Kevin Jones scarfed down a small mountain of lasagna as he sang the praises of the new Wilde Lake High School lunch program, which was honored last week for innovative cafeteria practices.
The west Columbia school offers a "scramble" lunch program that allows students to serve themselves from separate food stations rather than one long serving line. Students and teachers alike praised the increased variety as well as the speed of delivery.
"I gotta tell ya, it's pretty good," said the senior around a mouthful of fries and soup. "I buy lunch here every day, and I never used to at all 'cause the food wasn't so great and it took such a long time."
That's the kind of talk Mary Klatko likes to hear, even coming from someone with a full mouth. The Howard County schools administrator for food and nutrition won a U.S. Department of Agriculture award Friday for innovative cafeteria practices.
She said it helped that she was involved in the construction of the school -- Wilde Lake moved to this building in September 1996 -- and could plan more space for the cafeteria to allow the "scramble" program. No other Howard County school offers the same program.
On any given day at Wilde Lake, students are offered about 18 entree choices ranging from salad to pizza to tuna fish on rainbow bread -- rye bread dyed bright colors.
"If they go hungry from here, I don't know what to give them," said Klatko.
"These kids can eat," said Roger L. Plunkett, the school's principal.
In each 30-minute lunch shift, students line up outside before grabbing their choice from a station and heading to the register. Most students said it takes them about five minutes to buy lunch, compared to 15 minutes in the single-line style.
"It makes a big difference to me. I didn't used to buy lunch because I could never eat it," said Marcia Liu, a junior who said she now purchases her $1.50 lunch about three times a week.
It's that kind of students-as-customers attitude that is improving the nation's school lunch program nationwide, said Shirley R. Watkins, undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition and consumer services.
Watkins -- who had soup and salad, plus a bread stick and chocolate milk -- presented the award to Klatko and the high school during a ceremony at lunch Friday as part of National School Lunch Week.
She said she admires schools that are able to balance the required nutritional guidelines with student demands. Klatko said that she has been able to offer popular choices such as chicken nuggets, with less fat content, and noted that schools have made a concerted effort to offer vegetarian meals every day as well.
Officials said today's meals are a far cry from the days when rTC students were served the same meal on a given weekday -- macaroni on Mondays, spaghetti on Fridays.
"I think in the future that you will see schools begin to offer more ethnic choices for their students," Watkins said.
The USDA is encouraging those choices by offering food service staffs culinary videos and ethnically diverse recipes from nationwide competitions.
But Andrea Pederzoli, 16, an exchange student from Italy, said he doesn't expect to see any of his hometown meals on the menu anytime soon -- and that's OK with him.
"Really, I like the cheeseburgers and the hamburgers," he said. "The pizza here? Well, it's American."
Pub Date: 10/19/97