ELDERSBURG — As third-graders invade the cafeteria, Justin Waagbo maintains his head start, breezing through the lunch line to place milk, pizza, fruit cup and cookie on a yellow tray.
"You sure you wouldn't like some salad?" asks a food service worker standing behind the serving linein the cafeteria at Carrolltowne Elementary School.
"No, thank you," says the 8-year-old.
Justin, not unlike other youngsters, may have passed up the day's vegetable, but he still put together a nutritious lunch -- one that meets the four basic food groups, says a private registered dietitian, who was asked by The Carroll County Sun to evaluate the noon-hour meal.
The slice of pizza, after all, contains selections from three food groups: milk, grain and fruit or vegetable. The fruit, an oatmeal raisin cookie and low-fatmilk provide fiber and calcium.
"It's a very well-balanced meal,"says Avis Graham, a registered dietitian at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville. "The portion size is adequate. These are things that are healthy and things kids would like to eat."
Graham's visit to the cafeteria came during National School Lunch Week. The Pikesville mother of three made these observations after evaluating the eating habits of some of the first-, second- and third-graders who bought lunches:
* Most children did not select the tossed salad or the fruit cup.
* The main course, dessert and beverage were eaten by the majority.
* Protein and calcium (milk) intake was adequate.
* Intake of fiber was inadequate.
In preparing meals for some 10,000 students daily, Carroll's cafeterias follow a meal pattern set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The pattern consists of 2 ounces of protein, such as meat or a meat alternative like peanut butter orchicken; a serving of bread or a bread alternative like crackers or taco shells; and 3/4 cup of fruit, vegetable or both.
And milk, of course -- whole white, low-fat white or low-fat chocolate.
"We usually offer a vegetable and a fruit," says Eulalia M. Muschik, supervisor of food services. "Sometimes we offer two vegetables or two fruits. We must offer all these items, but children must make a choice of three of the five."
Pizza is the most popular menu offering in Carroll and among the nearly 300,000 lunch-takers in schools across the state, says Shelly Terry, chief of the nutrition and transportationservices office of the Maryland State Department of Education.
Besides following federal guidelines to meet one-third of the nutritional requirements of a 10- to 12-year-old, Muschik says the cafeteria follows the recommendations of such groups as the American Heart Association, which suggests a daily intake of no more than 30 percent fat.
To reduce fat, schools use skim cheese on pizza, cook french fries in the oven instead of a deep fryer and alter recipes to reduce sugar or other fats. Cafeterias try to serve meals containing about 800 calories, one-third of the daily nutritional requirement.
"We try not to purchase or serve items high in fat," Muschik says. "It isn't always easy. In the end, the issue is getting kids to eat."
That'snot an issue just for school cafeterias. Parents should take note, too.
Scanning the home-packed lunches of several second-graders, Graham found lunches that were high in fat and lacking in protein and fiber.
Most of the students at the table failed to eat sandwiches their parents had packed for them.
She offered several suggestions to parents bagging lunches:
* Allow children a choice within each of the basic food groups.
* Instead of the traditional sandwich, packs cubes of cold cuts or cheese and one slice of bread or some plain crackers -- all wrapped separately.
* Yogurt is a good substitute for a sandwich.
* Encourage children to purchase milk at school.
* Give small portions of fruit or raw vegetables.
"Most did not have a fruit or vegetable," Graham says.
Graham made her observations in a cafeteria that is, well, no ordinary cafeteria. It's called the Cardinal Eatery. School officials have gone to great lengths tomake the 30-minute lunch part of the learning day.
To do so, school officials removed half of the tables and now allow each grade level to eat as a group. The room is decorated with plants and children'sartwork. At the end of the lunch period, children sing songs or participate in language arts activities.
The result is a quieter and more manageable lunch, Principal Ronald Burinsky says.
"Lunch periods were disruptive," he says.
"Almost all schools dread lunch because children sit, eat and get loud."