The results of a seven-month survey that cost Fairfax County schools $180,000 released this week did not surprise anyone familiar with teenage eating habits: Students hate the food served at school cafeterias.
In February, the Fairfax School Board ordered consultant Prismatic Services Inc. to study offerings at cafeterias, with the goal of improving menus with more nutritious and delicious meals. The study came after advocates such as JoAnne Hammermaster with Real Food for Kids called on the School Board to offer more healthful food at lunch and remove highly processed items, such as a 27-ingredient hamburger patty.
Prismatic project manager Tatia Prieto presented the findings at a School Board meeting that spanned three hours. (Five board members left before the work session ended because of the extended duration of the meeting.)
Prieto said that the study stirred passions in the community about food in schools.
“It was abundantly clear when we began the survey that [the food and nutrition services department] felt under siege,” Prieto said. “They were being hounded by stakeholders who wanted to see something different. One side wanted vindication that nothing needed to be changed. The other side wanted ‘burn it down, start over.’ ”
Part of the study involved polling students, parents and school staff about the current cafeteria options. About 77 percent of 1,300 high school students surveyed said that they did not like the food, and about half said they ate school lunch two days a week or less.
Only 22 percent of students said the cafeteria food was nutritious compared to 94 percent of the schools’ food and nutrition services workers.
Of those students who did eat the food, only 13 percent said that the food tastes good, compared to 54 percent of school staff and 47 percent of parents.
“In Prismatic’s experience, high school students are typically negative on questions of this type, but not to this extent,” according to the consultant’s report.
Prieto said that for teenagers, school lunch is “like taxes — no one ever likes it.” Prieto also noted that the student survey was not comprehensive and polled only 2 percent of the total high school population.
Even though most students said they find the cafeteria items disgusting, there were a few favorites: cookies, chicken tenders, ice cream and garlic bread pizza.
The overwhelming favorite vegetable option — students are required to choose one vegetable per meal — was french fries.
Many students said they liked salads when they were placed on the menus but only 10 high schools currently have a salad bar option.
Prieto said that overall, the Fairfax food and nutrition department is well-run. But she said that adjustments to staff training could improve the quality of food. Prieto blamed most problems with school lunch offerings on poor food preparation. She also suggested that the schools offer a fresh vegetable bar and fruit bar to promote more healthful eating habits.
Several School Board members said that they were disappointed in the report’s findings. Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said that the she expected to learn about more ways to improve the cafeterias than the suggestion of a new fresh fruit and vegetable bar. Hammermaster, of Real Food for Kids, agreed.
“If there is a strong response from students that they don’t like taste of the food and they didn’t think it was nutritious, what other options besides fruit and vegetables are there that we could do with entrees?” Hammermaster asked. “I dont think the assesment addressed that piece.”
School Board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said that when he was a student at George C. Marshall High during the early 2000s, many students did not like the food in the cafeteria.
“I was one of those students sitting in the hallway on the floor eating my lunch from home,” McElveen said. “The reason I always brought lunch from home is that [the school lunch] wasn’t appealing. It wasn’t perceived as being healthy. You saw people getting fries and pizza every day.”
The School Board will revisit the Prismatic report later this school year to consider recommendations from the consultant.