Bill Fowler has been eating lunch at Loch Raven Senior High School for 20 years.
No, he's not a slow learner. He's a satisfied customer.
"I eat here every day," said the technical education teacher as he pondered his cafeteria choices. "The cream of broccoli soup is excellent."
Ninth-grader Yaftahe Williams agreed with the teacher's judgment of Loch Raven cuisine. "It was real good," he said as he polished off his chicken parmigiana -- a breaded chicken patty with melted cheese and tomato sauce on a bun. "I get full most of the time."
What's this? People who like school lunches?
Well, school lunches have changed. Crabby cooks no longer grab something from each major food group, slap it on a plate and tell the kids to take it or leave it. Mushy spinach no longer oozes into the spaghetti sauce, and tuna-noodle casserole no longer makes its dreaded appearance every Friday.
There are choices now: pizza and chicken nuggets and chef's salads and bagels.
Of course, milk doesn't sell at two cartons for a nickel any more, and lunch isn't 25 cents. In Baltimore County, school lunch prices are among the highest in the state: $1.55 in secondary schools and $1.45 in elementary schools. That's 5 cents more than children paid last year.
Meanwhile, the people who feed the county's schoolchildren try to balance criticism about too much fat and sugar against young appetites trained on fast food. And they're faced with rising food prices, dwindling state and county support, and fewer commodities from the federal government.
At Loch Raven, cafeteria manager Florence Miller oversees 900 to 1,000 lunches a day. About half are eaten by Loch Raven students and faculty. The rest are delivered to the nearby Pleasant Plains and Hampton elementary schools.
Many students give Mrs. Miller's meals favorable, if not rave reviews.
Ninth-grader Derek Trageser said his pizza was "OK," but his real favorite is the cheese steak, another staple at Loch Raven and other schools. Senior Peter Holford likes cheese steaks too, but said all the food is "pretty decent."
Not everyone agrees. One of Peter's friends chose two candy bars, which he described as his usual lunch. Mrs. Miller countered with a gentle lecture on the importance of good nutrition.
The Loch Raven High kitchen is one of 45 where meals are prepared for the county's 148 schools. In September, those kitchens served about 34,000 full meals a day, plus a la carte items, according to David Patterson, acting director of Food and Nutrition Services. All the schools serve the same menu.
Last Tuesday, for example, Loch Raven Senior High offered a choice of entrees that included a hamburger, cold cut sub, cheese pizza and chicken parmigiana.
Among the fruits and vegetables were homemade vegetable soup, cole slaw, tossed salad, pasta salad, lettuce and tomato, fruit juice, fresh fruit and trail mix.
There were also two meal-size salads: egg salad on a bed of lettuce and a chef's salad with meat and cheese. A la carte items were french fries -- the staff of life for teen-agers -- and bagels, with or without cream cheese.
"If they can't find something [they like], they don't want to buy lunch," says Mrs. Miller.
For $1.55, high school students can choose five items: one entree plus a serving of bread, fruit, vegetable and milk. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls this a "Type A," or nutritionally balanced, lunch. It supplies one-third of a hypothetical student's daily nutritional and caloric requirements, according to school dietitian Katherine Chin.
Trimming the fat
Choice is one way the schools respond to critics who say their lunches are harming youngsters and discouraging good nutrition. The schools also use ingredients that are relatively low in fat and additives, said Kevin Dando of the American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va.
For instance, schools often use low-fat ground turkey, instead of beef, in spaghetti sauce. They serve canned fruit packed in juice, rather than heavy syrup, and offer 1 percent and 2 percent milk.
"I know that the percentage of fat has decreased markedly in the past 10 years," says Mr. Dando. Most school lunch programs try to match dietary guidelines that limit fat to 30 percent of a person's daily calories.
"We do make every effort to keep the meals moderate in fat, salt and sugar," says Mrs. Chin. The cooks use no monosodium glutamate or tropical oils and very little salt. The only deep-fried foods are french fries. They don't use fat in gravy, and they make soups and pasta sauces from scratch.
Nonetheless, kids are kids. Pizza and chicken nuggets are still the most popular items, and french fries are a must.
Elementary school students don't have as many choices as their older siblings. They pick from two entrees a day -- pizza and cold cut subs, for instance -- and there's no choice in fruits and vegetables.