School Lunches: My 15 Minutes of Field Research

I decided to eat lunch at my son’s high school today as “research” for an upcoming presentation at the Minnesota School Nutrition Association Annual Conference, but also because I recently read Free For All:  Fixing School Food in America (an engaging analysis of the complexities of school meals).  I wondered how much the school lunch experience had changed since I last had lunch in a high school cafeteria 32 years ago!  Yep, I graduated in 1980.

Now as then, I don’t think parents eat in the school cafeteria very often.  When I called the school to see if I just needed to check in at the office, the secretary had to call me back because she “didn’t know the protocol.”  And then, when I got to the cafeteria, and went through the salad line, when it was my turn to “pay,” (all the students were using PINs) the woman at the “register” said she couldn’t take my money.  She told me to leave my food and go pay at the cashier in the middle of the cafeteria and then come back and get my food.  When I got to the cashier, he told me to tell  the salad lady that “Mike said it was OK to take my money.”  I traipsed back to the salad area and cut in line to pay—it was $3.60 and she didn’t have change for $4, so I told her to keep the change and I’d take a milk (maybe that came with lunch . . . I don’t know.  I would have much preferred water, but oddly, I didn’t see any water).  This process took about 4 minutes.

When I brought my food to sit down across from my son, I noticed he didn’t have any food!  “What?” I said, “I come to eat lunch with you and you don’t eat?”

“I already ate,” he said.  “You took too long.”

Four minutes was too long?

I’ll have to have a conversation with him about it being considerate to pace yourself to your dinner companions.  I felt incredibly rushed to finish my food and ate so fast that I started coughing!  I really could have used some water.

Not much has changed in 32 years when it comes to cafeteria “atmosphere.”  Crowded lunch room. Long cafeteria tables. Noisy. Rushed.

What has changed tremendously was the food! There was better food and more variety.  When I was in high school, we had 2 choices—regular hot lunch or the “new” McDonald’s-style lunch of a hamburger, fries and a chocolate shake.   I was pleased to see offerings of a hot lunch with pasta, a few sandwiches and the salads.

Although I thought that the school lunches looked pretty good, the four students I spoke with at lunch were less than impressed.  They all wished there was more variety (“When we have pasta, it’s for the whole week.  When we have the taco bar, it’s for the whole week, too.”) and “better food.”  I asked them what they meant by “ better.”

“Better tasting and better for you—healthier” was basically what they said (actually the 2 guys didn’t say anything about health; just the 2 girls did).

Interestingly, they all also said that schools in the suburbs get better lunches than schools in the city (two students, one being my son, had direct experience with this—Rogers, MN and Wayzata, MN).  One student even said, “the rich, snobby kids get the good food.” The other two students formed their opinions from talking with friends at suburban schools.   Why would lunches be better at suburban schools?  Is it because there is more property tax money?

Getting my food, eating and talking with the students took all of 15 minutes.  Even though there were 10 minutes left of the lunch period, almost all the students had left to go outside by the time I finished.  I don’t blame them for wanting to hurry through lunch to be outside with their friends on a beautiful spring day.  I couldn’t wait to leave myself!

What do you think about school lunches?

Or, what kind of interesting “field research” have you done in the interest of understanding your client or customer better?


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

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