Yuck! NYC fourth grader sneaks camera into school, makes documentary about gross cafeteria food

Here's a clip from an upcoming documentary by a fourth grader who snuck a camera into school to document his horrible school lunches and the vast distance between the food that the school claims to serve and food he and his friends end up eating.

Zachary is a fourth grader at a large New York City public elementary school. Each day he reads the Department of Education lunch menu online to see what is being served. The menu describes delicious and nutritious cuisine that reads as if it came from the finest restaurants. However, when Zachary gets to school, he finds a very different reality. Armed with a concealed video camera and a healthy dose of rebellious courage, Zachary embarks on a six month covert mission to collect video footage of his lunch and expose the truth about the City's school food service program.

Yuck: A 4th Grader's Short Documentary About School Lunch (via Reddit)


    1. I don’t know if I’d call that “salad.”  It’s more like a pinch full of lettuce.

    2. My daughter’s kindergarten elementary school (we moved right after) had a full salad bar with all the trimmings.  There was a photo of her in the paper piling veggies on her plate which I’m sure was great PR.  After that school, the lunches were pretty much universally appalling – even though I’d moved to a higher cost of living area.  

      This year we moved out of California to Washington, and her high school cafeteria looks like something out of an idyllic teen movie.  Stations for pizza, pasta, paninis … and TWO coffee cafes. The differences between school districts are insane, and it’s the kids who need the food the most that are getting left out.

      1. I went to school in Washington state, and the school lunches there were always pretty tasty and fun. We had a full salad bar and lots of options for food. That didn’t stop us from bringing bags of candy from home or just drinking a soda, but at least it was available. 

      2. Yea, but your property taxes were really low in California.

        Well, or they would have been if you had stayed in the same house for a few decades without major remodeling, or it burning down or something.  Or if you inherited one.  Or bought commercial or industrial property held by a shell company.

    3.  My children’s school was offering salad bar, but they changed a few of the options, and the dressings, and went cheap on everything which turned my daughter off the salad bar.  Then we also watched Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” and both my kids switched immediately to packing.  In this last school year, I think my son hasn’t bought once, and my daughter once.  I just think it’s a shame to see the food choices for the kids at their school getting worse not better, but I’m glad they’re making their decisions about their own health and happiness.

      1. both my kids switched immediately to packing.

        So that they can rob a salad bar on the way to school?

  1. Zachary confirms what scores of public school children have known for decades: your choices are frequently between attractively packaged junk food that addicts your taste buds, and cafeteria food that appears to be MREs (Meals Rejected by Everyone).

      1.  I used to always be amazed when my friends at school would actually *eat* the food. I mean, to me, it was a lot easier just not to eat all day.

          1. Yeah. I can’t stand incredulous people who think kids are idiots. I’ve taught video classes to kids this age, and while not all are quite this precocious, they’re definitely capable of coming up with a plan, writing out some dialogue, and putting together a reasonable video using a simple tool like iMovie.

            While his dad is credited as the ‘editor’ of the film, obviously no adult could have helped him shoot the in-school covert shooting, and it’s not like the concept (cafeteria food is gross!) is something beyond a fourth-grader’s cognitive capabilities. The dialogue and sense of humor, too, sound more like a slightly nerdy, precocious late-elementary-schooler’s than an adult’s. While it’s clear he’s had enthusiastic adults scaffolding and supporting his project, I don’t see any reason to believe that it wasn’t his idea or that he wasn’t a significant creative force in it.

            (I’ve also done video projects with much younger kids, where I definitely had to do most of the final editing/compositing myself, but that can definitely be done in a way that includes kids in the process, respects their ideas, and makes the project wholly theirs – so even if dad is going overboard with the After Effects, that doesn’t mean its more his project than Zachary’s).

          2. It makes people sound like they are actually just afraid that a kid might be brighter than they are. Come to think of it, I’m not sure people get that much smarter as they age. Other things change, like decision making, impulse control, the personality some times, awareness, technical skills, factual knowledge. Tons of things change, so you do get smarter in the sense of “better at living and surviving as an adult,” but I’m not sure base intelligence or creativity does that much changing. 

            I guess it is a pet peeve of mine because honestly until I reached my junior and senior years of undergrad I was routinely accused of plagiarism and/or getting adult help (these people had no idea the “adults” that would have been around to “help” me couldn’t get their own lives together enough to *get* me to school let alone give a flying fuck what I did there… and made so much racket I  had to do homework in the dark at night or early before classes started). I had to become almost litigious about proving myself. I’d often challenge teachers to give me 10 minutes to write an equally competent essay on another subject, etc.  So I’m whining a bit, it’s true. 

