Ryan Andrews, aka "Lunch Lady": Kids’ food choice, quality, and education.

Ryan Andrews, aka “Lunch Lady”, is a mom of two who is an experienced elementary school lunchroom manager, working in the school district of San Francisco. She is a passionate leader for nutrition education in schools, and a passionate advocate to get kids to eat better food. She is also a leader in her community, serving on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Pedestrian Safety Committee, in which she is advocating for safer streets for all of us, especially the children.

So, how many kids can you count on having in your life? For most of us it’s one or two, but for a few, it’s hundreds. Well, one mom has been known to feed hundreds of children every day at her food truck. Her name is Ms. Lunch Lady, a.k.a. Ryan Andrews. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and her business is called Uno Di Me.

It’s easy to be a know-it-all at the school cafeteria. That is, until you witness what occurs in a school cafeteria on a daily basis. Coach Ryan Andrews acquired 18 lessons as a school cafeteria worker over the course of a year.

From Monday through Friday, 32 million youngsters in the United States consume a school-provided lunch.

I’ve just been a member of this daily food celebration for the last ten months… as a lunch lady. (Here’s why I went through with it.)

And here’s what I discovered.

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For the last ten months, I’ve been

1. We cannot allow children to make decisions for us.

“Ryan, cheesy pizza, burgers, and chocolate milk are what the kids want.” Great. When did we start allowing children to make life choices for themselves?

If I had my way, I would have eaten Cinnamon Toast Crunch for every meal and played Donkey Kong instead of completing schoolwork when I was a child.

Do you believe that today’s children have progressed? They haven’t done so. Take a look at some of the films I made with kids at the school:

Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, fries, corn dogs, and hot wings?


“Too much broccoli,” says the chef, who adds extra cheese and juice.


Is it a la carte? Hot Cheetos, Gatorade, and sushi are on their menu.


More vegetarian choices are desired by this young lady…

(I swear I didn’t bribe her.)


More soup would be nice, as would vegetarian burgers.


In addition, there will be additional choices and organic fresh salad bar ingredients.


2. Keep the meals at school basic.

Policymakers should concentrate less on fiddling with financing formulae, excess agricultural commodities, and percent of calories from fat and more on preventing students from eating plate after plate of hamburgers and cheesy noodles if they are serious about school food and its effects.

We’re attempting to provide them with healthy meals. This cuisine is available. Let’s make it a reality.

3. School is where children learn.

There is a significant gap between children and food.

Example #1: I overheard two students discussing factory farm video footage and how horrified they were after seeing a worker stamp on the skull of a calf (see here). Their mouths were gaping as they stared at each other. They then ordered meat nachos with cheese for themselves.

Like Transformers or Toy Story 2, I’m sure they concluded the film wasn’t genuine. The link between what children see and what they consume is not being made.

Example #2: We offered sweet potatoes this year. Many children have never seen them before. This is OK; eating sweet potatoes isn’t necessary for good health. But, rest assured, the same youngsters who couldn’t name a sweet potato can name all of McDonald’s value meals, candy bar brands, and drink flavors.

Why does learning take a break during the lunch hour? Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to teach youngsters about food. You know, things like where it comes from, how it affects our bodies and the environment, and how to properly prepare and handle it.

DVDs, posters, brochures, farmers, gardeners, cooks, nutritionists, physicians, flat-screen TVs with slide presentations, and so on are all welcome. Note that the food business would not be funding any of this (e.g., dairy council, beef council, soy council, etc.).

Where will kids acquire this knowledge if we don’t tell them about food at lunch? Parents? Advertisements on television? What about diet books?

Pop Tarts and Coke are on the menu for the summer.


4. Children will not change until and until we (adults) change.

Over the last year, I’ve had many conversations with adults regarding school meals. There hasn’t been a single adult who opposes providing kids with healthy and sustainable eating choices.

Adults who desire better school meals for kids, on the other hand, eat triple stack burgers and take medicine for nutrition-related illnesses during their lunch break. Adults, it seems, do not believe in nutritious/sustainable food enough to eat it.

Lunches in schools will not alter until we (adults) make a real shift.

Right now, there isn’t enough support to make healthy school meals a reality. If there were, it would be taking place right now. Parents, teachers, and administrators are all unwell, and now children are as well. Surprised?

I am certain that things would have changed by now if more parents, teachers, cafeteria staff (the front lines of school meals), and school officials believed in healthy food (and physical education programs) and engaged in them.

5. Preparing healthy meals takes effort (and compost)

Prepare your cafeterias in the United States; preparing healthy entire meals, washing actual utensils/plates, and dealing with food waste requires more time and work. You’ll get accustomed to it.

Reusable eating utensils




6. More money is spent on nutritious school meals.

Food that is inexpensive is a ruse. The true expense is borne by someone. We pay with our children’s health, the environment, wildlife, and/or public money if we don’t pay at the cafeteria cash register.

Where are we going to obtain this money?

My brilliant thoughts are as follows:

Supplements and diets are out.

Last year, Americans spent $61 billion on diets and supplements. Each man, woman, and kid will get $200. Rather of purchasing a low-carb diet book or the newest appetite suppressor, donate veggies and beans to your neighborhood school.

Get rid of your new phone and/or vehicle.

Although the new ride seems to be fun, it does not aid in the prevention of heart disease. Are you ready to forego an updated cell phone plan or a new vehicle payment so that your child has a few more dollars to spend on healthy food? Yes, I am.

7. Children will eat if they are hungry.

Funny enough, while I was giving beans, rice, and bananas to Ugandan children (see pictures below), I don’t recall any of them refusing. Why? Children will eat if they are hungry.

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There are no fussy eaters in our house.

