This week’s review is a little different. For the entirety of last week, schools across the country celebrated National School Lunch Week.
Board members and superintendents went to schools and served food and an article published in the News-Post highlighting some of the lunch staff at Waverley Elementary School. It’s a week that deserves to be celebrated, as according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2018 nearly 5 billion school lunches were served across the country, with almost three quarters free or reduced in price.
Frederick County served over 2 million of those lunches, said Robert Kelly, senior manager of Food and Nutrition Services for Frederick County Public Schools.
With so many kids trekking to school each day and standing in cafeteria lines, I wondered how good is the food FCPS is serving?
We all know the reputation of school lunches – unhealthy, frozen, fried, mystery meat. Images of a lady in a hairnet spooning some sort of slop onto a tray are typical of many television shows and movies.
But after spending a week visiting three FCPS cafeterias I found that yes, the ladies in hairnets do exist, but the food is not slop and in many cases, it actually tastes as good as it looks.
I visited an elementary, middle, and high school because lunch options differ at each level and I wanted to make sure I got the full scope.
When visiting Waverley Elementary, the main menu item for the day was whole grain penne pasta, chicken meatballs in marinara sauce, green beans and garlic bread. Fancy right?
I think the fanciest thing I was ever served in school was the special Thanksgiving feast and even then the food was questionable.
If Waverley students didn’t want pasta they could choose from a corndog or slice of pizza. There is also always the option of the classic PB&J sandwich, although to my surprise, FCPS staff showed me that it is no longer peanut butter in the PB&J. Today it’s something called Wowbutter. It looks like peanut butter — it tastes like a much denser, slightly less sweet peanut butter — but it’s made from soybeans.
The marinara sauce for the pasta was your typical marinara sauce out of a jar or can and the chicken meatballs were plump and juicy. The green beans just tasted like boiled green beans — not amazing, but healthy, which is a trend I noticed with all the lunches.
Nothing was amazing, it’s a school lunch, but you could tell everything was made with nutrition being the top priority. With the green beans and meatballs there was no added salt, and you could tell when tasting it.
This is commendable. In a time when childhood obesity rates continue to rise and many populations of the country live in food deserts, it’s nice to know that children are offered a hot healthy lunch option at school.
In Frederick County, kids are also required to take a fruit or vegetable with their meal. At Waverley for example, students could choose the green beans or they could leave the beans and choose one of the many fresh fruit options – grapes, orange slice, peaches, or whole apples and pears.
Middle and High School
In middle and high school the lunch options are more similar to one another. There are your typical hamburgers and chicken patties during every lunch period, but in every high school and some middle schools, there is also a five-day-a-week running taco bar.
It’s the school version of Chipotle. Two options of rice, three options of meat — chicken, ground beef, or shredded pork — and all the toppings including guacamole and fat-free sour cream. Students can choose a burrito, bowl or salad.
The portions are huge and although there is still that “healthy taste” — everything is just a little bland — when mixed in a bowl, everything you could want is there and for a school lunch it’s pretty exceptional.
The pulled pork especially blew me away. Super juicy and soft and just a little salty, I found it to be much better than any of the other protein options and while eating, I couldn’t help but wish that my high school had a taco bar when I was in school.
When I visited West Frederick Middle School they were serving up a “walking taco” as their main menu item that day which essentially had everything from the taco bar, the only difference being that everything was piled on top of a split-open bag of Doritos.
Kelly said Doritos makes these bags and chips special for schools. The Doritos are completely whole grain and the bag is made to open and pop out.
Kelly said kids love this item because it looks fun and the Doritos make it more appealing.
I didn’t have a problem with the flavor and thought the Doritos added a little bit of needed spice, but personally I found it very hard to physically eat. The Doritos in the bag kept breaking and I couldn’t pick up anything with my spork. But I’m sure kids find a way to eat it without a problem.
Along with the taco bar, Urbana High School also has a running Asian bar. The day I visited, the options were rice, General Tso’s chicken, honey sriracha chicken and steamed broccoli.
Talk about fancy taken to a whole other level, and I have to admit that I actually liked this better than the taco bar.
The chicken was what really impressed me and is the clear star of the bar. Everything is baked instead of fried, which didn’t make me feel bogged down an hour after eating it and the flavor was spot on.
I was surprised by the burst of ginger I got from the General Tso’s chicken. The honey siracha was sweet with a little hint of chili flavor that made you want to keep eating. I didn’t find it spicy but can imagine it would be for some people.
The broccoli was boiled and a little overdone as it was slightly mushy but for a school lunch, paired with the chicken and rice, the mushiness is neither here nor there.
Overall, my week spent eating school lunches turned out better than expected. Yes, it may still not be the greatest food and some parents may still be opposed to their children eating from the cafeteria but trust when I say that compared to what I was eating only seven years ago, today’s lunches have severely improved and offer a healthy, wholesome cheap option to students who may not have access to it on a regular basis.
Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter: @katrynajill.