the time it takes to run from my class to the quad and back). It’s a relief to sit down under some shade and laugh with other teens about our crazy teachers, tell funny stories, and rehash sports plays – but it’s not enough. I sound like a typical whiny teenager when I say this, but so much of high school feels like a marathon – from one place to another, from class to lunch to after-school sports to play practice to piano lessons to who-knows-what -- and that lunch break helps me regroup and hold on.

The kids at my school have been petitioning for longer breaks for years, to no avail. There is no easy solution for improvement, but who knows? Maybe one of these days we will be able to truly enjoy those promised gourmet, fresh salads during our extended lunch periods. For now, I’ll just enjoy the break I do have and avoid cafeteria meals. My homemade mac-n-cheese, when it comes down to it, tastes great, and I’ve got it a lot better than most.




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