The Times’ School Lunch Review
Gainesville City Schools Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School
Beefy macaroni —
This dish was a hit with the kindergarteners at Fair Street. The whole-grain macaroni was the perfect texture, not “too tough” like some whole grain critics might claim.
Whole grain roll —
To meet whole-grain serving requirements, the macaroni was served with a small roll. The roll was light and fluffy with a thin coat of some oily butter. Another hit with the kids.
Sweet potato souffle —
While it’s not the creamy goodness of your grandmother’s sweet potato casserole, this dish was also topped with gooey marshmallows. The sweet potatoes themselves weren’t creamy, but they were hot and seasoned nicely.
The homemade applesauce was nearly perfect, better than Mott’s. There were many small hands eagerly scraping the last of the generous serving on their plates.
Hall County Schools
Davis Middle School
Chicken and rice casserole —
Five stars for this one. Diced chicken and whole-grain rice in a creamy ranch sauce topped with whole-grain breadcrumbs.
Mashed potatoes —
Mashed potatoes are usually a hit with kids, so this was a good choice for the middle school. They were very creamy, though would have been better with more salt.
The salad was exactly one slice of cucumber, two grape tomatoes and maybe half a handful of mixed lettuce. Props to the kitchen for the dressings, however. The make them all from scratch and have multiple choices.
Diced pineapple —
Students could choose between servings of diced pineapple, purple grapes or applesauce. It was nice to see so many fruit choices, and the pineapple was obviously not out of a can full of syrup.
Every day, in both Gainesville and Hall County schools, students are given a variety of choices for lunch. Each dish is hand-prepared that morning by the kitchen staff at each school.
“All of our salads are made fresh that morning,” said Tara Fields, nutrition manager at Davis Middle School. “We get all our produce in on Monday. Here, we have virtually no produce left over from the week before. All of our scratch items that we make, like the chicken and rice casserole, we make that each morning.
“It’s all prepared fresh.”
Fields said thought goes into each meal. The system’s nutrition coordinator, Trae Cown, even considers what spices or ingredients could make meals more enjoyable for students.
“I wonder what else we can do for the steamed broccoli, other than salt and pepper,” Cown said. “Maybe we can do garlic powder, things like that.”
At Fair Street International Baccalaureate School in Gainesville, the same time and effort goes into preparing school lunches. Nutrition manager Louvenia Richardson said her staff begins to arrive at 6 a.m. each day to prepare breakfast and get ready for lunch.
Richardson said the menu is specifically prepared to abide by a number of regulations, including whole grain servings. Since those standards were put in place, parents and students across the nation have voiced complaints.
“From a parent’s perspective, lots of times parents are basing their opinion on what their kids are telling them,” Fields said. “Our experience with that is, the kids may go home and tell their parents, ‘Lunch is gross and I’m not eating it.’ But the parents start questioning what’s happening to their money, and they realize their kids are eating, and eating well, every day.”
Richardson said many parents come to eat with their students at Fair Street, something she invites and encourages them to do.
“Unfortunately, in middle school we don’t have a lot of parents come and eat with us,” Fields said. “We have had a few and we’ve never had any complaints from them.”
Cown said most parents have a stereotypical and outdated idea of school lunches and the women who make them.
“I think a lot of parents also still think about what school lunch was for them when they were in school,” he said. “But it’s changed drastically, even in the last five years, as far as what our requirements are.”
At schools in both systems, students are given a wide variety of choices. In Gainesville elementary schools Wednesday, students had a choice of a breaded chicken salad or a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich or beefy macaroni and a roll as an entrée, sweet potato soufflé or broccoli as a vegetable and applesauce or grapes as a fruit.
“They have choices, from the beginning of the lunch period to the end,” Richardson said. “We don’t run out, and every child is offered the same amount of choices.”
In Hall County on Thursday, students also had a large selection. In the middle schools, students could choose between spicy chicken nuggets, a slice of pizza or chicken and rice casserole as an entrée, a small salad, mashed potatoes, broccoli or carrots as a vegetable, and pineapple, grapes or applesauce.
Field said in the middle school, students can choose one entrée but can have as many fruits and vegetables as they like.
The opinions of students and parents is important to nutrition managers like Fields and Richardson.
Last year, Fields asked the teachers if they would have their students write her a letter telling her what they like and dislike about school lunches.
“We got a bunch of letters and almost all of them were positive,” she said.
Those that weren’t positive, they immediately addressed. Fields said it helped them fix problems such as “soggy Tater Tots.”
Sixth-grader Parker Phelps said he likes some lunches at the school, but others aren’t as good as they “would be in a restaurant.” His classmate Riley Small has celiac disease, meaning he can’t eat wheat, and Field said the school makes sure they have a full meal available for him every day.
“I really like all the choices,” Small said. “There’s stuff that I can eat.”
Fellow sixth-grader Queta Vantassel said she think if students don’t like school lunches, it’s usually because of their own preferences.
“I really like the sides,” she said. “Usually lunch is good, but sometimes they have specific foods I don’t like. That’s not the school, it’s just what I don’t like.”
Richardson said she hates hearing people complain about school lunch if they’ve never eaten at her school. She takes pride in the cleanliness and quality of her kitchen.
“That’s the worst thing you could say to me, that school lunches are ‘nasty,’” Richardson said. “We work hard to make sure they are not.”