School lunches have become more nutritious despite many challenges, a look at eight elementary schools shows

What’s for lunch?

Photos by Oliver Parini, Eve Edelheit and Philip Cheung for The Washington Post

What kids are eating — and where, when and why — in eight schools across the country

For as long as public schools have been feeding kids lunch, grown-ups have been arguing about it. Everything from what goes on the plate to who should pay the bill to whether ketchup is a vegetable has prompted heated debate.

But far from the halls of Congress, where the National School Lunch Program is as much a political issue as an educational concern, cafeteria staff grapple with very different challenges: making cauliflower and beets appealing to 8-year-olds; putting whole grains, a healthy entree, a vegetable and fresh fruit on a plate for a couple of bucks; hiring good workers when the starting wage may be less than the pay at a big-box store.

Phil Kline for The Washington Post

The Washington Post asked eight elementary schools across the country to give us a look at what they offer their students. We found some mouthwatering menu options — Cuban sandwiches in Tampa, chicken tikka masala in Minneapolis — and a complex juggling act with federal regulations, budget realities, crunched lunch schedules, aging kitchens and cultural sensitivities, to say nothing of picky eaters.

The difficult, rewarding work of feeding America’s schoolchildren plays out differently in every district, but the same question seems to guide all of them: How can we best serve our kids? These eight October snapshots show how several schools are answering.

Sorensen Magnet School of the Arts and HumanitiesCoeur d’Alene, Idaho

Sorensen Magnet School of the Arts and Humanities is “all in on beets” this year. And rainbow carrots (orange, purple and yellow). And that sweet fruit with the thin, hairy skin and green-golden inside. Yes, kiwi, which Roberta Bainard served early on to her elementary-grade customers. “They just loved it,” she says.

This is Bainard’s first year as kitchen manager at the 314-student school after other positions at the secondary level. She switched because she wanted to work with the younger kids. “They’re more open to trying things,” in her view, especially if she makes something of a game with her offerings, such as naming a vegetable of the day to introduce something new.

But the children are not pushovers. That jicama she put out recently, cut into little sticks? “They found it bland,” Bainard admits. She plans to try it again this semester and maybe pair it with hummus for more flavor.

She has a full kitchen at her disposal thanks to a major renovation six years ago. She wants to theme some meals based on what’s being taught through Sorensen’s magnet curriculum — another way to expose students to different foods. It’s a goal that Principal Brett DePew enthusiastically supports.

“Some kids don’t get that in their own home,” he says.

Beets, kiwi and jicama aren’t the only featured arrivals for lunch this fall. The school shifted from plastic forks and spoons to real silverware to be more environmentally smart. Ditto its new partitioned plates, which eliminated the need for small plastic cups to keep certain items separate. Ditto bottles of condiments instead of all the even smaller cups in which students used to squirt mustard and ketchup.

One change has already been rethought, however. The first week, those bottles were out on the tables with students. That ended quickly. Now they’re under closer supervision at the end of the cafeteria line.

— Photos by Rajah Bose for The Washington Post.

More than 29 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program on any given day.

The program, which President Harry S. Truman signed into law in 1946, provides free or reduced-price lunch for eligible students. About a quarter of students pay full price.

Doby ElementaryApollo Beach, Fla.

In a school district where 220,000 students are spread across urban, rural and suburban communities and more than 100 languages are spoken, lunchtime can be a special challenge. Nearly 1 in 4 children are dealing with medical issues, including allergies, lactose intolerance, cancer or childhood diseases, that require a special diet. An untold number can’t have certain foods because of their family’s religious or personal beliefs.

Doby Elementary, just south of Tampa, is a microcosm of that diversity, and its student nutrition manager, Michelle Thompson, says her staff tries hard to ensure the cafeteria is a comfortable place for everyone. That means learning 832 children’s names. It also means making an effort to meet each of them where they are, from the most sophisticated eaters — those who prefer a balsamic vinaigrette over ranch dressing — to the ones who have to be shown how to use silverware.

“It goes beyond the food,” explains Thompson. She remembers when a boy with special needs hit a cashier after being told the cafeteria had no more sausage biscuits. Thompson waited until the next day to approach him about it. “I said, ‘I’m really sorry we ran out.’ . . . I told him, ‘We made 75 yesterday, but we’re going to make 100 today so everyone who wants one can have one.’ ”

She and the other workers regularly keep an eye out for kids who aren’t eating. One girl had undergone oral surgery and couldn’t handle that day’s cheeseburgers and garden salad. Together, they figured out a meal she could manage: steamed veggies and a yogurt parfait.

Still, there’s a balance between making children comfortable and pushing them to consider something new. When polled about what they would like to see on the menu, the elementary grades tend to pick hot dogs and chicken nuggets. But across the Hillsborough County school district, schools regularly hold sampling events to introduce students to new dishes. Try It Tuesday, they call it.

