Lunch Lessons: Mixed Feelings on Wheaton Public School Lunches

Many students have adjusted to the new breakfast and lunch standards and have started to enjoy eating healthy, but some students still remain skeptical about cafeteria food.

Students are learning to eat healthy and are no longer going hungry in Wheaton.

Public schools in Wheaton have started incorporating special programs to assist children and supply them with the healthy food they need to sustain themselves and help them focus on their schoolwork.

In 2008, Governor Martin O’Malley took on an initiative to end childhood hunger in Maryland by 2015. With only two years left, it may be difficult to achieve, but Kerri Kimbrell-Silva from the Montgomery County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services said, “We are sure trying.”

While Maryland is one of the richest states in the country, 10 percent of its residents live in poverty and are constantly struggling against hunger, according to the Manna Food Center’s website, a nonprofit organization striving to eliminate hunger in Montgomery County. Manna also reported that in Montgomery County, one in three students (32.3 percent), attending public schools qualified for the free or reduced-price meals. 

“We are taking the necessary steps to end childhood hunger,” Marla Caplon, Food and Services Director for Montgomery County Schools said.

See what other area schools are doing to promote healthy eating by reading our Lunch Lessons series.

Glen Haven joins the MMFA

One such program is the Maryland Meals for Achievement (MMFA). Started in 1998, it is a program that provides breakfast in the classroom to all students. This year O’Malley appropriated $560,000 in MMFA funding, Caplon said, allowing for eight more schools to participate including two in Wheaton—Glen Haven Elementary School and Glenallan Elementary School.  

MCPS began the MMFA program in 1999 with one school and it has now grown to include 40 schools across the county. 

“The basic need for humans is nutrition,” Glen Haven Elementary School Principal Joanne Smith said, “and if that is one more role we can play, then a program of this sort should be in all schools.” 

Seventy percent of the Glen Haven student body is on the free or reduced-meal plan and “being able to now provide a nutritious breakfast has helped establish a more positive environment,” Smith said.

Glen Haven has not conducted a formal assessment of student performance since joining the MMFA. However, Smith said that students have not been rushing to make it to class before the tardy time anymore which has “helped to establish a positive flow to the day.”  

“It is a much calmer beginning to the day,” Smith said. “Parents and kids are not rushing anymore. We now have additional time to work with the students in class.”   

She said it is great to be able “to have a program that allows our school to be a community, to be able to look at the child as a whole and not just at his or her educational needs.”

Highland Improves with Healthy Eating

Furthermore at Highland Elementary School in Wheaton, the school has reported an improvement in student performance and behavior since it joined the MMFA two years ago. About 80 percent of Highland students qualify for a free or reduced-price meal.

“When you have breakfast, the first and most important meal of the day, you see a change in performance,” said Highland Principal Scott Steffan. “It is going to set you up for success.”

According to Steffan, students’ scores on the Maryland School Assessment were much higher last year and the number of office referrals has significantly decreased.

“While there is a multitude of factors for this success, having good food has definitely played a role,” he said.

Highland, like other schools in the district, provides students with a well-balanced lunch that includes more fruits and vegetables and whole wheat. School meals are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture and are required to meet certain nutritional guidelines.

But MCPS’ menus haven’t changed much since the new regulations were set in place.

“We were already using whole grains and including fruits and vegetables,” Kimbrell-Silva said. “The only change we incorporated was that students had to take a half cup of fruit for the meal to become reimbursable.”

They also sample the food with students before introducing it as a meal.

“The nutritional standards at Highland exceed those of the USDA,” Caplon said, “and it was awarded the Healthier US School Challenge at the silver level.”

Caplon recently visited Highland to observe students during lunch and asked them whether or not they would eat what was on their trays. “I saw the students eat their fruits,” she said. “Fortunately, [at Highland] students do not go hungry.”

Unique to MCPS is their fruit and vegetable program where every Tuesday and Thursday students snack on a new fruit or vegetable. This program teaches students the importance of healthy eating habits and helps them stay energized and engaged in class lessons.

The produce always arrives fresh, said Cafeteria Manager Debbie Davis. “The students can’t wait for snack and are excited to get it. Students are looking for food, especially those from low-income families, and when it’s fresh, they love it. You’d be surprised at how many students enjoy broccoli.”

First grader Ashley Orellana, 7, said she really enjoys school lunches because “they have healthy food like bananas and vegetables.”

Monica Rodriguez, 10, in fifth grade said she “would change nothing [about school lunches]. It is all good.” One fifth grader liked that the lunches “have healthy vitamins.”

Several students told Patch that lunch was their favorite time of day, not only because they could talk with friends and play but because they eagerly waited for the fruit that was being offered for that day. 

Healthy or Hungry?

While the nutritional standard required by the USDA is applied to all schools, not all students in Wheaton are happy with the food they are offered. Students at Wheaton High School had a lot to say about their school lunches.

Several students did not think their school offered enough healthy food options and the ones being offered either looked or tasted bad they said. Efrain Mendez, 16, said the school offers “the worst food we can have and a lot of the students are unhealthy. We have to work double to get rid of the fat we get [from eating school lunches],” he said. 

“Our cafeteria food is not the best tasting food,” Janet Vasquez, 17, said. “We don’t really have that many healthy choices besides the salad and fruit cups and there aren’t that many of them so whoever comes first gets them; they are not available for everyone…I think we should have a wider range of choices and healthier choices that actually taste good.”

"We are always offering healthy options and encouraging students to stay nutritious," Kimbrell-Silva said. “We are not giving up on anyone.”


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