Photo by Chris Casella

Roll Call

Time for a weird confession from my past: I was a lunch lady.

Pardon the gendered title, but in the interest of effective written communication,
I felt it necessary. Lunch guy or lunch person doesn’t really have the same ring to it.

Anyway, shortly after high school I worked a pretty weird job that involved me waking up at 6 a.m. and doing prep work in a kitchen for awhile before packing up a van full of insulated boxes to keep food hot on the 45-minute journey to Mansfield where, upon arrival, I would unload the van, set up a table, and serve spaghetti and meatballs, or hot dogs, or whatever else that day’s rotating selection happened to be to a bunch of kids. I even had a specific highway exit where I would stop for a smoke break (no smoking in the work van) in a parking lot and pour out one of those cardboard milk containers that was left over for this stray cat that was always hanging around. The food was never particularly great, but it was always a balanced meal—fruit, veggies, protein, blah blah food pyramid whatever. I usually just ate at the Wendy’s across the street from the parking lot where my pet cat lived.

Overall, the kids were pretty fun, and it was nice to see them everyday and joke around with some of them about farts or dinosaurs, or whatever else kids find funny or cool, but there were always plenty of kids who didn’t like what I was serving or had some dietary restriction, and it was tough to accommodate them when all I had was what arrived with me in the van. Kids need to eat so they can learn, but they are also notoriously picky eaters. Beyond having vegetarian, kosher and halal options, or just giving them a second helping of something they like, there wasn’t much to be done to prepare for when kids just refused to eat what you were serving. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if “gluten sensitivity” was a thing back then.

This job was close to ten years ago now, and it really only lasted about six months. Waking up early was never my thing. I hadn’t been back in a school cafeteria since, which suited me just fine, because I don’t find myself craving those square sheets of “Mexican” pizzas, or Sloppy Joes all that often, but when I heard around the Stock & Barrel offices that we were considering a story on school lunches, the old lunch lady in me came right back out, and I volunteered immediately. Maybe it was a sense of nostalgia, or maybe I really had been secretly craving rubbery chicken nuggets or corn dogs. Whatever it was, I was excited to get back in the old familiar environment of giant trays of passable food, screaming children, Fruit Roll-Ups sailing through the air, and the rest of the not quite organized chaos that makes up the school cafeteria. This lunch lady was coming out of retirement.

The wind left my sails a bit when I found out I would be heading to a high school instead of an elementary school. The screaming kids clutching juice boxes would instead be replaced with bored teenagers clutching iPhones, but at least the smells and tastes would remain the same. After all, if you’ve been to one school cafeteria, you’ve been to them all, right? How much could things have changed in the last 10 years?

Apparently, quite a bit.

“The food at my old school all looked like frozen, plastic food,” explained Lauren Charles, a junior at New Albany High School who moved two years ago from Corpus Christie Texas. “Here there’s a panini line, an international bar, burger, deli, and salad lines, and on days when they aren’t here, there’s live cooking.”

The ‘they’ she is referring to is Fusian, the Cincinnati-based fast casual chain specializing in build your own sushi rolls that has expanded rapidly into the Columbus market in the last year. That’s right, the line of 50 or so teens behind Lauren and I were waiting to eat sushi. At school. When I was a teenager I didn’t even really know what sushi was, and none of my friends ate it either. I was pretty sure it was just raw fish, and I was pretty sure it sounded gross. That’s part of what Fusian set out to change when they started back in 2010, as Jake Bluvstin, Fusian Marketing Manager, explained. They wanted to teach the general public that sushi really just means vinegar rice, and whatever else is added and can go well beyond raw fish. And they’ve been pretty successful.

“The coolest thing is just that they like sushi,” Bluvstin said as the line of eager students slowly moved behind us. “I would guess that a larger percentage of these students eat sushi than the rest of the population.” While that is most likely true, the rest of the population isn’t that far behind. The difference between 10 years ago and now is pretty big. Sushi is found in most grocery stores, and even in some gas stations. The simple fact that a chain of fast casual restaurants can not only survive, but thrive, opening nine locations throughout Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton by serving sushi speaks to the expanding palates of many Americans.

It turns out the growth that Fusian has seen in the restaurant world is mirrored in the world of the school cafeteria as well. The Sushi in Schools program began at Oakwood High School, just outside of Dayton, when the superintendent noticed how many students left the school during open lunches and ate at Fusian, and spoke with Fusian founders and Dayton natives, Zach and Josh Weprin about serving sushi in the school. Since then, the program has expanded to close to 30 different schools throughout Ohio, with more being added every week according to Fusian’s Head of Operations, Teresa Perretta. She notes that it has “mostly been built by word of mouth so far” including one student who took it upon himself to successfully pitch the idea to his school, without any involvement from within the company.

Because the sushi lunches fall within new guidelines for healthier options in schools, and don’t require any labor from the schools themselves, the program has been largely embraced by school administrations. “We try to keep things different and new for the kids,” said Pam Charles, Food Service Coordinator for New Albany Plain Local Schools. “All I’ve heard are positive comments so far.”

Before my field trip back to lunch lady land came to a close, Charles led me out of the lunch room and through a few hallways filled with students headed in the same direction to another new addition to the New Albany High School food program. We rounded a corner and entered a small room where three cheerful women stood behind a counter, while another wrote the words “Pumpkin Spice” on a chalkboard. “What can we get you?” one of the women asked as I stared back in amazement. “Uhhhhh…a french vanilla latte?” I eventually responded as a gaggle of teens waited patiently next to me. Moments later, a piping hot latte appeared in front of me. “Guess I could’ve skipped the stop at Starbucks on my way here,” I joked before I had to step out of the way so the girl behind me could order. First sushi in the lunch room—now a coffee shop down the hall. School lunch isn’t the same as it used to be. Looks like I’m going back to retirement.

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