School lunches: behind the scenes

The county’s definition of a full meal, to satisfy all guidelines and nutritional checkpoints, includes at least 2 vegetables, a milk, and a main course

Photo courtesy of Emma Goldkopf

The county’s definition of a full meal, to satisfy all guidelines and nutritional checkpoints, includes at least 2 vegetables, a milk, and a main course

Chicken tenders, circle pizzas, and bagged cucumbers are included in the county’s effort to provide free lunches to almost 180,000 hangry students. These meals, however, are not the most delicious options on the market, and soaring demand could be a cause.

School lunches have long been debated among students, with questions about whether or not the chicken tenders are composed of real meat and why the salad trays look so puny. Students are more than likely consuming the same food every day with the few options available, especially when paired with dietary restrictions and palate limitations. 

“The taste of the food isn’t too bad, but it tends to be soggy and unappetizing,” said senior Christina Spirides.

Despite students feeling as though the food is not nutritionally beneficial, varying factors play into higher-level decisions on what the menus will be in order to provide a healthy lunch.

“At FCPS, we participate in several programs, including the USDA’s School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program, in order to assist children in meeting the daily nutritional needs,” said FCPS Food Services Nutritionist Amanda Schlink. “The USDA has created meal patterns for both Breakfast and Lunch that outline the food components and serving sizes of foods that must be offered on a weekly basis. The menu offerings that are currently available to students meet these guidelines for intakes of fruits, vegetables, milk, whole grains, and meat/meat alternates, along with benchmarks for intakes of calories, saturated fat, and sodium.”

This year, FCPS began a new policy: providing a free lunch every school day. In addition to making an essential meal affordable, it also takes away possible mental strain. The food eaten during the four lunches isn’t just there to fill up stomachs; it gives students a better chance at success. 

“One new change to our programs for the 2021-2022 school year is that all FCPS students are able to receive one no-cost breakfast and one no-cost lunch each school day. This change from prior years allows more students to have access to nutritious, healthy meals at school to help reduce food insecurity and improve academic performance in the classroom,” said Schlink.

Meeting all these demands proves to be a challenge for food services workers, along with working through the pandemic’s side effects. Balancing nutrition, supply and demand, and adhering to all guidelines means some bumps along the way.

“FCPS Food & Nutrition Services, as with many school districts across the country, continues to experience challenges from the manufacturing and supply chain industries. These challenges are a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Schlink. “We are continuously working with our vendors to provide healthy and nutritious options for our students.”

Students may find these meals unappetizing and unsatisfying, but careful thought and consideration is placed behind each bite. Perhaps in a post-pandemic world, when all other issues have subsided, students can finally enjoy a lunch that is equally delicious and nutritious.