It is 11:15 a.m. at Bethesda elementary school when the rapid drumming of little feet down the hall announces the end of serenity and the beginning of lunch hour.
The first and second graders come running in, rushing to be the first in the lunch line. Food service worker Ruth Grabowski is at the head of the line, handing out the pre-packed lunches, the ones the critics call the "TV dinners."
Earlier in the day she helped prepare the lunches at North Bethesda Junior High School and carried them to the elementary school in her car.
For the past hour she has been in the elementary school kitchen putting on finishing touches - baking the frozen, breaded chicken and the instant mashed potatoes in the two old Vulcan ovens, shifting racks to make up for the ovens' idiosyncrasies, checking the internal temperature of the chicken, putting out milk and plastic utensils and removing hot plates about 10 minutes before the youngster arrive. "If I don't, it's too hot to handle," she says.
With only five minutes left, the lunchroom fills with the aroma of baking chicken. Grabowski and Michelle Bourdet, a mother who has come to help with the milk money, have wheeled the milk cart into the lunch room - minus straws because the delivery failed to arrive before Grabwoski left for the elementary.
Reaction to the day's menu varies as the children pass down the line. It ranges from "Yuk . . . stinky," to clear delight and "yahoo." The menus are printed and distributed within the schools in advance, but not everyone reads them, apparently.
Grabowski, who has worked for the food service division for seven years, knows most of the kids by name. "Joseph, don't forget your milk today," she reminds one.
One girl, a Brownie, tells Grabowski, "I was dreaming of chicken last night and it was at school," as she comes through the line. Later, she leaves the chicken almost untouched, eating the rest of the lunch.
Every so often Grabowski reaches down into a wire basket at the end of the line to rearrange the milk cartons, piling regular low-fat milk on top of the chocolate low-fat milk. Most of the kids dig down to take chocolate milk anyway.
By 11:20 a.m., all the first batch of lunches, 45 of them, are gone. Children begin trickling back asking for straws, and Grabowski hands them out to those who say they can't do without.
In the lunch room there is incredible activity, only a little of it connected with eating. There is screaming, wiggling and a game of hooking legs under the benches and leaning back as far as possible. There are heart-to-heart talks between friends, hands raised in entreaty to adults to settle disputes and frequent, longing glances at the door to the school yard.
Many of the children start lunch by eating their bread and butter. Some of them are having trouble chasing the peach half around the plastic dish with a spoon. The forks, like the straws, arrived at North Bethesda shortly after Grabowski left.
Some children nibble the crust off the chicken and leave the rest. Some children eat all of the lunch. One boy, who brought a lunch from home, chugs three cartons of chocolate milk bought by admiring school mates.
There is not much difference in the way the children react to the purchased lunches and their home-packed lunches. Some throw much of either type of lunch away. In any case, eating seems of secondary interest to the social side of lunch.
The mashed potatoes have not been well accepted. Some children complain to each other that they are watery, and they appear to be.
A boy who has brought chocolate cream pie from home sucks up the filling through a straw. Another boy carefully drags his fingers through the mashed potatoes and sucks them clean, finishing the potatoes that way. When it is all over, a lot of food goes into the garbage can. One girl, who brought a lunch from home, carefully repacks a lightly nibbled sandwicch and an uneaten banana, neatly folds her sack, dances over to the garbage can on her toes with her lunch held high over her head and sails it into the can.
"What amazes me is that some mothers think they're getting a good lunch, and it isn't eaten," said Esther Jacobsen, a mother who helps oversee the lunchroom to give teachers free time. "It's such an awful waste of money"
She salvages a few cold plates that were untouched by children and returns them to the kitchen. Two children in the next lunch period who ask for seconds share one of the leftover. Grabowski brings extra lunches too in case teachers miscount the number needed or if a youngster drops one (they get a second at no cost to them.)
"I think it's good, but the children pick out the worst parts to eat," Jacobsen said of the lunches. "We can take back as much as 50 per cent of the salads untouched," she said.
"I find the little kids just like simple foods. Don't give them anything fancy," said Grabowski. "Yesterday we had salad with cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes. It was beautiful, but the kids, didn't like it," she said. "If you give them plain lettuce, they like that."
At 11:55 a.m. it begins again, with the second lunch period.
When lunch is over, Grabowski leaves, about 1:30 p.m. She drives to another elementary school to pick up the metal racks and money from there. The women who serves lunch there works a shorter day. Grabowski's day ends about 2:30 p.m.
Grabowski has worked in both the traditional lunchroom operation where the food is prepared and served on site and in the satellite operation. "My personal opinion is that food cooked and prepared on site - if you've got a good cook - is better and better seasoned."
"But I've tasted everything, and it's good," she said of the satellite operation. "I wouldn't serve it if it wasn't good.