            But still, it annoys me. Maybe also because it gives me that same sense I feel when people seem to just want to put others down instead of improving themselves.

        1. There is a british schoolgirl who has been doing this sort of thing for a while. Her blog is at http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk/ as you can see she has managed to get quite a lot of attention and awards

          1.  I read through some of her blog.  Those school lunches from Japan look amazing.  Definitely makes me feel like American schools are doing it very wrong.

  2. So I think the first thing that the school district should do is to get the kid suspended for using a concealed camera. Seriously. Then they should go to their congress person and get some laws passed that make it a criminal offense to film the making of school lunches.
    Think that sounds crazy? Well that is exactly what happened when activists distributed footage of the conditions at factory farms.

    That is how you fight these kind of stories, especially if it looks like it will cost you money to change your operations.

    Remember: DON’T fix the problem. Attack the person who pointed out the problem.

    1. Came here to say that.  I dunno if it was this kid, but I remember a similar story a few months ago that ended up with the ACLU…

    2.  Don’t forget the terrorism angle:  He might film the school’s :security” processes and thus give the bad guys an insight into how to attack.

      1. Those triangular wedges were sharp and pointy. And I don’t like to think of the damage that could be done by weaponized broccoli. Sensibly omitted, if you ask me.

  3. Review of the documentary (linked on its press and promo page):

    His hidden-camera documentary was almost derailed last year when he
    was caught filming without permission by a fearsome enforcer – the
    lunchroom monitor in his school cafeteria.

    “She sent me to my teacher, and my teacher told me to delete everything,” said Zachary, who is now 11.

    Zachary pretended to delete the day’s shots.After that lapse in production security, he said, “I fired my lookouts.”

    I like the last bit :)  It also mentions meeting people from the Education Department’s Office of School Food who complimented him on his movie.


    1. Zachary pretended to delete the day’s shots. After that lapse in production security, he said, “I fired my lookouts.

      I like this kid. When I was his age, I was lending money at usurious rates to fellow students so that they could buy ice cream. I had a bodyguard whom I was paying $5 per week. Adjusted for inflation, I may have had a higher income in grammar school than I do now.

      1.  I re-sold loose candy. My biggest $$ was from individual Now n Laters and small Jolly Ranchers.

      2. I used to make a profit buying cartons of cigarettes on the cheap and taking them into all-day music concerts (Lollapalooza, etc) and selling the individual packs at gouging prices, that was until someone alerted a State Police officer at one of the concerts and it took all my effort to not get arrested for breaking BATF laws.

  4.  I’m most shocked by the styrofoam containers. What happened to those  compartmentalized hard plastic trays that you put onto the conveyor belt when you were done?

    1.  Plastic trays need to be WASHED, that means someone has to be paid to wash them. These styrofoam monstrosities can just be thrown away! Nothing ever bad will come from that!

      1. What irks me most isn’t the environmental impact *), but the impact on table manners.  Human beings aren’t pigs to be fed as efficiently as possible.
        I simply refuse to eat out of disposable containers, whenever it can be avoided. When I get to a sit down restaurant, I except china, not styrofoam. And metal instead of plastic cutlery. *) Which is there, but perhaps not as big as one might believe. 

        1. My daughter’s school does use plates (plastic, but not disposable kind), metal utensils and even glass glasses (to my big surprise, we had metal mugs when I was in school… and yes, when I’ve visited there is a glass shattering every now and then).

          1. Glasses? When I was a lad, the beverage options in the school cafeteria were whatever was in your thermos or buying a little carton of milk.

          2. When I was a kid, half the time “whatever was in my thermos” *WAS* glass. Those things were crap; the slightest jar or budge or fall would shatter the inside container and turn my drink into the “Hellraiser” version of bubble tea. 

    2. They had already gotten rid of them before I started elementary school in the early 90s. I shudder to think how thick a strata of styrofoam our country’s landfills have accumulated in the intervening years.

  5. a pinch of ‘fresh’ salad is way better than the pale grey ‘green beans’ they used to pass as a veggie when i was his age, the pizza looks better too

  6. Nothing ever bad will come from that!

    Except styrofoam-eating bacteria.

    Which will arrive just after we all succumb to the fad for styrofoam underwear.

  7. I remember being in 4th grade and trying to start a student petition for more nutritious lunches. Most of my classmates told me that “no one would care.” In retrospect, I probably should have been talking to parents. Still, it taught me a lesson that has been invaluable to me as I have continued in activism: even at 9, people are so used to being trampled under institutions that they default to feeling voiceless and helpless.

