Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A not-so brief history

My name is Tara, and I am a senior at my high school. Last year I became involved in a group at my school whose main purpose was to allow students to have a voice in school policies. Since I have joined the group, I have not thought about rules and regulations the same way.

In November of 2009 I was given an assignment by my English teacher to give a speech at a board meeting. The speech could be about anything you felt needed to be discussed. Being a health-nut myself, my first instinct was to take on the school cafeteria food.

I sent a message to Aramark, our school food provider, that same month. I needed the ingredient information to see what I was dealing with. To my surprise, however, I did not receive an email response back.

A few weeks later I came into contact with my district's associate superintendent. He had heard about our english class speeches and offered his assistance to anyone who planned on speaking at the school board meeting. I brought it to his attention that our district's food coordinators were not responding to my emails.

That day I got an email back from Aramark: "Hey! Sorry, your email had gone to my spam folder..."

I explained then that I needed the ingredient and nutritional information for the foods served in the cafeteria. (I figured at the time that they probably had to have it on file in the case that someone asked for it)

Boy was I wrong. It took another three weeks to get any information about the food, and when I did, it was not what I was expecting. What I got was a word document that had obviously been typed up by someone (there were even some grammatical errors!)

Meatloaf Ingredients: low sodium vegetable soup base, onion powder, egg whites, plain bread crumbs, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, ground beef

Pasta Bar Ingredients-penne pasta, spaghetti, beef meatballs, tomato sauce, marinara sauce, alfredo sauce

At this point I was a little agitated. Had nobody ever sought out these ingredients before? So, I kept asking for more and more ingredient details. However, I was never satisfied.

On January 11th 2010 I gave my speech at the school board meeting. At the time it was a huge success. (I actually read off all of the ingredients for the low-sodium gravy!) Maybe I will post the actual speech in a future entry. Anyway, after it was presented the associate superintendent was directed by the school board to work with Aramark and I to "fix the lunch".

Six or seven meetings and many unhealthy people of power later, I realized that this was a fight that couldn't be won this way. Unfortunately for the students and I, our state government currently owes our school district more than 6 million dollars. My school administration was far too busy worrying about staff cuts to think about buying wheat bread that doesn't contain high-fructose corn syrup. And honestly, I sympathized with them.

So I changed my goal. I decided that if I couldn't get the crappy food out, I would at least make sure the students knew what they were eating. So I asked Aramark if they could at least make their ingredient information accessible for students.

No? What do you mean no?
Isn't it illegal to withhold this information from consumers?

I was sure that it had to be. So I did my legal research. I even found a federal code that I thought fit. I was actually at that point almost positive that Aramark was breaking the law.

So, I presented the information to Aramark and our district administration. However, they found some loophole (figures). A loophole to prevent students from knowing what they're eating.

Aramark's only defense was that if the ingredients were available to students they might try to recreate the recipes at home and it would decrease sales at school.

Yeah, because every student wants to make their own mystery meatloaf.

So, here I am.
Since then I have come into contact with several different cafeteria lunch reform groups who have offered me much support. (I haven't given up on getting healthier foods OR getting the ingredient information available to students)

I will be using this blog to track my future progress and hopefully offer assistance to those attempting to reform their own cafeteria food, fight for ingredient transparency, or in any way put forth effort to improve local wellness!

Thanks for reading.


  1. Hi Tara, I came here from guest blog post on Mrs. Q's Fed Up With Lunch project. I ate Aramark food for years in high school and college. In looking around their website, I discovered that Aramark is partnered with the American Dietetic Association, and "are both committed to ensuring food services provided to people in all walks of life are safe, nutritious and of the highest quality,” according to a press release here.

    I'm sure the ADA would like to know that Aramark is refusing to tell people what they're eating.

  2. Wow, thanks for that Steph! I will look into contacting the ADA. Maybe they will put some pressure on Aramark.

  3. Hi Tara -- good for you! Do you have a Facebook Fan Page? I hate Twitter. :-)

    Mindy in Tucson

  4. Hi Tara! Interesting that they think that was a list of ingredients:

    low sodium vegetable soup base - what's in this?
    plain bread crumbs - um, wouldn't that be listed as "wheat, oil, yeast, salt, sugar, etc."

    penne pasta, spaghetti, beef meatballs, tomato sauce, marinara sauce, alfredo sauce -- again, all of this is useless if they don't tell you what they put in these things! Wheat, HFCS, sugar, salt, who knows!

    Nice to see an activist teen trying to make a change. Visit my blog at I'm going to be pointing some of my readers your way soon!

  5. Tara, I'm so impressed with your passion! I didn't figure out healthy eating until I was in my 30's. Keeping fighting the good fight for those who can't (or won't). :)

  6. You are such an impressive young lady! Wow! Keep up your efforts!

  7. I came over here from Mrs Q's blog as well. I think this is a fantastic thing you're doing. Keep it up!

  8. Keep it up! Don't let anyone stop you!