“We do a survey to see what is popular and what is a bomb, what is awful,” says MaryKate Harrison, who leads the district’s nutrition services. Roasted cauliflower was a surprise hit last year, while Swiss chard and bok choy tanked.

“They couldn’t wrap their minds around what a bok choy was,” she says. “It didn’t go over well.”

— Photos by Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post.

It has been nearly a decade since passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, an Obama administration initiative that prompted big changes in school lunches and equally big disagreements about what happened after its provisions took effect.

Starting in 2012, the law required schools to limit sodium and fat in meals, increase fruits and vegetables, and shift to serving more whole grains and lean proteins. Calories were to be capped.

The early reviews were harsh, and not just from students upset that corn dogs and tater tots were disappearing from their lunch line. Cafeteria workers complained that kids were throwing even more food away. Administrators worried about falling participation and the financial hit to their programs.

Matt Nager for The Washington Post

A few of the nutrition standards have since been relaxed in response. (The salt shaker gets more use, for example.) And while some critics still blame the law for student numbers that have yet to rebound, research points to larger economic and funding factors.

Many of today’s most successful schools, suggests Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research & Action Center, are the ones thinking most creatively.

“The student is a consumer,” says FitzSimons, who leads the nonprofit organization’s work on child-nutrition programs and schools. “Serving appealing meals to kids keeps them coming back to the lunch line. Otherwise, you are going to see participation spiral downward.”

Fayston ElementaryFayston, Vt.

There are distinct advantages to running the cafeteria of Fayston Elementary, a school barely six dozen students big that is tucked in Vermont’s Mad River Valley and surrounded by lush mountains.

When hamburgers are on the menu, a beef farm down the road grinds the meat and delivers it fresh. “The farmer brings it right to my back door,” explains Cheryl Joslin, Fayston’s chef and food service program manager.

Every other Tuesday, two cases of lettuce arrive from hydroponic greenhouses in the next-over town of Waitsfield. Weekly, a teacher who raises chickens brings in eggs, and she also supplies her family’s locally tapped maple syrup. Joslin often substitutes it for sugar in recipes.

Armed with a culinary degree, the chef enjoys experimenting. Fayston students have been offered marinated fiddleheads, ramp pizza, dandelion fritters.

“For the most part, we do have a great group of kids who are willing to try things,” Joslin says with a laugh. In the “Fox Cafe,” she serves them only whole grains. Districtwide, the menu includes daily vegetarian entrees. Ginger sesame tofu is featured in October.

But there are also distinct disadvantages of being rural and small in this part of New England, where the population is shrinking and school enrollment is falling along with it. Joslin and an assistant are also the satellite cooks for the 140 or so students at Waitsfield Elementary, which has helped her afford those locally sourced ingredients. More servings make for better economies of scale. They may not be enough, though.

The school district is talking about consolidating campuses, and Fayston, with the fewest children, is a prime target.

The decision could come next month. Joslin is just trying to stay focused on the lunches ahead, something she has been doing for 17 years. It’s her passion, she says. “I love it. I love cooking for kids.”

— Photos by Oliver Parini for The Washington Post.

Bathgate ElementaryMission Viejo, Calif.

By the time the first kindergartners arrive at 10:55 a.m., the table just outside Bathgate Elementary’s kitchen is laden with bins and baskets of lunchtime possibilities.

There are little bags of carrots, pears, slices of cucumbers, apples and oranges. Boxes of raisins, small cups of gluten-free yogurt, granola and more cups with strawberries. Asian chicken, Caesar salad with flatbread, chicken taco trios, packages of mini pizzas, chicken nuggets and two pastas.

Food service cashier Briana Fickling, or “Miss Bri” as students call her, is ready. It’s a sunny, high-70s fall day, so the kids will eat outside as they typically do. For the next 100 or so minutes, she’ll manage constant activity, children surging on both sides of her long buffet line, making their selections, eating, running off to play. She restocks between classes.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act, but you get it down,” she says.

With 50,000 students, the Capistrano district handles all elementary schools’ cooked foods through a central kitchen and then delivers them for day-of warming. Its menus always include a vegan option, a change made several years ago after one family’s lobbying. (Officials say vegan sales, while still minimal, are growing.)

“We live in a box of regulations,” explains Kristin Hilleman, director of food and nutrition services. “But we have to be as creative as we can be within that box.”

At Bathgate, Fickling does a bit of monitoring and correcting as students choose what they want. They can’t, for instance, pick both the cheese pizza and chicken nuggets. And they need a vegetable or a fruit on their meal tray when they check out, as well as either milk or water.

First-grader Felix Ying, who is 6, really likes the baby carrots but professes to “love everything.”

