Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 19, 2012

School lunches have come a long way since the days of ‘bean burgers’

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Alternative foods have come a very long way since I was a kid lining up for lunch in the school cafeteria. And I mean a very long way.

For example, I was attending South Charleston Junior High School in the 1970s when my classmates and I were introduced to a new type of hamburger. Well, it wasn’t 100 percent hamburger. This was the age when soybeans were being introduced as a less expensive source of protein. I quickly dubbed this culinary delight the “bean burger.”

Soy burgers were OK provided you had plenty of mustard and ketchup on hand and no edible alternatives. There were some days when the bean burgers taught me valuable history lessons. I started understanding how starvation could drive harden men to boil their shoes and eat them.

Now our school cooks did the best they could with the dubious supplies they were handed. They gave us good pizza bread I can still remember.

Much of the food, alas, was what I call “institutional.” Food served to convicts falls into this category. It came frozen by the gross in boxes and the cooks, using the recipes they were required to follow, did they best they could with it.

Some of the recipes were downright bizarre.

I still remember this one dish that featured a slice of bologna topped with mashed potatoes. If I’m recalling correctly, it was an attempt at some kind of Mexican dish, but I can’t imagine anybody in Mexico or the United States wanting to claim ownership. It was a flop and never seen on the menu again.

Most of the time I brown bagged my lunch. Mom would make my sister Karen and I a sandwich with chips or cheese puffs and maybe something like a Twinkie or cookies. The days of microwaveable lunches and ready-to-eat goodies complete with spreadable cheese and crackers were a long way off.

I can even remember Tab, one of the first — if not the first — diet drink. I got a sip of that stuff and realized that adults could get desperate, too. That drink was colored water, something I could concoct with tap water and a brown Crayon. Artificial sweeteners had yet to appear. This miracle of science was never inflicted on us at school.

Yes, I’m making fun of my school lunches, and I’m sure everybody out there has a school lunch horror story. I remember the inedible, but I also remember that back then there were kids who counted on school lunch as their only solid meal of the day. They were glad for bean burgers because they knew there wasn’t going to be much better at home.

Today’s school lunches are definitely better.

I’ve eaten a few myself with no complaints, and the selections on those school lunch menus we publish in the Telegraph don’t sound bad. Soon more kids in Mercer County will have the chance to eat those lunches and breakfasts.

Mercer County will be participating in a national pilot program offering free breakfasts and lunches to school children this fall. It’s called the Community Eligibility Option, a program under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The idea behind this program is the fact that hungry children can’t learn very much.

You’ve seen the commercials in which people are worn out or acting just plain crazy until they eat something. Well, for a lot of kids, being hungry is reality and no joke. They can’t be expected to focus on anything meaningful if all they can think about is the next time they get to eat.

Like the school cooks back in my childhood, the cooks in today’s schools work hard to give the children something they will like to eat as well as something good for them.

Sometimes when I see what school cooks have to do, I’m reminded of the cooks I saw aboard the submarine U.S.S. West Virginia. They have to keep that boat’s small galley in operation constantly and serve four meals a day — breakfast, lunch, dinner and middens. Middens is a meal that can be breakfast, lunch or dinner since the submarine has to operate 24/7 and crew members can’t always follow a regular schedule.

The school cooks don’t have to do a middens, but they often have to cook multiple lunches and feed hundreds of children at one time. Even more challenging is the fact that kids can be a finicky audience. I remember my own nephews and what they would or would not eat.

With hope, this new program can become a full-time option for children who don’t get enough to eat at home. It’s a number that is growing thanks to the present economy and unemployment rates, and there are always children who have to deal with bad domestic situations at home. They don’t get enough food because their home lives are in turmoil.

I had my bean burgers and weird tries at Mexican cuisine, but at least my classmates and I had something to eat for lunch. And when you look at the whole school meals program, that’s the point. Making sure children get something to eat.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at