From the moist meatball dish to the gracious companions, lunch at the Harford public schools Thursday made for an agreeable dining experience.
Both the food and the ambience rated high marks from this roving food critic, who spent a day in the cafeterias of three public schools -- even if one student did jam his thumb into the pizza before passing me a bite.
But students who eat the food every day have mixed reviews of the fare.
Public school students these days have a far wider choice from their school cafeterias than once was the case. Our visit found that the choice isn't limited to eat the mystery meatloaf or go hungry.
FOR THE RECORD - A story in The Harford County Sun last week, "Cafeteria mystery meat gives way to modern fare" incorrectly identified elementary school students and a cafeteria worker quoted in the article as attending andworking at Bel Air Elementary School.
In fact, the students and the worker attend and work at Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School.
The Harford County Sun regrets the errors.
The ubiquitous "hearty school-made soup," as the menu calls it,and ham salad can still be found. But there also are new touches in Harford school cafeterias such as fresh salad bars and lasagna with French bread.
At the cafeterias visited -- Edgewood High, Fallston Middle and Bel Air Elementary schools -- many students eagerly sampled the menu of the day treats.
At Bel Air Elementary, students had menu choices of chicken nuggets, meatball subs, pizza, green beans, french fries, applesauce and salad, plus the usual extras -- ice creamand cookies.
A table of fourth-grade girls hosting this critic outdid themselves to be charming. But their food reviews were blunt.
"Gross!" said Kristin Bienert, 9. "It tastes terrible."
"Everything tastes terrible," echoed a friend.
"Not the pizza," said a third, making short work of an ice cream cone.
"Not the tacos. I like the tacos," said Heather Stein. "And the cookies are good, too."
At Edgewood High some students chose the staid but true brown bag lunch. But many dined on cafeteria fare.
"It's s---," grumbled David Reid, a senior at Edgewood. "We have pizza every other day."
SeniorTony Grenier lamented the condition of his french fries. "There's this little spot in the center where they're like ice. But the outsidesare burnt," he complained.
Tough comments like those don't unnerve Archie McDonald, food service supervisor for the county school system.
Nowadays, students are perhaps more sophisticated food consumers than 20 years ago, says McDonald.
His job includes selecting school menus a month in advance, based on what foods are readily available in bulk and market prices.
"We want to be in tune to the market out there. Students develop likes and dislikes from eating out as well as at home, and they're eating out more these days," he said. "Sowe try to have a variety to choose from -- something liked by everybody."
Alas, not every eater was happy at the Fallston Middle School, where students seemed to have a graphic flare for describing theiropinions of the food.
One 13-year-old banged his soft pretzel on the table, just to demonstrate how hard it was.
A second pulled items from his pizza, swearing they were hairs, earnestly displaying them close to the food critic's hapless face.
Another child described his fruit punch as tasting like dish detergent. "All metallic," explained eighth-grader Gino Amasia.
And if that wasn't enough, some thought the lunch prices too high.
"I just bought five chicken nuggets and it cost me a dollar. Now I'm broke," said student Steve Tyler.
But students could be found who praised the variety of entree lunch options they can buy for the daily set price of $1.40.
The chocolate chip cookies served won rave reviews at all cafeterias. "I get them every day, no matter what," said Angel Fitzgerald, 17.
She was not alone. At each school, cookies were pressed on the food critic, who nobly declined after sampling just one.
High school students also praised the salad bar's hot, buttery croutons and fresh veggies.
"It's definitely worth the money," said Laurie Patten, 15. "We even have Bacon Bits!"
At Bel Air Elementary, cafeteria manager Bobbie Patton supervises food preparation. She loves her job, Patton said. "The kids. There's never a dull moment when the kids arrive," shesaid.
Patton, who eats cafeteria fare herself, arrives as early as 6:15 a.m. to supervise the day's menus. But fifth-grader Barry Clark doesn't think she should bother to go to such trouble.
Like mostof his schoolmates, the little boy lunched with quiet dignity, although he declined to touch his green beans.
When asked why he wasn'teating them, Barry cocked his head. "Good question," he said. His brow furrowed. Then he smiled. "No butter. They don't put butter on 'em," he said.
In the middle-grade levels, trendiness was key, and students said it's a bit "cooler" to buy lunch than bring it.
But if you must bring lunch, make sure you have a neon-colored cloth lunchbox. And whatever you do, don't bring fruit, warned Carol Magsamen, a seventh-grader at Fallston. "Fruit is nerdy," she proclaimed.