Getting an appetite for cafeteria food

More Harford County students are sacking the brown bag lunch in favor of hot meals served at school

Education Beat


Taylor Ward looked down at the contents of her sack lunch spread askew on the table - a Lunchable meal, candy, Goldfish crackers and a Diet Pepsi - and flashed a grin.

"The best lunches come from your mom," said the Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School third-grader.

Across the table, Hannah Bress munched on a lunch she bought in the cafeteria: breaded shrimp and fruit.

"The hot lunches are a lot better, Taylor," Hannah said to her classmate. "Shrimp poppers are the best!"

Although most Harford County public school students - 54 percent- join Taylor in bringing lunch from home, the popularity of school lunches in Harford is on the rise, increasing last year more than in any jurisdiction in Maryland.

Harford recently received state awards for increased participation by students in the school lunch program, said Karen Sarno, supervisor of food and nutrition for county schools. During the 2004-2005 school year, the number of students who opted for school lunches rose 5 percent over the previous year, with 3,308,909 meals being served. In addition to full lunches, that total includes single items off the a la carte menu.

Increases occurred in three categories. For students who pay full price for lunch, the number of lunches served went up 14 percent, as did those for students eligible for reduced-price meals. The number of meals served to students who qualify for free lunch rose by 7 percent.

School officials attribute the improvement to better food and an increasingly diverse menu.

"Essentially we're a $12 million business," Sarno said. "We don't profit from the business, but the money that comes in each year enables us to improve and increase the quality of what we offer."

Among the factors Sarno credits to the increase are a diverse, kid-friendly menu; affordability; more side dishes; and accommodations for kids with special dietary needs.

"First and foremost, I think more kids are eating lunch at school because they like what we offer," Sarno said.

For years, parents have scrutinized the nutritional value of school lunches. But Sarno, a certified school food and nutrition specialist, said the nutrition is there, though sometimes it's hidden in ingredients.

"We have to meet the standards but how we do that is entirely up to each school district," said Sarno.

For example, the Harford schools menu includes pizza. Although it isn't being passed off as a health food in the traditional sense, it's prepared with low-fat cheese and the meal is balanced with low-fat milk and side dishes of fruit and vegetables.

"We have to offer the kids things they want, or they won't eat the meals," Sarno said. "But we put out the salad and the fruit every day and the more they are exposed to those things the more likely they have them for lunch."

An informal poll of pupils at a recent visit to the Homestead cafeteria revealed that children list pizza, shrimp poppers, chicken nuggets and nachos as favorites.

Some say they only eat on days when their favorite meals are served.

"I eat lunch when we have Nachos Grande but I bring my lunch the rest of the time," said Matthew Wolfe. "My mom packs me chips, brownies, Starburst and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my lunch. I like all that food the best."

Sarno said the relative affordability of school lunches helps. Lunch in primary schools costs $1.50 and includes one of three entrees and three side dishes.

The cost of a lunch at the secondary level is $1.60 and includes a choice of one of four entrees and three side dishes. There's also a la carte items including bottled water, Gatorade, cookies, cakes, chips, pretzels, burgers, sandwiches and ice cream.

By comparison, lunches in Anne Arundel and Howard counties cost $1.75 in primary schools and $2 in secondary schools. Baltimore County charges $2.10 and $2.20, while Cecil County charges $1.35 and $1.50.

Karen Olsen, staff dietitian, said the diversity of the menu appeals to many of the kids. However, the district is limited in what foods can be prepared at each of its 60 schools.

"We can't make four entrees in the oven at the same time so we have to select items that we can accommodate," she said. "For example, we can easily make a dinner for six of turkey and all the trimmings for Thanksgiving. But, when we have the entire family visit, it's a lot harder to bake everything in one oven. So we have to choose entrees according to those restrictions."

However, Olsen said the most important criteria in choosing the menu is nutritional value. She said exposing the kids to foods they wouldn't otherwise eat leads them to test it.

"Kids need to touch it, smell it, feel it, see it and try foods before they are willing to try something new," Olsen said. "When we first introduced tossed salad it wasn't an immediate hit. Some of the kids weren't exposed to salads at home, but once they got used to having salad it became a hit. Many of our fifth-grade girls come in every day and get salads. It's the cool thing to do."

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