The lunch room

Friday, December 1, 2017

I saw a news segment regarding school lunches on television recently and my thoughts turned back in time to my own school lunch days. Much has changed over the years and I am not certain that it is all for the better.

In the mid 50s, I attended kindergarten at Franklin School for a half day each morning. We were not fed meals but we were given a mid-morning milk break. This will date me certainly as a senior citizen, when I describe those milk containers. They were actually small glass bottles that held the same amount of milk as the later wax paper cartons. At the top of the glass bottle there was a thick paper lid that could be removed by puling a tab. If only the tab was opened a straw could be inserted through the opening. About halfway through my first grade year at Jefferson Grade School the Tastemark Milk Co. (which later became Foremost) changed to the new wax protected cartons.

School lunches in the R-5 District were 25 cents, and that did not change during my entire school career. Extra milk was always a penny a carton. On special occasions like holidays, we were given chocolate milk, which was highly prized.

The food we were served during my school years was consistent and by and large appreciated by most students. There were some who didn’t care for the meals and they brought their own sack or metal lunch box meals. I am not certain when the Federal School Lunch Program began but I do remember that there was a time when some kids had income issues regarding school lunches.

Before there were government subsidized lunch programs there were teachers and cooks in the R-5 District who took matters into their own hands. There were secret coffee funds that used milk, bread, cereal, and other staples, to insure that these children got a breakfast. I am sure the school administration “looked” the other way at this practice.

Eventually, our country decided that no child should go hungry while they were at school. Numerous programs over the years have addressed this issue. Some people claim there is abuse of the system but by and large it works.

Some of the foods prepared for us during those years, were also government subsidized. These included items like cheese, bread, butter and peanut butter. On every lunch table all during my school years, there were loaves of bread, butter, and often peanut butter. No one ever went hungry at those tables. One note about that peanut butter — it was so thick that you could stick a spoon in the bowl of peanut butter then lift the entire bowl off the table.

We had a variety of meals. One of our all time favorites was the famous “school boy sandwich.” This consisted of a ground beef affair similar to a “Sloppy-Joe.”

Although meat, bread, potatoes and dairy were regular staples on the lunch menu, we also had healthier options. Canned fruits were regularly part of a meal offering. I remember two of these clearly. The schools had large cans of peaches and plums. Celery and carrots served as cold cuts were regular menu items too.

Desserts were not very fancy but there was one that everyone liked. It was listed by the name “Lemon Delight.” We also had individual cups of ice cream on certain days.

Religion affected our menu as well. There was a rule for the Catholic faith, that they could not eat meat on Friday’s. I don’t remember all the selections that were offered to concur with this rule, but one that was often available was a toasted cheese sandwich. Speaking of cheese, reminds me that we often had cheese sticks on our trays the days they served chili.

Our cooks had some recipes that I doubt are still offered today. Here are a couple from that time. Shepherd’s Pie, included beef in a savory sauce, topped with toasted mashed potatoes.

I guess ground beef was readily available and a second noteworthy main dish had beef, rice, mixed with Spanish style sauces and seasonings, for a concoction called “Texas Hash.” Although most of the kids actually liked this selection, it earned an off-color nickname, “Texas Trash!”

Seafood was not readily available at those lunchroom prices but we had a couple of meals that did include some types. One of these was another Friday offering — “fish sticks.” There was also a famous lunch offering that most of us liked “tuna noodle casserole.”

Nevada High School had a famous head of the school cafeteria, Irene Welhelmson. She was a feisty lady who didn’t reach 5 feet in height, but oh was she a force of nature. She knew each student by name and as you entered the lunch line she took your quarter. Rarely did you pass by without her giving you a bit of chiding of some type.

The changes from those days five decades ago are striking. First of all, the school does not run the lunch program these days. It has for a number of years been outsourced to a private food service. One of the main reasons for this change was budgetary. The old school lunch program regularly lost money.

Having little contact with the schools or their cafeterias these days, I don’t know much about the foods or the service, but I have heard that it can get rather expensive.

People get tired of hearing the phrase “the good old days,” when we tell stories from the past but when it comes to the foods we enjoyed at school that is worth the memory trip. It was a simple time, with simple cheap food but we loved it. Those of you from my era will never forget those times, the prices or those great menu offerings.