Ask random adults what school lunches were like when they were kids, and the answers can range from great to awful, depending on when and where they went to school. Schools are required to provide healthy lunches, but children must want to eat them.
The Observer decided to see and taste-test some of today’s lunches in Jefferson County schools. Accompanied by Jefferson County Schools Information Officer Hans Fogle; Jinny Demastes, Coordinator of Child Nutrition; and Ralph Dinges, Assistant Superintendent for Construction, Maintenance, and Facilities, we visited some local schools for lunch.
Demastes explained that all schools in Jefferson County serve the same daily menus and follow the same recipes in order to meet the federal government nutrition guidelines and keep meals uniform from school to school. Lunch must provide a main dish with whole grains and lean protein, a serving of vegetables, a serving of fruit, and a cup of one-percent or fat-free milk. A legume is required every week, as is a red or orange vegetable. However, the schools have no control over the content of lunches brought from home.
Simple breakfasts (fruit, grain, milk) are also offered, either in the cafeteria or bagged so that students can eat them in morning class. Kidz Power Pacs provide take-home food for children who may not have enough to eat over weekends and breaks. They contain nonperishable, microwaveable meals kids can prepare for themselves. Kidz Power Pacs are provided by a nonprofit ministerial association unaffiliated with schools.
Each county is free to plan its own monthly menus, and Demastes observed that different foods are popular in different areas. “Here, the kids won’t eat soup beans, so we serve baked beans or chili. They won’t eat kale, no matter what we do with it! But in the southern part of the state, they like soup beans and won’t eat chili.”
Dinges added, “Kids don’t like sweet potato fries; it’s hard to get them crispy.”
Season vs. Session
Eight Panhandle counties formed a co-op to purchase food together in order to keep costs down. They meet monthly or bimonthly to discuss food availability and look at any new foods that might be of interest.
You might wonder if children have any say in what is served. To a degree, they do. When new items are introduced, they are taste-tested in one county and the kids are surveyed. If they like the new food, it is introduced to the other counties. Of course, if children had their say, they would have their favorites every day, which haven’t changed for decades: hot dogs, pizza, and chicken nuggets. They do get whole grain pizza with salad on Fridays, occasional chicken nuggets, and hot dogs just once a month.
Asked whether the county schools utilize fresh, locally sourced food, Demastes explained that they serve it whenever possible. Kilmer’s Farm Market provides fresh produce to schools in ten West Virginia counties, as well as Virginia and the D.C.-metro area. In addition to what they grow, they collect food from other local farms, and supply what is available. The problem is volume.
Fogle recalled an occasion when the county schools planned a special day of lunches prepared from locally sourced food—remembering that it took practically the entire output of every contributing farm just to supply that single day’s lunch. Local farms simply can’t produce enough food to serve the approximately 7,500 students eating lunch in Jefferson County every day.
“Another problem,” said Demastes, “is that many things are not in season when school is in session. Weather is also a factor—last year’s rains were bad for crops.”
Additionally, schools are required to accommodate children with allergies and special dietary needs, but a doctor’s note is required. Demastes reported that she personally shops for each child specifically for their diets.
“But there has to be a medical necessity,” added Dinges. “The kids can’t just say they do or don’t want to eat something.”
For example, each school has its own plan as to how to deal with students with peanut allergies. “There might be a special table or area,” explained Fogle. “But there has to be a safe space.”
Ultimately, it’s essential that school lunches are nutritious, but they also need to look appetizing and taste good or the children simply won’t eat them. “We can’t make the kids eat,” acknowledged Demastes, “but monitors in the lunch room encourage them to eat and not to waste. They tell them to at least try it.”
Ample and Delicious
The first stop on our lunch tour was Page Jackson Elementary School (Charles Town), on a regular weekday. Over 200 children in kindergarten, first, and second grades eat hot lunch daily, prepared by three cooks, including Cafeteria Manager Flo Best, who’s been a school cook for 31 years.
Lunch was attractive, colorful, and tasty. There was chicken and vegetables with whole grain pasta in a savory sauce, bright green buttered broccoli, a whole grain roll, a small orange, and skim or one-percent white (or chocolate) milk—with no fat or high-fructose corn syrup. A few parents were eating lunch with their children. Demastes explained that it was sometimes helpful in getting the children to taste new foods and to eat their lunch.
At Page Jackson, parents, grandparents, and guardians are welcome to drop in at lunch without an appointment. Just before Thanksgiving and winter breaks, they are specifically invited for special holiday lunches. Policies for lunch guests at other schools vary and are determined by the individual principals.
A second stop was made, just to observe, at Washington High School (Charles Town), because the same menu was being served, but with larger portions. In addition to hot lunch, Washington offers the choice of an impressive salad bar that could rival any restaurant’s—but without the sweets and high-fat sauces. Demastes said that it provides adequate nutrition for vegetarian students. Seven cooks prepare lunches for 600-700 students daily in three half-hour lunch shifts. With just five minutes between shifts, it’s amazing to see how quickly the cleaning crew clears the tables to get ready for the next onslaught of hungry students.
Shepherdstown Middle School was visited on the last day before winter break, when a special holiday meal was being served. Three and a half cooks prepare lunch for around 225 students daily in one lunch shift per grade at Shepherdstown Middle. Principal Rebecca Horn explained that the 30-minute lunch period is built into recess, and children must spend at least 15 minutes in their seats in the cafeteria before they can go out to play.
The middle school also has a salad bar with fresh fruit and vegetables, albeit smaller than the one at the high school. The students can make one visit in addition to the hot lunch. Horn affirmed that the students’ (and her) favorite lunch is Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.
The day’s holiday lunch was ample and delicious, consisting of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, homemade roll, and milk. There was also a rare dessert—a slice of pumpkin cake. Dessert is seldom served in school lunches outside of special occasions.
All told, this unofficial reviewer’s award for Jefferson County School(s) lunches comprises—Four Stars!—for nutrition, taste, and attractive presentation.