It was late morning when the critics started coming down the line at Berwyn Heights Elementary School, where Barbara Dillard and Susan Oak were serving oven-baked chicken, whipped sweet potatoes, green beans and jella.
"Mashed potatoes! Yummy! Mashed potatoes," said one small person, taking a plate. A friend at his elbow took a longer look.
"They're orange," he said.
It was lunch time in one of the Prince George's County elementary schools served by the satellite food preparation program, a program designed to help hold down the costs of serving a hot lunch at schools with small enrollments. The students were being served a meal almost entirely prepared on the premises by a reduced-size staff, supplemented by a few items (gravy and whipped topping) prepared at a nearly junior high school.
The students moved down a traditional lunch tine, taking crockery plates full of food, paper cups of jello and milk. "Dan, look," said one boy, waiting to be handed a plate. "Have you ever flipped a piece of food like this?" he asked, pulling the tines of a plastic fork backward.
"What is this stuff?" asked another student.
"Mashed up sweet potatoes," said Barbara Dillard. "It's like candy."
The canned sweet potatoes are a donation from the Agriculture Department's commodity program, mashed, sweetened with brown sugar and flavored with cinnamon, in an attempt to get the kids to eat them.
Out in the lunchroom, the customers, first and second graders, were beginning their lunches, a number of them starting with jello. At one table, everyone ate the whipped, non-diary topping off the jello, then turned their attention to the rest of lunch. One boy started by eating every green bean on his plate.
Their colleagues, the brown baggers, meanwhile unpacked an assortment of sandwiches, fruit, small cakes, potato chips and thermoses full of punch.
The kids are small, and hardly any of them cleaned their plates. Compared to overall consumption, the green beans were well received, although some children stuck them decoratively in the mashed potatoes instead of eating them.
Other kids, turning to dessert, sucked up the jello tooping through straws, and one youngster ate his jello entirely through a straw, noisily.
A boy at the end of one table raised his hand to get a teacher's attention. "They're give you sweet, sweet potatoes. They're 50 per cent sugar," he said. Nearby, another boy finished everything on his plate and reached over for his neighbor's green beans.
When lunch was over, the youngsters dumped the food off the plates and handed them through a window to Dillard and Susan Oak to wash. Into the trash went lumps of sweet potatoes, chicken bones, green beans and items brought from home, such as carrot sticks.
The younger students were hardly out the door when the next grades began lining up. "Here come the hungry kids," said Oak.
The older students were more articulate and dramatic in their reactions to the food.
"Gravy on sweet potatoes - that's absolutely gross," said one boy.
"Sweet potatoes!" exclaimed a girl, clutching her throat and reeling slightly.
"Don't give me any sweet potatoes," said one girl.
"That's the rule," said Dillard, putting a scoop of potatoes on the girl's plate.
"Well, not very much because I probably won't eat them anyway," said the girl, explaining in part the phenomena of plate waste.