It’s Lunch Time

How meals are made in Clarke County schools

By Claire Stuart 

Some of us can no doubt recall a time when most school lunches were simply something we had to eat. This was so universal that comedy shows often featured menacing, grim-faced “cafeteria ladies” slopping “mystery food” onto children’s trays. School lunches have come a long way since then, with the realization that food has to be more than just nourishment. Children have to want to eat it! We decided to see what’s cooking in our local schools, so Nickole Kinsey, general manager of Clarke County food service department, took us on a lunchtime tour. Food service for Clarke County Schools is managed by Sodexo, a nationwide company serving schools in several counties in Virginia and surrounding states. Virginia has no statewide system in charge of school food service; counties may choose their own systems as long as they meet U.S. government standards for nutrition. Required is a main dish with protein, bread or grain, fruit, vegetable and low-fat or fat-free milk. Three components make a “meal,” and one must be a vegetable or fruit.Kinsey is employed by Sodexo to supervise the local program, but all of the food service employees work for the county. There are three cooks at Boyce Elementary, four each at Cooley and Johnson-Williams and six at Clarke County High School. “And everyone is cross-trained to do every job,” she noted, “in case someone has to be absent.”Sodexo manages food supplies and plans menus, and locally-sourced food is used whenever possible. Today’s school lunches emphasize fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and reduced fats.  Kinsey explained that much fresh produce comes from a government program called USDA DoD Fresh. It supplies a bi-weekly list of U.S. grown produce that will be available, and highlights what is locally grown. Kinsey explained that school menus change to stay in tune with the times. “We look at the foods that are popular, latest trends in restaurants, and everyday favorites. And we try to get the kids to try new things.” Monthly and weekly themes feature flavors from around the world, incorporated into everything from entrees to pizza. February’s menus include some international offerings such as nachos, sweet Thai chili wraps, carnitas, and Korean barbecue rolls. Everything is freshly made on site. “March will be ‘Heat Around the World,’” Kinsey announced, and it will highlight spices and sauces.Asked whether students have input, Kinsey said, “We survey them yearly and get their opinions. Kids are happy with the variety of the menus, and we do ‘favorites weeks’ that serve their favorite foods.”About 60 to 70 per cent of Clarke County students eat school lunches. Students with allergies or special dietary needs are accommodated upon documentation by a doctor. Peanut-free tables are reserved for students with peanut allergies.The most impressive thing about the local lunches is the choice available. At Cooley Elementary, the day’s main dish was a warm soft pretzel with a yogurt cup and cheese stick, apparently a perennial favorite because the day was captioned as a “Foods You Love” day. Alternatively, the kids could choose a garden cheese salad or a turkey-and-cheese sandwich, but most of the kids seemed to be attacking pretzels and yogurt with great gusto. Glazed carrots were the featured veggie, and other veggies and fruit and were available.The Johnson-Williams Middle School lunchroom is designed like a food court, with sections featuring various foods. The main dish that day was baked ziti pasta (delicious!) with garlic breadstick and steamed broccoli. Upper Crust offers cheese or pepperoni pizzas daily, along with a weekly special pizza (bacon ranch). Explore offers large salads, and Stacks Deli has subs or wraps. Burgers and chicken patties are available daily at Honor Roll, with a generous “fixins” bar. Clarke County High School’s lunchroom is a still-bigger food court, with even more choices. This Week in Adventure provides a daily hot entre, with something different each day, based on a weekly theme. This week’s theme was “Tater Temptations,” with baked potatoes and a choice of toppings—broccoli & cheese, turkey & gravy, southwest taco, veggie chili & cheese, or customer’s choice.Fast Takes offers prepared salads, sandwiches and wraps. The Deli prepares custom subs with a variety of fresh baked breads and premium sauces. The Grill serves classic cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches every day and a special daily sandwich—this day it was Rib-B-Que. At the Pizza window, cheese pizza and pepperoni pizza (delicious, with excellent crust) is available daily, along with a daily pasta option (Alfredo Mac) and a special weekly pizza (Asian chicken, jalapenos, cilantro and Asian ginger sauce). A huge garden bar holds fresh fruit and vegetables, and there is a cooler full of healthy drinks.Clarke County students are fortunate to have such high quality, tasty lunches and so many choices, in such attractive lunchrooms. And no menacing cafeteria ladies were 
in evidence!