I've been trying to bring my own lunch to work more lately, but I recently went out to eat with $5 in my pocket.
Instead of heading to the grocery store to buy a frozen meal (or a taco truck for a single taco), I joined my son at his Austin Independent School District elementary school, where we both ate the school lunch. As I've written before, he eats the school lunch every day, as well as breakfast, which he eats at his desk, along with every other student in his class. His school is one of more than 50 elementary, middle and high schools that offer Breakfast in the Classroom, an initiative to bring the first meal of the day to students while they start their day.
His school is also one of more than 80 schools that have expanded free lunch and breakfast to every student. This saves me $4.50 each day ($1.50 for breakfast, $3 for lunch), but the bigger effect is that when breakfast and lunch are widely offered for free or at a reduced cost, they are more widely consumed. This reduces the stigma that has been around for generations between the kids who can afford to bring Lunchables and other home-packed lunches and those who rely on whatever the school cafeteria is serving because they might be struggling with food insecurity at home.
With two kids in public schools, I've long been aware that the local school districts provide a better meal than I could pack each day. A school lunch is more nutritious and, even at full price, cheaper than packing ham sandwiches, yogurt cups, cheese sticks and store-bought containers of milk.
I don't eat with my sons at school as often as I'd like, but when I do, I'm reminded that we're making the right choice for our family. It's also a good choice for the food services department. The more students who eat the school lunches, the more funding the food services department receives from the National School Lunch Program and the more purchasing power they have to continue to buy better-quality ingredients.
Austin Independent School District Food Services Director Anneliese Tanner has crunched the numbers, and if kids who don’t usually eat school lunch do so once a week, the district could serve grass-fed beef at all campuses. If students increased that to two meals a week, the district could switch to organic produce, and if students who aren't eating school lunch now were to eat three times a week, every cafeteria could serve organic milk.
Those are Tanner's big goals, and the quality of the school lunches has already improved under her four-year tenure. Most of the menu items are made from scratch, from chia seed bars, which are my older son's favorite breakfast, to the beef enchiladas, pinto beans and Mexican rice I had at my younger son's school recently.
I missed out on the vegan lentil chili and yuca fries that they were serving the week before, but I paid $3.85, the cost of lunch for a visiting adult, for enchiladas, pinto beans and brown rice that were every bit as good as what I could make at home.
NEW ON AUSTIN360: Jared Padalecki might be the next ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’
This year, Austin Independent School District is also testing out bulk milk in several schools, which ditches cartons in favor of cups that students can fill from a dispenser. (Some schools are using reusable plastic cups that are then washed, but they were using paper cups when I was there.) I've always thought milk from a carton tastes like the waxy paper that the cartons are made out of, and I was amazed that the milk from a spout tasted so much better. I also thought it was smart to allow the kids to get as much or as little milk as they wanted, which would reduce the amount of wasted milk at the end of each lunch period.
My son's school is also part of a pilot program to remove chocolate milk from the cafeteria. Because the bulk milk tastes better than the carton milk, I haven't heard him complain about a lack of chocolate milk, but Tanner says they'll evaluate both changes at the end of the year before deciding whether to roll out to other campuses.
At the middle and high school level, the district is testing out a breakfast taco bar that allows students at pilot schools, including Austin High School and Bedichek and Kealing middle schools, to assemble a morning taco to their liking.
Districtwide, the Austin district has tweaked the plates and utensils they use, too. Now, every material used to serve the breakfast or lunch is compostable or recyclable, and at my son's elementary school, they've done away with the big plastic trays that were once used to carry all the smaller plates and containers, which reduces the amount of water used to wash them.
The most impressive part of the meal might have been that bright green salad from the salad bar, which on this day also featured black beans, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes and grapes. Nearly every school in the district has a salad bar like this to encourage students to expand the number of fruits and vegetables they eat each day.
Now, does this mean my kid is eating a salad like this every day? Hardly. On the day I was there, he ate the grapes off the salad bar and a bean and cheese burrito. But by not letting him bring granola bars and applesauce cups for lunch every day, he'll eventually get curious about the other foods offered on the lunch line. Or at least a mom can hope.