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A Free Market Cafeteria

Look familiar?
Photo: CNN

Cafeteria lunches are a staple of Williamsville East High School’s culture. Over these lunches in the Commons, friendships are made and strengthened, as students take breaks from their busy days to refuel and recharge. The red and blue plastic trays of our cafeteria have borne witness to the many jokes, laughter, and last-minute discussions of homework assignments that take place on the first floor of our school. Indeed, the Commons can be described as a combination of three things: students, noise, and cafeteria food. With its open atmosphere and free exchange of ideas, it is undoubtedly one of the most free student areas a public high school could possibly have.

Current State of Lunches in East’s Commons

Yet, even with this culture of freedom and choice, why is there a limited choice as to what lunches can be purchased in the Commons? Currently, students have three options: buy food from the cafeteria, buy food from FBLA’s Commons Cafe, or bring lunch from home. Note that students are currently not allowed to order takeout food to the school, nor are private vendors allowed to sell food in the Commons.

Pros of Current Lunch System

To be fair to the current system, the current food served in the cafeteria is already of a decent quality, and does provide some degree of choice. Many students enjoy the chicken wraps and salad bar, two relatively new additions to East’s cafeteria. Students can choose what to put in such wraps and salads, whether that is cheese, chickpeas, or sour cream. In line with East’s free spirit, this is a deviation from the standard district-mandated school lunch menu. 

Even in regards to the menu lunches, students find them to be satisfactory. Calvin Lee, a senior, says, “School lunch is a subsidized option that gives kids an affordable meal conveniently during the school day that is served fresh with decent options to choose from. Although the taste can be improved upon, it is understandable that a high school public lunch is on a lower tier than a five star gourmet restaurant. We are grateful for what we have.” As he notes, school lunch plays an important role in guaranteeing that the high school students of East Amherst are well-fed. Aditya Goyal, treasurer of the junior class, concurs, saying, “It is not bad.”

Cons of Current Lunch System

Yet, as Calvin Lee alluded, even with the positive impact cafeteria lunch has on our school and many others nationwide, many students believe that there are areas in which it could be improved. Owen Lewis, a senior, states, “I don’t get school lunch, but it doesn’t look great.” Jaiha Lee, a senior and our managing editor, has never eaten school lunch, stating, “The stuff I bring from home tends to be healthier.” In agreement with Jaiha, Hannah Yi, another senior, concisely says, “It’s terrible.” Additionally, Anna Lin and Emily Xu, two juniors, opine that the portions are too small and expensive, and the food has an aftertaste. 

There is also the concern that school lunches may not provide adequate nutrition, even under the current federal guidelines. According to williamsvillek12.org, “The Williamsville School Nutrition Program provides meals with a variety of healthy foods that are appealing to students and meet USDA nutrition standards as well as the criteria for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Our menus feature appetizing and nutritious food choices including fresh fruits and vegetables, lower fat meat and dairy, plus many whole grain enriched options.” Yet, the tomato sauce on pizza counts towards these government-mandated servings of vegetables in school lunches, as do french fries in some cases. Specifically, according to the Washington Post, Congress ruled that an eighth of a cup of tomato paste counts as half a cup of vegetables. Currently, williamsvillek12.org states, “Students must select a minimum of ½ cup of fruit or vegetable on their tray at lunch.” It should be noted that this half cup is considered by Congress to be equivalent to the amount of tomato paste on a school pizza lunch! It is also stated on williamsvillek12.org that “Three types of pizzas offered on [Williamsville] school menus contain whole grain flour.” Even though dishes like pizza and french fries have high fat content and are possibly pre-processed in unhealthy ways, they are still being used to satisfy federal nutrition guidelines.

Thus, it seems that there are two main areas in which school lunches can be improved: taste and nutrition. 

It should be noted, however, that the staff of the cafeteria has little say in the content of school lunches. Any changes to school lunches would likely have to start at the administrative or governmental level.

Free Market Cafeteria: An Immodest Proposal

So, why is the system currently this way? Why can’t there be a free market cafeteria, with multiple choices for school lunches? Under this free market system, students would be allowed to order food to the school, and private vendors would be allowed to sell food in the Commons, a la the UB food court. 

Some students are in totally in favor of a free market cafeteria system. Skye Campo elaborates, “The school cafeteria doesn’t provide the highest quality of food. There’s no reason not to allow students to get food from other vendors. More options could not possibly be worse. If a student wants to order Panera, there’s absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be able to. For example, if I would like to buy food ninth period, I’m not able to, as it’s shut down.” Owen Lewis states of a free market cafeteria system, “I’m absolutely in favor. I think if quality can go up, it definitely should.”

