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Cafeteria food

August 28, 2007|By SEAN CLARK

When you hear the words "school lunch," normally it's accompanied by a few gags and groans. For years and years, students have complained about school lunches, and yet, as students, are we being fair? And is there anything we can do about lunches?

When I learned about a required "Improve Your Community" project for school, I didn't see mindless work. I saw an opportunity.

Imagine this: Instead of groaning to yourself about school lunches, what if they could become something that "packers" would be envious of? Hopeless fantasies, you say? So did I, and I wrote a version of this story exploring that angle.

But after some encouragement from my editor, I went in to interview the lunch staff, and boy, did I learn a lot.

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First off, let me just say that the lunch staff is extremely underappreciated. I always try to smile and say "hi" to the people behind the counter. But watching other people get their lunches, I would've thought that students were a bunch of prisoners on death row. They shuffle through the line like zombies, picking up food as they go, and they sometimes glare at the lunch aides, seemingly cursing them for forcing them to eat cafeteria food.

Well, if you know what to get, the cafeteria food can be delicious. When I spoke with the lunch staff after the line had gone through, several staff members told me that the barbecued chicken was something great, and that not many people knew about it. Remember, if you don't get there fast, you won't get the good stuff. Anyone who's been to school on a taco day knows what I mean. It's like a stampede of people, crashing through the halls and trampling those too slow to get out of the way.

OK, maybe there haven't really been any serious injuries from taco stampedes, but I know kids get bumped around.

Back to this oh-so-secretive barbecue chicken. The day after I was let in the loop, guess what the lunch staff had behind the counter? That's right, the chicken they all seemed to love. And after I tried it, I understood why: It was delicious.

So maybe some cafeteria foods taste good. But why are only some food choices tasty? Why can't everything on the menu be something students fight over? My idea was that if certain dishes tasted bad because of the cooking, then we could solve this problem simply by letting the lunch staff know which foods we dislike.

They told me that most of the food comes packed in boxes, and all they do is put it together and cook it. The hamburgers, for example, are not homemade. They're premade patties that come in a box. That sounded bad, but then I considered that many students eat premade food out of boxes at home or at fast-food restaurants.

I asked the cafeteria staff members if there was anything they did prepare from scratch. They told me that all of the salads and cold sandwiches are freshly made each day. The club sandwiches were pretty popular, they said. They also have fresh fruits almost every day - oranges, apples, grapes, pears and so on.

So some dishes taste good, and they can be fresh and healthy, too. But what about choices? Are there enough options for us to choose from?

Well, one lunch staff told me that the Washington County Board of Education is responsible for the selection of different foods. She was happy with that.

"I like that they have the variety of things to eat every day."

Take fruit. It's not an apple every day with your meal, it's an apple today, an orange tomorrow, some grapes the next day - you get the idea. They also told me they have three or four main course options each day. Some of these are pretty good, like the turnovers ... mmm. I love the turnovers. There's a few other student favorites, too - the tacos, which I already mentioned, and macaroni and cheese.

Well, hey. School lunches have a pretty bad reputation, and I guess there'll always be controversy about them. But if students notice the good things about their cafeteria's food, there will be fewer gags and groans and more happy students every day.

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