Weighing Healthy Choices In The School Lunch Line

Students line up for lunch in Highland Creek Elementary School's cafeteria.

WFAE’s Charlotte Talks recently devoted an hour to examining and grading school lunches. Listen back here.

A sign in the cafeteria kitchen.

Cindy Ayers takes great pride in her kitchen. She keeps everything clean and well organized. She has to – she feeds hundreds of Elementary school kids every day. Ayers is the Cafeteria Manager at Highland Creek Elementary and oversees the preparation and serving of about 800 meals daily, including breakfast and after school snacks. But the real haul comes at lunchtime when 600-700 kids buy a school made lunch (out of 1200 enrolled). We visited the cafeteria on an ordinary Tuesday to see how it all goes down.

All about choices. Students enjoy their hand selected lunches.

Inside the cafeteria kitchen.

Cindy Ayers (left,) Cafeteria Manager at Highland Creek Elementary and Glenda Shepardson, Northeast Area Supervisor for CMS

While taste is of utmost importance for the kids, parents and educators alike are hoping for a little healthful nutrition as childhood obesity becomes a very real problem. Child Nutrition Services for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools uses guidelines set by the USDA to develop their menus. Every elementary, middle and high school system-wide follows the same menu. Four week-long menus are set and rotate on a monthly basis. (See the menus for March here.)

How Child Nutrition Services describes lunch service at CMS schools on their website:

A complete lunch consists of an entrée, two sides, and milk. Students may select a minimum of an entrée and one side to have the purchase count as a meal. By offering a variety of nutritious choices, students can select a meal made up of foods they enjoy. The menus follow the nutrient-based guidelines established by the USDA and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which assure meals average no more than 30% of their calories from fat.

Critics still say there is too much salt, saturated fat and cholesterol in many of the meals. USDA guidelines for school lunches continue to evolve; First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced they will aim for more whole grains, low fat dairy and fruits and vegetables.

On this particular day, (Tuesday March 27) Highland Creek Elementary was serving chicken nuggets, spaghetti casserole or chef salad with mashed potatoes, mixed veggies, side salad and bread along with fresh pears, grapes, strawberries and applesauce. Also available were milk, chips, a variety of ice cream novelties, cookies, cupcakes and juice boxes.

Three ice creams, a juice box and chicken nuggets comprised this child's lunch.

For the kids, it comes down to choice.

Regardless of the variety of options available to kids – some healthy, some not so much, the students pick what they want to eat for lunch. Glenda Shepardson, Northeast Area Supervisor for CMS says that everyone is involved in nudging the kids towards more healthy choices – teachers and cafeteria staff question the child’s selections. If they are missing a fruit or veggie, a cashier might suggest the student go pick one up. Encouraging is one thing, but in the end, the decision is the student’s, no one can force them to eat their veggies and go for another fruit instead of an ice cream.

A meal-sized salad is always up for grabs.

Freedom of choice? Cupcakes offered along with fruit.

Chips and juice boxes.

Plain or chocolate fat free milk.

A variety of ice cream novelties for dessert.

A hot seller - nachos in the CMS recipe book.

Though healthier options are always available, the masses have spoken – according to cafeteria staff, the favorites include cheese sticks with marinara sauce, hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken nuggets and nachos. The kids go nuts for the nachos says Ayers, the cafeteria manager. At the end of the day she says she feels like she’s sold all of Highland Creek some nachos. But she says, the kids also like broccoli with cheese and they can’t seem to make enough Caesar salads to go around – a new and highly demanded item.

Chicken nuggets, another top seller, in the oven.

In the six years she’s been at the school, Ayers has seen the menu turn more health-conscious. When she started, a lot of things were fried – French fries, fried chicken and more. Now she says everything is baked, there are no more deep fryers in the kitchen. They are also more aware of food allergies; CMS doesn’t serve anything with peanuts or shellfish – you won’t see a PB&J anywhere near a Charlotte-area school cafeteria.

