Munch on the School Lunch! Stuyppreciates #2

Though school lunch is often regarded as unappetizing, its benefits are tremendous. The work that goes into creating school lunch should be appreciated.

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Imagine a tired freshman attempting to survive one of the most hectic days of their week. Between a Spanish pop quiz, a global studies essay, and a biology midterm, they barely manage to ride the escalator to the fifth floor. However,when they reach the fifth floor, they finally find their much-needed solace: lunch. Not only is lunch energizing, but it also has the potential to brighten one’s mood for the rest of the school day. It is important to acknowledge the benefits of school lunch, including the cafeteria’s lively environment, diversity of food options, and hardworking lunch staff who, despite strict rules, make it their goal to satisfy students.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The cafeteria is often full of students looking for a place to sit, eat, and converse with friends. “[It] is big and not usually very crowded. I sit with many of my friends and overall, my everyday experience in the cafeteria is fun and calm,” freshman Henry Le said in an e-mail interview. 

Some students consider the cafeteria a way to form friendships with unfamiliar faces. “Even if one doesn’t know many students who share their lunch period, the lunchroom is the perfect place to start making friends,” sophomore Dickson Jiang stated in an e-mail interview. “There's so many people I've met inside the cafeteria and it genuinely brightens the day a bit sometimes, just having that free time with everyone else,” he explained. 

Aside from the cafeteria’s environment, many students also appreciate the convenience of school lunch. After a short escalator ride, they are provided with a variety of items from the five food groups—protein, grains, dairy, and, of course, fruits and vegetables—to sate their appetite. The incorporation of these food groups, especially fruits and vegetables, into students’ meals encourages healthy eating habits. The staff reiterate such encouragement. “Every time I eat the school lunch, it's always served with a side of vegetables, and the lunch ladies are always encouraging you to take a fruit,” sophomore Daniella-Malouse Nkunga explained in an e-mail interview.

Additionally, to cater to students with dietary restrictions, the school serves vegetarian and vegan options. “As long as we have vegan students here, we have to offer them something vegan, so they'll still have some options,” Assistant Cook Peter Sutherland stated. Plant-based chicken nuggets and burgers are served regularly, and Fridays have been coined “Vegan Fridays,” featuring a vegan meal. Furthermore, the replacement of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with sunflower seed butter sandwiches accommodates those with peanut allergies. 

 The affordability of school lunch is also part of what makes school lunch so appealing. Though the community around Stuyvesant has a diverse portfolio of food, the average student cannot afford eating out on a daily basis. For example, a Chipotle bowl can cost upwards of $15, and a roll of sushi from Whole Foods can cost $10-16. Even McDonald’s and Terry’s—locations often regarded as more affordable than others—can be costly. “It saves a lot of money compared to going outside every day or if you don't have time to make lunch at home,” Nkunga affirmed.

Of course, school lunch would not be as enjoyable without the passionate lunch staff, who truly love their work and strive to make the cafeteria a welcoming environment. The love and authenticity that staff members pour into serving students is undeniable and should be recognized. While students enjoy school lunch, staff go out of their way to connect with the students. “I remember this encounter with a lunch lady a few months back. I was holding an iced coffee in my hand while getting my lunch,” sophomore Fiona Cai recalled in an e-mail interview. “The lunch lady in front of me jokingly said, ‘How’d you know I needed that today?’ At first, I was confused, but then she pointed to my cup of coffee, and I understood. We both laughed, and as she gave back my tray, she told me to have a good day.”

Jiang had a similar experience with a member of the lunch staff. “I was extremely tired one day after having a long day of work and tests, so I went to the cafeteria to get some food,” he recounted. “The line was long and I was near the front while the food was being restocked. She asked me how my day was going, and like usual, I replied that it was good, but I had a ton of work.” Jiang recalled the lunch staff’s small but impactful words of affirmation. “She was quick to support me and consoled me that everything was going to work out fine. She made sure that I got my food and ate it after. It was a small gesture, but it brightened my day,” he described. 

In addition to speaking with students, the lunch staff also develop a joyous atmosphere through music. “[The lunch staff were] playing Caribbean music and my parents are from the Caribbean, so it was nice hearing that. It was a good song too,” sophomore Amy Gurcharan described.  

Furthermore, the lunch staff make their care for students clear by constantly ensuring that students are energized for the rest of the day. Oftentimes, it can be uncomfortable to reach for more food, but the lunch staff make it an easygoing process and encourage students to fulfill their nutritional needs. “Usually when they have string cheese, my friends and I will get two from the bin, but there was this one time I grabbed a stick and then brought my tray over for the regular breakfast,” sophomore Matthew Lee described in an e-mail interview. “The cafeteria lady takes my tray from me, goes to the bin of cheese sticks, and puts five in my tray. It was something so dumb, but I thought it was really funny,” he explained. 

Evidently, the lunch staff’s main goal is to make the cafeteria a comfortable environment by connecting with and uplifting students. “We put the kids in the position of our own kids. We make sure students aren’t hungry and there’s food available for them if needed,” Lunch Assistant and Cook Khadija Eddahbi explained. When asked about her favorite part of working at Stuyvesant, Eddahbi explained that she loves to see her work benefit students. “I like serving the kids, making them happy, and making them good food. [My favorite meal to cook is] roast chicken because it feels homemade. It makes you feel like [your] mommy made it,” she said.

Though these actions and interactions may seem insignificant, it is important to acknowledge that the lunch staff do not have easy jobs; they work demanding hours and have much patience. “We start at 7:30 [a.m.] and we finish at 3:00. Some leave at 2:30, but some stay until three so it’s seven hours of service,” Eddahbi described. 

However, in all their efforts to satisfy students, the cafeteria staff face many limitations. “I have to follow the guidelines and I have to follow the menu,” Sutherland explained. However, even with the limitations that the DOE presents, they wish to make do with the resources they have. “I want to make the school lunch more presentable with the way we offer more salads, [and] more stuff, but we still have to stick to the menu.” Most issues that exist with school lunch stem from the DOE and are uncontrollable by the lunch staff themselves. “We are always short with workers, so I have to work more,” Sutherland commented on the lack of support they receive from the DOE. 

Sutherland acknowledges that students may not particularly enjoy the school lunch. “I know the kids aren’t getting exactly what they want,” Sutherland admitted. However, he wants to make efforts for lunches to be as sufficient as possible for kids to be energized. 

Fortunately, the efforts of Sutherland, Eddahbi, and other members of the lunch staff are not in vain. Many students appreciate what school lunch has to offer. “I enjoy eating the school lunch because it tastes pretty good and it's very accessible. Even on the days when I'm not that hungry, there's always a small bite that I can eat in the cafeteria,” Nkunga explained.

There is more to the Stuyvesant dining experience than meets the eye, and students must visit the cafeteria in order to witness it for themselves. Stuyvesant’s school lunch is more than just food—it's a reliable and inclusive source of energy and an opportunity to catch up on meaningful social interactions with your friends or the lunch staff. So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by the stresses of school, consider walking to the fifth floor, grabbing a plate of school lunch, and taking a moment to appreciate the wholesome experience.