  8. This makes me sad. Not just the salad, but the whole sad lack of variety. I always liked my school lunches because they always, always had a meat, starch, vegetable and fruit. Any given one might be icky (I never could eat the collard greens), but there was enough variety to make up for it.

  9. “Coll-EE-flower” made me smile.
    Almost everything about the school lunches in my kids’ school makes me feel like a loser for not being active with the school board or… something. It isn’t just that the food is disgusting. They are rushed to eat, hustled in and out of the cafeteria, and hollered at while they eat. There is no attempt to teach them anything about how to eat (health, manners, whatever). All though, (I know this is mean) judging from the physical appearance of most of the people who work at the school, maybe it is best that they not try to teach anyone how to be healthy.

  10. When I was in high school I saw this prison documentary and was somewhat surprised that the food they were served in the prison cafeteria was EXACTLY the same food we were served. Even the trays were the same.

  11. Gee … Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg could divert some of the tens of millions of dollars he is spending to manipulate state and national elections to feeding the elementary school-children, in his “OWN Town” … I mean … SINCE he isso concerned about “THE CHILL-DREN ! “.

  12. It makes me also wonder how often parents check in with their kids about what they are eating. And whether they trust their assessment. 

  13. Well..it’s a public school. My daughters go to a private Montessori school, and they sit a table, in chairs, and the food is better than what’s served in most restaurants  It’s in bowls, and they pass it around and serve themselves a proper small serving. If there is any leftover in the bowls, after they clear their plates they may ask for more. It’s beyond idyllic..yet at home and out eating, they are little greedy monsters who are pickier about what they eat then Gordon Ramsey at Golden Corral. I love going to sit with them at lunch whenever I can regardless, because for a moment, I have hope that they’ll overcome the bad habits they embrace out of school down the road. (for the record, I am a single dad and do not have the chance to monitor their eating habits when they are not with me, I can only blindly appeal to their mother about it, with little success). I hope this kid has some success with improving the food at his school, but I think ol’ Bloomy is more concerned with other matters (kids don’t vote, so fuckem, right?). /sarcasm. 

    1. Unfortunately public schools are often run by private interests unelected, and appointed cronies of local mayors etc. I doubt NYC is much different than my city in that the school district is run by a bunch of wealthy business people who like to make life miserable for parents and teachers. I’m sure you’ll find that there are connections and lobbying related to who gets the contracts to supply school food. Having said that, most parents can’t afford a Montessori and I’m glad that public schools are there for all the other kids that would be cast into the street by a private system. Especially the poorest kids who often don’t get much to eat outside of their school lunches.

  14. Used to work at a fishplant 20 years ago during summer vacation. The fish that had worms and blood in it was cut away and put in with the fishbone into a rasper, which got all the meat from the bones. This was then sold to prisons and schools in the US. 

      1. When I traveled on trains in India, all the locals strongly recommended becoming vegetarian immediately rather than face mystery meat croquettes.

      2.  Amen.  One of the big reasons I made the change from omnivore to vegetarian was looking at the conditions of slaughterhouses, etc.  It’s not that I don’t care about the animals, I just care about me most of all, and I didn’t want to be ingesting mystery…meat-stuff…anymore.

  15. It’s not just the salad. Friday the 4th it’s a “New York Style Pizza Slice,” which looks like a pizza slice. November 18 it’s an Oven-Baked Pizza Bagel, which looks like the same kind of pizza slice. Then Friday the 2nd it’s again an Oven-Baked Pizza Bagel, but looks like french bread pizza. So the menu — the actual record of what lunch was served — is bogus. It takes something like surreptitious video work to counter that sort of BS. All in an elementary school!

    My son’s school has a fine lunch program, including a Farm-to-School salad bar with all sorts of great choices. Carrots, jicama, corn, chickpeas, pinto beans, cucumber, and melons or strawberries are typical offerings, with a choice of ranch or Italian dressing. Not all kids take advantage of it, of course, but at least the option is there. And having volunteered in the cafeteria, I can say that they serve what’s on the menu. http://www.venturausd.org/childnutrition/lunch_2011_2012_.htm

    1.  It’s almost as if inner city children with their habit of being mostly brown and not very rich are treated worse than kids in wealthier whiter parts of the country.

  16. Psyched to see that healthy skepticism hasn’t completely been bred out of our species yet!

  17. What I saw of the food didn’t actually look that bad, aside from the horrible lighting.

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