Iolanthe Brooks, ’15
What’s for lunch today? Maybe nothing. “Our cafeteria numbers are low– very low. So dangerously low that if they don’t improve, we could lose our cafeteria service,” Dr. Lerner wrote in a recent email. For the approximately 150 BHSEC students who qualify for free school lunch, and for every student who eats at or cares about our cafeteria, this news was alarming. But fear not, cafeteria-lovers: the cafeteria shutdown is completely avoidable.
This year, the number of students eating lunch in the cafeteria has been tiny compared to the school population: the cafeteria, on average, serves fewer than 60 lunches a day. That’s less than ten percent of the total student population. The students who do not eat school lunch usually fall into two categories: the home-lunchers and the purchase-lunchers. Home-lunch students pack a lunch to eat at school, while purchase-lunch students buy food from neighborhood venders, such as Adinah’s or New Chinatown Restaurant. Oddly, while home-lunch students occasionally buy food and purchase-lunch students often bring from home, members of either category rarely buy school lunch.
Most students, when questioned about whether they eat school lunch, complain about its taste. But the cafeteria has made a lot of changes recently, says Dr. Lerner, and it deserves a second chance. One student complained that since he wasn’t sure what the cafeteria would serve each day, he “can’t rely on an edible option on any given day and thus [I] bring my own lunch every day.” For vegetarians and picky eaters alike, looking at the cafeteria’s month-long meal plan can help them decide on which days to buy school lunch and when to bring it from home.
The loss of students to home lunches and local businesses is making a huge impact on the BHSEC cafeteria. Dr. Lerner claims that “[The DOE] can’t justify staffing a cafeteria and providing the hot lunches if the numbers are as low as they are.” Unless more students buy school lunch, the hot lunch program will be shut down, and cold, bagged lunches will have to be brought by the DOE everyday instead. Unlike going out to lunch, which is costly and—let’s face it—time consuming, school lunch is convenient and cheap. “A lot of students go out for lunch, and they spend a lot of money on lunch,” instead of first trying the school food, notes Dr. Lerner. $1.75 for a nutritious hot lunch is a steal compared to a 6-dollar sandwich, and will save students hundreds of dollars annually.
The consequences of losing our hot lunch program are threefold: students will lose their hot food; the school will lose its cafeteria staff; and while no one knows about the quality of the bagged lunches, they are presumably inferior. Cooked, hot food is tastier, more nutritious, and nicer to look at. The varied options we have, thanks to our cafeteria’s efforts to cook new and different things, would be lost along with the hot-lunch program. According to the Office of School Food and Nutrition Services, a branch of the DOE, the high school hot lunch menu for this month has sixteen distinct entrees—from chicken wraps to burgers to pesto pasta—while the cold lunch menu has only nine options and serves only sandwiches. To make matters worse, every cold lunch option, except for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, contains some kind of meat, presenting a problem for vegetarians.
While the resulting decrease in food quality is obvious, the consequences for the kitchen staff if the cafeteria is shut down are not even clear to Dr. Lerner. “They [may] be moved to another school,” he claims, “[but] I don’t know.” Alternatively, one person may stay to handle the bagged lunches. Regardless, an entire kitchen staff will not be needed if food is being brought in instead of made on-site. Lastly, and most importantly, the students that rely on school lunch would be impacted. Dr. Lerner says, “We have a lot of students that depend on [school lunch], and they would pay the biggest price.” Even generally, losing our cafeteria would affect all students who might want a hot lunch without having to pay over eight dollars at a store at least three blocks away. Basically, bagged lunch is just not, as Dr. Lerner explains, what our school wants right now.
Raising the number of lunches should not even be that difficult. Dr. Lerner says that the school “certainly wants to crack 100 [students eating school lunch] to keep the program viable” and although that number sounds daunting, 100 students are only around 17% of the entire school population. All it would take, statistically, is 60 more lunches a day, which means every student would only have to eat one lunch per week. In other words, if everyone tried to eat hot lunch at least once a week, the numbers would more than double and the cafeteria would be safe. “Our cafeteria,” concludes Dr. Lerner, “is trying its best to make sure we have good food served [at BHSEC] everyday, and I think students should give it a chance.” If not for your own sake, then do it for the sake of the students who depend on school lunch, or for cheap food!