8. Serve one main course

The more options we have, the more tired we get. Have you ever used a thesaurus before? Good luck with your final word choice.

The choice paradox: more options, less fulfillment.


Let’s keep things simple by serving just one entrée each day. This implies less food will be produced, less waste will be created, fewer dishes will be washed, and less money will be allocated to the kitchen workers.

Kids don’t consider the long-term consequences of their food choices while they wait in line for lunch (health, planet, animals, etc.). The wise choice must be the sole one. The youngsters are more inclined to consume anything that smells nice, looks good, and tastes good.

9. Let’s raise money for school lunches.

We’ve all seen it: a middle schooler raising money by selling candles, sweets, or wrapping paper.

What about a bake sale including baked products produced by the kids (with healthy ingredients)? Or maybe a farmers’ market with products from the school garden? All funds will be used to provide healthy meals for children.

Allow eco-friendly businesses to advertise on compost bins and recycling containers at schools as another opportunity to earn additional money.

10. Get some gardening and farming done.

Our disconnection from food has the potential to erode our regard for it. When a vegetarian burger doesn’t taste as good as a Big Mac, kids toss it away. We would have less wasted food if we valued our food more, thereby decreasing our surplus.

What if the preparation and cleanup of school lunches were included in class time? If children are involved in the preparation, it is possible that they may develop a greater appreciation for the meal (and food prep). Food wouldn’t simply come out of nowhere, and food servers wouldn’t just be robots delivering pizza.

11. It’s a hassle to deal with money at lunch.

Worrying about money exchange every day takes the focus away from what lunch is all about: enjoying good cuisine. We want children to have enough time to eat (instead of waiting to pay for lunch). We also want a team that is solely focused on food preparation and cleanup, not on counting quarters.

At the start of the school year, students should pay a single flat charge (based on if they are low income, regular income, etc.). That’s all there is to it. They will be able to have lunch every day (or not).

12. Serve meals that are familiar (but somewhat improved).

Serving a tempeh ginger stir-fry is OK with me, but not with the kids. When it comes to culinary descriptions, we must be cautious.

Even if they can’t tell the difference between hamburgers and veggie burgers, the kids will purchase hamburgers. Burgers made with vegetables have a bad image.

Kids won’t notice or care whether it tastes nice. It is up to the lunch crew to improve the nutrition and sustainability of the meal.

Continue to provide standard fare with a few changes:

  • Burritos – bean and grilled veggie burritos
  • Beans, salsa, and avocado are used to make nachos.
  • Pizza with a whole grain crust and veggies, as well as nondairy cheese
  • Chili (beans and vegetables)
  • Lasagna (vegetables and whole grain pasta)
  • Burgers & hot dogs – plant-based
  • Hummus with falafel

13. Recess must be followed by lunch.

Food waste may be reduced by 30% with one easy adjustment. Kids will be less rushed to go out and play, and they will be much more calm after engaging in some physical exercise.

14. There are no lunch trays.

Kids eat less when trays aren’t utilized (they can always come back for more). As a result, there will be less food waste and less water needed to clean the trays.

15. Give out any leftover food

Extra food that cannot be served again each day may be donated to a food bank or a homeless shelter.

The fair market value of donated items may be deducted by stores. This is something that schools can accomplish as well. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act allows schools to give excess food (excluding self-serve foods from salad bars).

16. Avoid meals that have a drug-like flavor.

Do you have any idea how hooked you are to (fill in the blank with your favorite addictive food)? This most likely began in infancy.

When we offered pizza and hot dogs, even the smartest kids had a glazed look in their eyes. I feared I’d be ambushed when I handed everyone “seconds” of biscuits and carrot cake.

17. No alcoholic beverages

That’s right, I said it. Milk, juice, soda, and other beverages fall under this category. Bring a reusable water bottle or utilize the water fountain. This saves cups (less waste) and is likely to be healthier.

Liquid calories don’t fill you up. Every day, children may easily consume hundreds of extra (and frequently nutritionally deficient) calories.

It’s a step in the right direction to choose unflavored milk over flavored milk. However, in the United States, approximately a third of cow’s milk is not eaten, making it the food with the second greatest loss rate. Who knows how much this loss rate rises when school meal programs are taken into account?

Dairy farming may also put a lot of strain on the environment. Lactose intolerance will continue to be a problem, hormones and pharmaceuticals in milk are a growing worry, and dairy isn’t essential for good health.

Oh, and a message from the kitchen: cheese isn’t worth it. On pans, high temperatures cook the cheese. For the benefit of the dishwashers, avoid dairy.

18. Meat is depressing

Each day, I received a bad karma punch from preparing, serving, and discarding leftover meat. I didn’t think I’d be very concerned about providing meat, but I was. Every burger and chicken wing I gave acted as a reminder that children have little understanding of where food originates from or how their decisions affect others.

Get involved if you care about the nutrition of children.

What drew me to the school lunch program in the first place?

Ann Cooper in two words.

Ann is concerned about children, nutrition, and the environment. I feel the same way. I had to get involved when Boulder asked her to assist with school lunches. Consider volunteering with a local school lunch program if you care about children, nutrition, or the environment.

Volunteer. Work. Donate. Make the best decision you can.





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Una is a food website blogger motivated by her love of cooking and her passion for exploring the connection between food and culture. With an enthusiasm for creating recipes that are simple, seasonal, and international, she has been able to connect with people around the world through her website. Una's recipes are inspired by her travels across Mexico, Portugal, India, Thailand, Australia and China. In each of these countries she has experienced local dishes while learning about the culture as well as gaining insight into how food can be used as a bridge between different cultures. Her recipes are often creative combinations of traditional ingredients from various different cuisines blended together to create something new.