This is the classic statement of the benefits of the free market: quality goes up, prices go down. The idea is that a free market system would allow students to order food that tastes better and provides better nutrition, while choosing the prices that are most affordable for them. Theoretically, this competition would also pressure the school vendors to produce better food at lower prices. Even if less people bought school lunch, the same budget could potentially be used to buy lower quantities of higher quality food for the school cafeteria, which would be a better outcome for the students who do still choose to purchase school lunch.

Potential Pitfalls of Free Market Cafeteria, According to Administration

Yet, some hurdles to the free market cafeteria system are the current regulations on food sales in the cafeteria. “The food service is governed by state and federal regulations for school meals. We do not allow anything to compete with this. Therefore, no outside food delivery is permitted,” says Mrs. DeSantis. 

There are also unintended consequences of allowing students to order food. Mrs. Charleson-Smith remembers, “A lot of students at the school I used to work at would order in food. While it was nice, it caused problems. Students would disrupt classes to get their delivered food. They would expect the secretaries to take care of the payments, then call them when the food came. Some students would even leave class to go get the food. Also, the school cafeteria still has to break even; allowing students to order food could potentially disrupt that.” 

Mrs. Charleson-Smith brings up two critical points here: the disruption to the learning environment and the disruption to the district’s finances. The concern with delivered lunches is that the school would become much more chaotic, both in terms of the vehicular traffic to the building, and the unnecessary movement and noise among the classrooms (even though we don’t really have classrooms per se). There would also be safety concerns, due to the increased traffic. Perhaps even more concerning is the problem of the budget. Even though they are subsidized, school lunches are still supposed to make a profit, or at least break even, as money is a limited resource. If students were allowed to order food, this could lead to supply of standard school lunches exceeding demand. On a large enough scale, this could mean that the school district loses money, due to low numbers of purchases. This could potentially impact other areas of the budget, as the district still has the responsibility to pay for the food. This is presumably the rationale behind the regulations Mrs. DeSantis mentioned.

Potential Pitfalls of Free Market Cafeteria, According to Students

Additionally, other students have voiced concerns with the implementation of laissez-faire capitalism in the school cafeteria. Philip Baillargeon, host of The Bonfire (the best high school talk show to ever be produced in East Amherst), says, “Divert more funding to school lunch. Any outside food would probably be unhealthier than school lunch as is. I don’t know whether increasing costs is the answer to improving quality, but adding fast food to schools is increasing childhood obesity in the south. Look up what’s happening with Pizza Hut and all that in southern high schools. Privatization is not the answer.” James Liu, our cartoonist, agrees with Philip’s concerns of increased potential opportunities for poor decision making: “If kids are going to vape in the bathrooms after 27 presentations about why it’s bad, I think a good majority are going to just eat junk food for lunch every day if we just hand the option to them.”

Solutions From Students

Yet, many students are receptive to the idea of more choices in the cafeteria, albeit with a slightly more moderate implementation. 

Ryan Chou, our Business and Finance editor and FBLA District 12 secretary, opines, “I believe a free market type system in the cafeteria could work out as long as there is some form of regulation. People should be able to have a larger variety of hot food that they can eat at school and shouldn’t be limited to food they bring in from home or the cafeteria. But, I can see a security concern being that inappropriate goods could be brought into the school more easily, meaning that every single delivery or order would need to be checked. So, I see it as a working system but one that would need to be regulated to some extent.” 

Kevin Wang, president of YAF and FBLA, moves away from the free market system altogether: “I say we need microwaves before private vendors. If we can spend ten million dollars on the football field and five million dollars on the orchestra wing, we can afford an $80 microwave that will allow kids to bring in nutritious meals.” Indeed, this could potentially be a cost-effective solution, without the need for much bureaucratic oversight. 

Leo Yana-Romero, the producer of The Bonfire, states that school lunches are “not currently proper nutrition”. He continues, “Schools should strive for nutritional and affordable lunches, and if it can be done through a public system, I think it should. If that’s not possible, school clubs should be encouraged to start more lunch stands.” This could potentially expand upon FBLA’s Commons Cafe, allowing other clubs to sell their own food. This way, all the profits would be used to fund the betterment of the student body in some capacity or another.

Looking Forward

Overall, although a free market system in the Commons may not be a practical solution at the moment, students agree that the quality of the food needs to be improved. This is an issue with many viable solutions, and going forward, the best way to solve this problem seems to be to create dialogue among students, parents, staff, and administrators so that we can all work towards a solution that benefits every member of our school community.

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