Annie Emberland bounded into the blue-and-white cafeteria at Calvert County's Huntingtown High School and immediately reached for a pack of three chocolate chip cookies.
"This is the best thing here!" said Emberland, 16, her back to a tray of quartered apples and golden corn. "We'd be really upset if they stopped serving them."
At Calvert County's Huntingtown High School, sophomore Erin Hardesty buys chips from a vending machine. Despite opposition, Md. is considering legislation that would tighten nutritional standards on school food.
(Photos James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
So would Linda Burns, 48, the cafeteria manager. She said she relies on profits from junk food -- from cookies and snack cakes to barbecue chicken wings and french fries -- to balance her budget.
"I hate to admit it, but we need to sell the junk food in order to make a profit," she said.
In the face of opposition from students who enjoy junk food and school systems hooked on the revenue it brings in, health advocates are supporting legislation in the Maryland General Assembly that would tighten nutrition standards on school food. Twenty-six other states are considering similar measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The proposed fat and sugar caps concern some food service managers and administrators who say they pose a risk to their schools' financial health.
Even some who support tougher standards say such measures don't address the central problem in public school cafeterias: that schools have a financial incentive to serve unhealthful food.
"It's a bizarre system that needs to be fixed," said Erik Peterson, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents food managers and workers.
Like most school food service programs, Calvert lunchrooms operate as a self-sustaining business that pays for salaries, benefits, maintenance, overhead and even construction.
But Donald L. Knode II, the county's food service coordinator, said he must meet those goals with a financial albatross around his neck: the National School Lunch Program, a federal program designed to provide healthful and affordable meals to students.
The average high school lunch costs Calvert about $3.63 in food and labor costs, but to encourage participation, the county charges only $1.75, Knode said. The school district loses less on lunches it is required to provide free to low-income students, because the federal and state governments reimburse $2.35 for them. But it still loses.
"The more meals you sell, the more money you lose," Knode said.
Yet Calvert's $4.3 million food program made a $138,000 profit last year through sales of more than 70 a la carte items, ranging from stuffed-crust pizza to onion rings, products also known in education parlance as "competitive foods."
"That is the only way to balance the budget at this point," Knode said.
Knode said every a la carte item is marked up at least 100 percent. Those food sales account for more than 50 percent of the program's revenue and all of its profits. Junk food is subsidizing the school lunch program, Knode said.
Inside her small office at the back of Huntingtown High's cafeteria, Burns estimated that about 75 percent of the school's 1,200 students buy a la carte items. Of the 2,079 food items sold a la carte one day last week, she said 1,384 were junk foods, such as nachos smothered in cheese, sugar-loaded smoothies and chicken nuggets.
On Wednesday, most students at Huntingtown streamed past the single cafeteria line serving school lunches and headed for the three bustling queues for a la carte offerings. Margie Maresca, 15, picked up two slices of pepperoni pizza, an order of chicken nuggets and a can of sweetened iced tea. The freshman said she never eats the regular school lunches.
"They're nasty," she said. "They're just disgusting."
A 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the federal school lunch program, found that a la carte food items and snacks from vending machines "undermine the effectiveness of the school meal programs and discourage student participation."
Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the USDA, said the agency encourages schools to sell more-healthful food. But she said the department has no jurisdiction over a la carte items.
Peterson and some health advocates say that in an ideal world, a la carte options would be banned from school lunch rooms, so that schools could focus on providing students the more healthful national school lunches.
But Peterson said fully funding a universal school lunch program could cost an additional $6 billion, a sum that Congress, already facing record deficits, appears unlikely to fund in the near future.
Parents and health advocates have been increasingly successful in agitating for tougher standards on junk food. At least 21 states have passed policies that restrict competitive foods in schools, according to the General Accounting Office.
In February, the Maryland Board of Education approved voluntary guidelines that call for limits on sugar and fat content for foods in elementary and middle schools. Worried that many counties might not adopt the guidelines, Del. Joan F. Stern (D-Montgomery) has introduced a bill to make the guidelines mandatory for all grade levels, including high school.
In Montgomery County, where school officials decided to adopt the guidelines in September, a la carte revenue has decreased slightly in some cafeterias, while national school lunch sales increased by 1,000 meals a day in secondary schools, said Marla Caplon, a Montgomery food service supervisor.
As she counted up cash from the lunchroom cash registers, Burns said she isn't sure what financial impact the nutrition standards would have on her cafeteria. But Burns hesitated for a moment as she glanced at workers restocking chocolate doughnuts and cream-filled cupcakes for students to grab the next day.
"We're doing a good little profit here," she said, "but at whose expense?"