School cafeterias often draw on less-than-pleasing stereotypes, with many thinking back to the days of servers in hairnets peddling unappetizing slop to lines of disappointed schoolchildren.
Rodney Taylor, Fairfax County Public Schools’ food services director, sees something entirely different. In his ideal school cafeteria, children would have options much like they would in a mall food court. They would find meals similar to those in their favorite fast-casual eateries, with salad bars, fresh wraps and made-to-order burritos. Produce would come from local farmers.
Taylor, a veteran of the school-food-service industry who helped bring the concept of salad bars and farm-to-table to school lunchrooms in Southern California, came to Fairfax County a year ago with the goal of turning it into a national model for school lunches.
He is a long way from achieving his ideal lunchroom, but Taylor already has made major strides, turning the money-losing food services program in one of the largest school systems in the nation into a revenue generator. He has installed more salad bars and has introduced “Fresh Express,” a line of entree salads and wraps similar to what is served in restaurants like Panera. He said he has saved the district nearly $1 million in food costs and is in talks to buy directly from local farmers.
“I found my passion in providing nutritious meals to kids, and so I wanted to go about changing that and by being creative and innovative and mimicking what happens in the marketplace,” said Taylor, who served in the same role at California’s Riverside Unified School District and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
For Taylor, the mission to transform school lunches is personal. He grew up poor in Southern California and relied on friends and their families to feed him. While school lunches might be the butt of jokes for some, they are a lifeline for children who don’t get enough to eat at home. Even in relatively affluent Fairfax County, 28 percent of schoolchildren — or roughly 52,000 students — qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.
“I see it as my mission to ensure that no child feels the indignity of being hungry,” Taylor said. “Not on my watch.”
School lunches have undergone massive changes since 2010, when Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The act, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, required schools to offer more fruits and vegetables and to cut the amount of salt, sugar and fat in food served at school. But some cafeteria managers panned the changes because they operate on shoestring budgets and complain that their picky consumers toss fruits, vegetables and healthier entrees into the trash.
The Pew Charitable Trusts surveyed 489 school nutrition managers nationwide and found that 6 in 10 still face obstacles related to the updated federal requirements. But more than half of those surveyed saw a rise in revenue. Other studies have shown that children are eating more fruits and vegetables under the new guidelines.
Taylor, who advised researchers at Pew on strategies to get children to eat healthier, thinks the challenge is surmountable with some creativity. Schoolchildren seem to like salad bars, he said, because they give them a choice of which vegetables end up on their plates. Younger children prefer sliced apples to whole ones, which can be difficult to tackle when they are losing their baby teeth.
At Lake Braddock Secondary, a combination middle school and high school that educates 4,200 students, Taylor is starting to see his vision come to life. Cafeteria manager Pamela Laing said about 3,000 children purchase full lunch or lunch items every day.
The cafeteria features a number of “lines” where students can get a wide array of foods. An Italian-themed line serves tiny calzones, personal pan pizzas and small meatball sandwiches. An Asian-themed line features orange chicken and teriyaki beef patties with brown rice. Laing said students are most excited about the burger line, where they can pick up small cheeseburgers and hamburgers. Another line features fresh-made entree salads and wraps.
Before students reach the cashier, they pass by a station with oranges and tiny trays of salad, a mix of iceberg lettuce and dark greens topped with tomatoes and radishes.
Laing said students seem to be taking to the new options. Before, her cafeteria served one main entree and pizza.
“We sold a lot of pizza,” Laing said, because many students did not like the entree options. “Now we don’t sell as much pizza.”
The food still gets mixed reviews from students: On a recent school day, one complained that the sauce pooled too much in the middle of his personal pan pizza. Others responded with a shrug.
“It tastes good, but I’m not sure whether it’s healthy or not,” said one ninth-grader, who had picked up a cheeseburger.
Taylor last week scanned the lunchroom and sat down with students to talk to them about his ideas for school lunches. At the back of the cafeteria, he scooted into a booth where two girls were working on entree salads.
“They’re really good!” said Hannah Stone, a 17-year-old senior. “I used to pack my lunch, but now that there’s salads I’ll probably eat here every day.”
Her friend, Katie Curran, had picked all of the steamed chicken from her salad, leaving just a bed of lettuce and some dressing. Taylor asked why.
“I just don’t really trust school meat,” she said with a nervous laugh.
“Oh, c’mon!” Taylor replied.
The girl popped a piece in her mouth.
“It was good!” she said. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”