This fall the school is debuting green “sharing stations” that will allow children to turn in certain lunch items if they decide they’re full or to take something out if they’re still hungry. The effort to reduce waste follows a districtwide switch to compostable sporks and, prompted by students, an end to plastic straws and plastic water bottles.

It’s all a point of pride for Capistrano, which even maintains an Instagram account for its food service program. Posts are tagged #schoolmealsthatrock.

— Photos by Philip Cheung for The Washington Post. With reporting from Meghann Cuniff.

East Brainerd ElementaryChattanooga, Tenn.

The workday in the East Brainerd Elementary cafeteria starts long before sunrise. At 5:45 a.m., manager April Stafford is turning on ovens and activating the heating wells that will eventually keep food warm in the lunch line. Then she starts counting.

With hundreds of children to feed, lunch on a fall Tuesday means 559 fried chicken legs, 240 servings of turkey pot roast, 225 oranges, 192 applesauce cups and 306 mixed-fruit cups. Also, hundreds of apples, and rolls, glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, green beans and pudding cups — chocolate and vanilla.

“We’re constantly counting,” says Stafford. “We count everything.”

By 6:15, Melissa Garvey is cutting up the first of those oranges. The other workers arrive around 7:15 and get going on washing, mixing and a lot of heavy lifting. Some of the cafeteria’s cases of canned goods weigh as much as 60 pounds.

The physical demands of this work are just one of the challenges Chattanooga’s school cafeterias face. Another is pay. “We can’t compete with Walmart’s $10-to-$15 starting wage,” says Kristen Nauss, the school district’s nutrition director, who would like to put more home-cooked meals on the menu. (Her dream dish: pot roast with locally sourced beef and vegetables.)

The staffing and budget constraints mean occasional compromises — a casserole with precooked chicken but homemade sauce, for example. Still, the district has made plenty of other positive changes, including serving more fresh fruit, cutting down on sugar and nixing food dyes.

Posters on the East Brainerd cafeteria wall encourage the students to try new foods. “Eat a Rainbow of Colors!” one urges. And indeed, this year’s Buffalo bites — cauliflower with oil and bread crumbs, covered in Buffalo sauce — have been popular. But most kids want the less-colorful options, such as mashed potatoes. That’s just how it is, Stafford and her crew say. Kids want potatoes, whatever shape they take.

Their young customers love to chitchat as they go through the line.

“They’ll talk to us about everything and anything,” says Mary Hitchcock, who has worked in the cafeteria for over 18 years. “ ‘My teacher’s not here today,’ or ‘My turtle died and we’re having a funeral.’ Or ‘My mom moved out, she don’t live with my dad no more.’ That’s the kind of stuff we hear. And we’ll say: ‘Oh baby, I’m so sorry. Okay, what are you having, darlin’?’ ”

When there’s a birthday, an alert pops up on the cafeteria register’s screen, and the staff is ready as the child goes by.

“They’ll say, ‘How did you know it was my birthday?’ ” says Shannon McGowan. So she tells them.

“I’m a lunch lady. Lunch ladies know everything.”

— Photos by Stacy Kranitz for The Washington Post. With reporting from Kate Harrison Belz.

Despite the sharp wrangling that the National School Lunch Program often stirs up, the meals coming out of it are more nutritious — and a lot more adventurous — than they were 10 years ago. “It absolutely is a brighter day for school foods,” says Bettina Elias Siegel, a lawyer turned advocate and author of the book “Kid Food.”

A major federal study recently came to much the same conclusion, finding that school lunches have improved significantly since implementation of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. And the schools with the healthiest menus have the greatest rates of student participation.

The researchers, who measured the food dumped from more than 6,000 cafeteria trays, also concluded that “plate waste” is no worse than before the law. (The data undercut Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s reasons for rolling back some of the Obama-era standards, which advocates think is why the Trump administration released the report with little fanfare.)

Still, Siegel and others stress that tough problems persist. A glut of processed foods remains, she says. Government funding continues to fall far short. Some children have to eat lunch midmorning and get less than 20 minutes start to finish, which contributes mightily to food ending up in the trash.

Gay Anderson is president of the School Nutrition Association, a trade group with contentious past positions on the federal standards. But she asks a question that seems far from controversial: “Can we at least give our students time to eat?”

Mark Twain ElementaryLittleton, Colo.

Beth Barber wants people to know how tasty the food really is at Twain Elementary, where she has managed the Tigers’ cafeteria for four years.

“I always invite parents to have lunch here, and they say, ‘Oh, wow, that looks good.’ ” Barber offers students grapes and melons from local farms and, despite Twain’s 48-year-old kitchen, plenty of made-from-scratch items, such as muffins and marinara sauce. Their aroma fills the place.

