Cheeseburgers, ‘emoji fries’ and fruit: Inside Baltimore City’s school lunch program

Published on: September 29, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

It’s 10:30 a.m. and the pre-K students at Curtis Bay Elementary School were lining up for lunch. Across a metal counter that rises to their shoulders, they cautiously slid compostable trays, staring wide-eyed at the staff who place cheeseburgers and smiley-faced “emoji fries” on their plates.

“How can you not love ‘em?” asked cafeteria manager Patricia Newman, a 27-year veteran of the school system who attended this school as a child. As the kids teetered toward their lunch tables, trying not to spill, Newman made a note on a clipboard to ensure that every student grabbed a piece of fruit or a vegetable, as required by federal guidelines.

Any parent knows the challenges of meal time, but try getting up to 80,000 students of Baltimore City schools to finish a healthy, balanced meal across 165 different locations. Making school lunch happen is a feat of coordination and heart. Those involved, from the school system’s central office on North Avenue down to the cafeteria managers who scoop macaroni and cheese onto plates, understand their mission as nothing less than feeding the future. The budget set forth by the federal government is $4.30 per lunch, and that includes labor. Within these confines, staff get creative.

”Best chefs in Baltimore!” called out Job Grotsky, the school’s assistant principal, to Newman and other employees in the cafeteria.

Newman dips into her own pocket to make Pinterest-inspired food displays that bring a touch of whimsy to the “Curtis Bay Cafe.” After they made their way through the line, students paused to glance at Newman’s croissant “crab” with a strawberry tongue and hamburger with pimento-stuffed-olive eyes. The creations elicit shy smiles.

“I’ll do anything to make these kids happy,” Newman said.

Patricia Newman, a lunch lady of twenty-seven years at Curtis Bay Elementary school, is known for her fun food creations straight out of Pintrest. School administrators work hard to ensure that the thousands of means consumed by students across the district comply with the strict nutrional guidelines imposed by the federal government to establish healthy eating habits at a young age.

For many students, schools offer the only square meals they eat all day. In Baltimore City, breakfast, lunch and supper are offered free to all students, regardless of family income.

“A lot of our students, when they leave school Friday afternoon, we don’t know if they’re going to eat over the weekend,” said Grotsky. “By Monday, kids are starving.”

Grotsky sees a direct link between how kids behave and whether they’ve eaten. Like anyone, students get “hangry.”

“We know as administrators if a kid is acting out, the number one thing we do is feed them,” Grotsky said.

When Elizabeth Marchetta, executive director of food and nutrition services for Baltimore City Schools, arrived to the district 10 years ago, Baltimore required parents to fill out applications and submit paperwork proving their eligibility based on income, as is the norm at most schools across the U.S. But the process was cumbersome, and not everyone who qualified applied.

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Marchetta was adamant that the school system should provide free lunch to all. “We give [students] books. We give them computers. We should be feeding kids,” she said.

In 2015, Baltimore began offering free school lunches to every child through a federal program that allowed low-income districts to nix the application requirement.

The program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision, makes a huge difference in schools that take advantage of the option. Johns Hopkins University researchers found that the likelihood of being in a food-insecure household was twice as high for kids attending Montgomery County schools that were eligible for the program, but not participating in it, than for students attending Baltimore City schools.

“By addressing food insecurities in schools, you address food insecurity in the broader community,” said Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, which participated in the Hopkins study.

It also makes a difference in students’ attitudes, helping eliminate any social shame students may experience when receiving a subsidized meal. “Students don’t see those who are paying and those who are not.”

Many, including Marchetta, would like to see free meals in all school districts. “Every student in the state of Maryland should absolutely have access to free lunch,” she said.

During the pandemic, Congress enacted legislation to make breakfast and lunch free at all public schools across the U.S. “It’s been a tremendous success,” Wilson said. The money also made it easier for schools to brave supply chain issues and inflationary pressures during the pandemic, Wilson said, when shortages and delays sometimes required last-minute changes to the menu.

The policy ends this month, and Wilson said that will lead to more kids going hungry. “It’s a sad mistake that we’re going to go back,” he said. Together with his organization, he is pressing forward to reintroduce statewide legislation that would make universal free lunch available across the state. “We are feeding the brains and the bodies of the future of Maryland and we should not skimp on that investment.”

Baltimore’s school lunches have come a long way since 1925, when the single largest line-item expenditure at Forest Park High School’s cafeteria was nearly $7,000 for ice cream. Today, school administrators work hard to ensure that the thousands of meals consumed by students across the district comply with strict nutritional guidelines imposed by the federal government. And there’s almost never dessert — which would push meals beyond the caloric limit.

Newman said she’s noticed kids have become more amenable to nutritional choices such as salads and fruits with exposure from such a young age at school.

“I think if you start ’em off young, they will eat it. The babies, kindergarten and pre-K, they’ll pick up a salad,” she said. But she added: “Today I’m not sure that’s going to happen.” The salads, as she correctly predicted, lost out to the more enticing emoji fries.

Though Marchetta usually works at the school system’s North Avenue headquarters, she stopped by to observe the lunch in action. “I’m excited to see how the emoji fries go over with the kids,” she said, standing inside the cafeteria in the hairnet required by the health code.

The fries aren’t really fried, though. “Everything that looks fried is actually baked,” Marchetta said. A large part of the work of school cafeterias, she said, is “tricking kids into eating healthier versions of the things they already love.” Together with Hope Wrenn, the school system’s dietitian, she tries to sneak nutritious items like hummus onto menus without kids even noticing.

Sometimes it works.

“This one kills my fruit. He just loves fruit,” Newman said as a student stacked four pieces onto his tray.

“I would rate the lunch probably a 10,” said an 11-year-old fifth grader at Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School. But he would like to see more french fries on the menu — preferably with more salt.

It can be tough for schools to compete with the high-fat, heavily-salted foods kids are used to eating at restaurants, Wrenn said. “Students eat out, they know food,” she said. “They’re judging us based on their experiences.”

That’s especially true when it comes to teenagers.

“It don’t cost a lot to say ‘Thank you,’” Myron Fulton often reminds the stone-faced high school students filing through his line for breakfast, lunch and supper at Benjamin Franklin High School. Fulton, who is also the school’s football coach, tries to draw kids out of their shells, making the rounds through the cafeteria to check in with students. “I try to make meals fun,” he said. As any chef knows: “Presentation is everything.”

In the lunch room, the reviews were mixed.

“It was mid,” one ninth grader said of his macaroni and cheese. The cornbread muffin, too, was “slightly dry.” His friend added that the oranges had been sliced the wrong way.

Staffers’ best efforts — and their cutest plates — can’t win over every child. At Curtis Bay, a very young pupil scarfed down his emoji fries but ignored his hamburger and fruit, sucking some ketchup from packets instead.

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