School Cafeteria Food Improving But Students May Pass on Healthier Options

by Kara Thompson ’20

The question “French fries or salad?” is typically a no-brainer for most students. At Sherwood, it’s no different. French fries are one of the most popular items on the menu, sometimes with students entering the lunch line solely for one or more orders of fries. But strangely enough, if you look at the MCPS school menu, fries aren’t even listed. Instead, they are categorized simply as potatoes on the a la carte menu.

MCPS released a general menu that schools across the county base their lunch menus on. This plan rotates balanced meals daily for variety, while still being healthy and following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Susan McCarron, director at the MCPS Division of Food and Nutrition Services, says that there is a team of 10 child nutrition professionals who meet monthly to plan the menu choices and receive feedback from students. Computer softwares are also used to ensure that dietary goals are met, and the menus try to give students an opportunity to try new foods.

Students who buy a lunch meal with designated components must purchase either half a cup of fruits or vegetables, and are encouraged to choose components from the other three categories: milk/dairy, grains, and meat or other protein alternative. However, students who buy items a la carte–whether to supplement their school meal or lunch from home–do not have any specific guidelines as for what to buy or not buy. This seems to be where sales of things such as fries, slushies (categorized as smoothies), pizza, and other less healthy options increase.

McCarron says that recently, there have been new initiatives taken regarding school lunches, such as the addition of more local fresh fruits and vegetables, the development of new recipes, the elimination of unhealthy dyes to make food cleaner, and offerings of more vegetarian and vegan options to appeal to more students. It’s evident that MCPS is dedicated to providing healthy, clean foods to all students, while still having both variety and flavor.

The issue is, students may not be choosing these nutritious options available to them. At Sherwood specifically, fries are a staple of the cafeteria, and the school is the only one in the county that serves them on a daily basis, according to Sherwood’s cafeteria manager Lisa Nestor. Since each specific school tailors the general menu to student preferences, individual schools may end up offering more of the popular, unhealthier foods. According to McCarron, they do this more because it “results in cost savings through minimizing food waste.”

However, some students are choosing healthier options. Sherwood’s cafeteria sells more salad meals than any other school in the county, which is why the cafeteria was able to introduce a salad bar at the beginning of the year. Students often take lettuce and yogurt from the bar, but don’t regularly take advantage of any other components offered.