“We have a rice bowl,” she says. “We have burritos. We have yogurt parfaits — everyone loves yogurt parfaits.” (Barber herself likes the orange chicken or, she admits, an old-fashioned corn dog.) “I feel good about what I serve.”

The district now provides healthier foods to students and more transparent nutritional information for parents than when she began working in school cafeterias, along with jazzier options similar to what they “might see at Chipotle or at Whole Foods.” But some things remain the same.

“There are still vegetable medleys that people don’t eat,” she says. And the children still prefer pizza above all. “The kids have not changed. The kids eat what they know.”

— Photos by Matt Nager for The Washington Post.

Webster ElementaryMinneapolis

You’ll never see the usual cafeteria line at Webster Elementary. No long rows of tables or big stacks of trays, either.

Instead, lunch arrives on carts wheeled from the kitchen to the dozen-plus round tables that students have set with real plates and silverware. The children start passing the platters and bowls of food and serving themselves.

Family style is how Webster has eaten for four years — milk poured from pitchers, pleases and thank-yous accompanying each meal, a kind of sharing rarely found at schools in this country.

“It really does foster that sense of community and family,” says Chloe LaMar, who coordinates the school’s food service.

The approach, novel even in a district known for culinary innovation, takes choreography and supervision. Serving dishes can’t come out of the kitchen too hot for little hands to hold. Teachers and volunteers help prompt good manners and ensure portions are balanced as well as age-appropriate.

Despite many new parents’ assumption that the scene devolves into a free-for-all, the center holds. Sure, milk gets spilled — there’s much more daily cleanup and dishwashing — but nutrition and comity get reinforced. Other staff members “have really been on board,” according to LaMar. Fourth-grade teacher Rob Rand is one of them.

“The way I grew up — 5:30 dinner at the table — doesn’t happen with a lot of our students and our families,” Rand notes. “So for our kids to come in [to eat], have an adult . . . ask how the day is going, ask them what their favorite part of the meal is — it’s teaching a lot of the skills that some of our students aren’t getting at home for a variety of reasons.”

Once a month, every public school in Minneapolis hosts a “Minnesota Thursday” meal, which signals that all the food is locally sourced. The special lunch entree in October was turkey nachos, accompanied by an apple kohlrabi slaw; the main ingredients, including the free-range birds, came from farms within an hour to the south. The salsa was made by a company in the Twin Cities.

Webster students say they love the theme day because it means dessert will be on the menu. Sometimes homemade cookies are the treat. The cafeteria crew bakes them on-site.

“If there was one thing I could change about school lunch,” second-grader Raya Banerjee says emphatically, “I would change that you get dessert every day.”

— Photos by Ackerman + Gruber for The Washington Post. With reporting from Sheila Regan.

Many school districts lose money on the meals they serve through the National School Lunch Program, despite the federal subsidy they receive.

The average district’s average cost per lunch was $3.81 in the 2014-2015 school year (the latest data available).

That was 49 cents less than the average subsidy for a child eligible for a free lunch. It adds up.

Cunningham ElementaryAustin

She has the same memories of school lunches as most Americans born before the 21st century: square pizza and fruit cocktail. But you’re more likely to find vegetable curry and fresh strawberries than those old standbys in the Austin Independent School District, where Anneliese Tanner is food services director.

“The cafeteria is a classroom,” says Tanner, who left a career in finance to pursue a master’s in food studies from New York University and got into school nutrition because that’s how she thought she could have the biggest impact.

Cunningham Elementary in southwest Austin already has its own farm, and now it’s getting a teaching kitchen as part of a cross-curricular culinary education initiative. When it’s completed in 2020, the school’s students will harvest vegetables and fruits — broccoli, greens, sweet potatoes, whatever’s in season — and head to the kitchen for lessons on washing, chopping and sauteing.

Building students’ food knowledge and sophistication is critical, Tanner says. “We put an edamame Vietnamese bowl on the menu up against a chicken tender,” she recalls, and some schools, concerned that students wouldn’t like it, wanted it off the menu. But the edamame stayed.

“Even if [students] don’t take the Vietnamese bowl, they get to see it, and they hear that vocabulary. Just like in the classroom when they’re challenged with new vocabulary.”

Popular options among Cunningham’s nearly 400 children, as well as students across the district, suggest an international cafe: Korean, Cajun and Moroccan drumsticks; tacos on local corn tortillas; and Tanner’s personal favorite, a lentil-chili Frito pie.

“It was written by a female vegan chef from Google who interned with us,” she says. “We like to keep it weird here in Austin.”

— Photos by Phil Kline for The Washington Post.

Susan Levine

Susan Levine is editor of the Washington Post Talent Network.

Jenny Rogers

Jenny Rogers is deputy editor of the Talent Network at The Washington Post.


Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli. Design and development by Courtney Kan. Icons from iStock.