Opinion

School lunch falls short for those with dietary restrictions

Maria Carrillo Students school lunch (Photo: Raffaella Bravo, The Puma Prensa)

by Raffaella Bravo, staff writer

Maria Carrillo High School lunches are not inclusive for students who are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-intolerant or who have nut allergies. Junior Bella Zarate almost had a severe allergic reaction to tree nuts and sesame seeds within her school lunch. Consuming these items can be fatal for her. Her problem with the school lunches is that there’s a lack of labels on the food and what was inside. “If there’s going to be lunch for everyone, it needs to include everyone and be safe for everyone regardless of their allergies and preferences,” said Zarate. She’s right. Students should have access to a range of meals that work with their lifestyles. The school meal selection at MCHS is limited because the options are created by the state, but developing more inclusive alternatives is essential.

There is an argument to be made that if students have dietary limitations, they should just make their lunch at home. However, this is not a great option for low-income families. While this might not be the only reason students eat school lunches, it has to be considered. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 14.8% of households with children were food insecure in 2020.  For some context, in the United States, 38.3 million individuals lived in food-insecure families, with 6.1 million children living in food-insecure homes. Food-insecure families are homes that are unsure whether or not they will have enough food to satisfy the requirements for all of its individuals due to a lack of money or other food resources. I recognize that the USDA has been providing discounted or even free meals to low-income students, which is an amazing step toward more inclusivity in school lunches; nevertheless, there is still a long way to go–at Carrillo, too. This is especially important for students with dietary restrictions as well. Since school meals provide significant assistance to low-income families, it is critical that all food school lunch programs provide vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options.

I recognized this issue when I saw the options at the cafeteria. I collected information from Feb. 28 to March 4. Starting with Feb 28, there were five entrée choices: cheese pizza, pepperoni pizza, yogurt and fruit parfait, chicken and biscuit and finally a turkey bacon club. None of these options were vegan or gluten-free. Some people who are gluten-free cannot risk having an allergic reaction, so it’s crucial that they have options provided by the school. On March 1, there were five options, cheese pizza, pepperoni pizza, tacos al pastor, corn dog, and yogurt parfait. Although three out of five of these meals were vegetarian, once again, all were non-vegan, and four out of five contained wheat. On the next day, there were cheese and pepperoni pizza, yogurt fruit parfait, chicken dumplings with rice, and cheeseburger sliders, which are all non-vegan and all contain wheat.

 “I don’t feel like packing my lunch every day. I want to be able to eat school lunch, so I don’t have to wake up so early every morning. However, I can’t even get school lunches because the food contains wheat, almost all of them. It almost feels like I’m being excluded.”
–Mica Adams

Gluten-free options are a necessity in school lunches. Mica Adams, a junior says, “I don’t feel like packing my lunch every day. I want to be able to eat school lunch, so I don’t have to wake up so early every morning. However, I can’t even get school lunches because the food contains wheat, almost all of them. It almost feels like I’m being excluded.” Students already have enough to worry about at school; they shouldn’t have to worry about whether there will be food options suitable for them.

Also, many of the meals could easily be made vegan or vegetarian simply by removing or substituting a few ingredients. For example, the salad is already covered with cheese, which is finely shredded parmesan that’s already mixed into the salad that cannot easily be removed, rendering them no longer vegan. This could be easily fixed by putting the cheese in a separate packet for students to add if they choose. However, many foods are meat-filled, such as tamales and chicken sandwiches, making them non-vegetarian. 

My compromise is that the school lunch program could simply add more items that do not include animal products or gluten, or they could separate the non-vegan options, such as separating creamy dressing and cheese from salad. We have seen some promising efforts towards inclusivity at the federal level, with the USDA’s decision to include tofu and soy products in school meal programs. Taking more steps like these in the school food programs would really benefit the students who have dietary restrictions. It is critical that we do everything we can to make student life easier, so that they come to school knowing that they have a school lunch option that matches their lifestyle and do not have to worry about being hungry all day.

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