School lunch served, protests on the side

Higher price, fewer cookies and fries stir grumbling in Howard County

Maryland Journal

September 11, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Dan Swartz was a man on a mission as he flipped open the silver cooler, retrieved a small carton of strawberry milk and headed down the cafeteria lunch line for the main course: pepperoni pizza and french fries.

He was the first to get his food during "C" lunch at Howard High School in Columbia, and by the time the cashier had dropped the change into Swartz's outstretched hand, the 17-year-old already was making his way toward a group of friends. The entire process took less than a minute.

"I think it is better than what kids think it is," the Ellicott City senior said after finishing his fries, and attacking half of his pizza. "It really doesn't look that good, but it's still pretty good."

Ah, lunch!

In schools across Maryland, the scene remains the same. In a sort of controlled stampede, the kids make their lunch picks amid the steam and noise of the kitchen, then head out into the crowded cafeteria for that all-important table selection. In Howard County alone, the ritual is played out 20,000 times a day.

But while certain staples remain - that unusual scent of cleaning solution, mixed with the aroma of the main dish - other aspects of the typical cafeteria lunch seem to be changing faster than a diner special.

In response to national concerns about childhood obesity, Howard County is among many school systems in the country that have adopted new guidelines for meals, snacks, and beverages served in the cafeteria. That means fewer sweets and smaller portions of certain items such as cookies and french fries.

In addition to the health-related restrictions, Howard County also increased school lunch prices to $2.50, from $2, for an average secondary lunch. Howard County officials blame salaries, health insurance, fuel, food and milk costs.

Some students aren't pleased - the county school board heard recently that students at one high school attempted a boycott of school lunch to protest the recent changes, and that even more students have started to bring lunches from home.

Casey Merriman, a 17-year-old senior at Howard High, is among those bringing lunch because of increased prices.

"It's not worth the money," Merriman said as she took a bite of her bag lunch carrot sticks, which she dipped in ranch salad dressing. "You leave the cafeteria poor and hungry."

Chelsea "Don't-Even-Get-Her-Started-On-The-French-Fries" Everett interjected from across the table: "You can go to Wendy's for $3 and can get a whole meal and be satisfied."

One of the biggest changes to this year's lunch is the reduction in a la carte items, especially to the fan favorite french fries. Now french fries are sold in combination with meals.

Howard High Principal Regina Massella has noticed some backlash from students.

"The kids are upset about the cookies," said Massella, who explained that the number of cookies was reduced from three to two. "You don't mess with kids and their cookies. They said, `Miss Massella, what is going on with the cookies?'"

Getting rid of Cheez-Its has irked senior Joi Gaddy.

"In six months I can vote, smoke, gamble, go to war, but I can't eat Cheez-Its?" Gaddy squawked from the table that she shared with Everett and Merriman. "Where is the justice?"

Back in the lunch line, Nyree Williams, a 15-year-old sophomore, said that she usually spends about $3.50 a day on lunch. On this particular day, she bought a ziti meal that included fries. She topped it off with a bottled water, which is partly a result of a decision by soft drink distributors to stop selling soda in schools this year.

"I come in here every day and I can find what I want," said Williams. But there is a down side. "It costs too much. Especially for kids these days. We have other things to spend money on."

In another line, Tyler Wade loaded up in preparation for football practice. After consuming a cheeseburger, fries, and a chocolate milk, Wade was back for a pretzel.

"With the prices raising we didn't get more food," said the 17-year-old senior. "We kind of got [cheated]."

Wade said he likes the current a la carte offerings of pretzels, bagels and breakfast foods.

"I really enjoy the food," he said.

The opinion on school lunch was pretty mixed among Swartz's clique of friends, which included those who purchase their lunch in the cafeteria and those who brown- (actually blue plastic grocery-) bag it each day.

Brad Montgomery, who brought in a Red Bull, four scrambled eggs and a salad for lunch, said school offerings are borderline.

"Sometimes they get the job done," he said.

McKenzie Bane, a 16-year-old senior brings lunch to school every day. On this day, his feast consisted of a turkey sandwich, two Capri Sun drink pouches, two Nutri-Grain bars, a packet of fruit snacks and yogurt.

"School lunch is overpriced, and sometimes it just doesn't taste good," said Bane, a varsity soccer player. "The prices have gone up every year. It's just not worth it."

But Swartz is sticking with his lunch, especially since his parents are paying for it.

"It's not like a big deal," he said. "It's not coming out of my wallet."

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