Kids can of course bring their own lunch, but most of the students buy from the cafeteria, of the 1200 enrolled at this particular school, about 600-700 eat the school lunch.

We want your opinion.

Should CMS work to make their menus more healthful or should kids be encouraged to make wiser choices? What is the parent’s role in this – who does the responsibility ultimately come down to? Or are we just being too sensitive about all of it? Weigh in here.

More photos from our visit to Highland Creek Elementary’s cafeteria:

Most of the students at Highland Creek Elementary buy lunch at the cafeteria, but a good number also bring food from home.

The checkout line. Cashiers are the last line of defense, encouraging kids to add a fruit or veggie if they're missing one.

Serving up lunch.

Salads, fruit and cookies in the lunch line.

Cafeteria food prices.

Sanitation rating for the cafeteria. Glenda Shepardson, Northeast Area Supervisor for CMS points out that this is the highest score you can earn.

The CMS Child Nutrition Services recipe book.

A cafeteria staff member making an apple crisp dessert for tomorrow's lunch.

Cafeteria food storage. Tomato sauce, beans, hot sauce, grits among some of the regular stock.

Fresh bananas in the storage room.

Canned fruit.


Posted in the kitchen. The menu for the week we visited. (Click photo for larger view.)

At the request of a producer for Charlotte Talks, CMS conducted a nutritional survey of their lunch options for March 12-23. This is what they found. (Based on this menu provided by CMS Child Nutritional Services.)

Meet federal guidelines (60 pts): 60 pts
Vegetarian option (1 pt for each day it is offered) (10 pts): 10 pts
Vegan option offered, low-fat (e.g., not PB&J) (1 pt for each day it is offered): 0 pts
Any of the following (3 pts each, up to 20 pts): 6 pts

  • Calcium-rich dairy alternative: no
  • Meatless Monday or similar: no
  • Nutrition information posted: yes
  • Salad bar: no
  • Whole grains: no
  • Orange or dark green vegetables: no
  • Farm-to-school: no
  • School garden: don’t think so
  • Cooking classes: no
  • Healthy eating promotions: no
  • Nutrition events: no

Note: Subtract points for offering a processed red meat (1 pt for each day it is offered): -2 pts

Total: 74/100

More links:

In other news, school security is tight. Every visitor is required to check in at the main office and print a name tag with your photo and destination.



Filed under Charlotte Talks, Food, Photo Blog

5 responses to “Weighing Healthy Choices In The School Lunch Line

  1. Roland Cabading

    I believe the focus of school meals being more healthy will be a benefit in the long run for children, however the focus should also apply outside the the cafeteria.

  2. Mike M

    Diabetes is increasing at epidemic proportions. The schools do not get across good nutrition with menus like these.

    Cheese & milk needs to be removed– for more reasons than you cite: http://www.notmilk.com

    Calcium & Protein much better from soymilk.

  3. B Moses

    Healthy choices to combat obesity means more than cutting out entire food groups. It doesn’t make sense that schools are making children fat when they only provide five of the twenty one meals per week. The most likely culprit is the lack of physical activity. Hours in front of the television instead of being outside playing are far worse than any of the items pictured in the article. If anything the push for low fat cardboard foods in school causes the children to binge on junk foods when they get home.

  4. Craig Claussen

    I believe that schools should stop serving the junk they do. If all they had was a fresh healthy option students would eat it if they were hungry. I work for a school system and my students complain about how there are no healthy options. It is not possible to have just a few “healthy choices” but that needs to be the only choice. Elementary children are not able to make healthy choices yet. If you put chicken nuggets down then they will eat them. Personally, I have yet to eat a school lunch in the 4 years I have been an educator.

  5. Great discussion here. Thought you’d be interested in a couple of these short videos.

    Here students learn about food in the classroom and get excited about cooking: http://lunchlovecommunity.org/if-they-cook-it-they-will-eat-it.html

    Here students do a science experiment with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: http://lunchlovecommunity.org/flamin-hot.html


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