What’s for Lunch? What Kids are Eating — and Where, When and Why — in Eight Schools Across the Count

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.

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.

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Mission Viejo Bathgate Elementary 632 students | 55% white, 17% Hispanic, 11% Asian/Filipino/Pacific Islander 18% of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch

Full-price student lunch: $2.75

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.