Kamiara West positioned her plate to take advantage of the midday light streaming through the windows, angling her phone to capture an artful view of her chicken Caesar salad with a garlic knot on the side.
She took a few photos, then turned her phone to show them off.
The snaps could easily be those of a food influencer-in-the-making. But the subject wasn’t a trendy new Baltimore restaurant. Instead, West, 18, was photographing one of the meals of the day in the cafeteria at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School.
Since 2021, the Mervo senior has been making short reviews of her school lunches and posting them to an Instagram account, @merv0_food_. Last fall, the pepperoni pizza, a side salad and peach applesauce scored an 8 out of 10 rating from West. A cheeseburger, salad and crinkle-cut fries got a 5.5 out of 10.
Sometimes, West will include constructive criticism about the meals: Vegetables could be chopped a little smaller, for instance, or fries could be cooked a little longer.
Then there are the slam-dunks, like a popcorn chicken meal that earned a perfect score last October. “Today lunch was a 10/10 really good,” West wrote. “Chicken wasn’t dry and rice was cooked right.”
As a new school year begins, West is getting ready to post some new reviews. This time around, she’s caught the eye of Baltimore City Public Schools administrators, who arranged a paid internship for West over the summer and will work with her this year to spread the word about her Instagram reviews.
The collaboration is part of a broader push to get students in city schools excited about lunchtime. Long stigmatized as bland and unappealing, cafeteria food has seen a marked improvement in recent years, administrators say — and they hope kids will take note.
“I think the image that people have of school meals is that it’s not healthy, that it’s disgusting and gross,” said Elizabeth Marchetta, executive director of food and nutrition services for Baltimore City Public Schools. “So we have really tried to find ways to connect and promote a more realistic image. And really, for many people, that is getting them to try the food. We want them to know that what we’re serving is really high quality, and that it is out there, and it is available.”
In Baltimore, school meals have been free for all public school students since 2015, due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, which allows school districts in low-income areas to serve free meals to all students without requiring proof of household income. The program “eliminates a lot of stigma,” Marchetta said, and also dispenses with burdensome paperwork that sometimes got in the way of feeding children who most need free meals.
Administrators are seeing encouraging signs that more students are warming to the idea of school meals. City schools served 20% more lunches during the 2022-23 academic year — a difference of more than 7,000 meals per day — compared with the year before. Accounting for breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner, the district serves more than 65,000 meals to students per day, totaling nearly 12 million meals annually.
Marchetta and her colleagues at food and nutrition services would like to see that number grow to 13 million meals served this academic year. To accomplish that lofty goal, they’re hoping that thinking outside the lunch box — with initiatives like a food truck, Instagram outreach and new menu items — will make a difference.
Seeking student feedback
West started her Instagram page “as a joke” two years ago, when she was in the 10th grade. But when it started gaining traction among classmates, she decided to keep posting.
“I wasn’t really serious about it,” West said, “but as time went on, we decided to keep going.”
Her formula is simple: She snaps a picture of the meal of the day before eating, then she crowdsources her ratings, asking friends for their take on the food and posting an average of the responses. Sometimes, friends will send her photos to post to the account, which had 86 followers as of Wednesday.
West, a student in Mervo’s culinary arts program, aspires to become a chef and eventually a therapist, too. She’s known among classmates for her baking skills.
Though in the past her Instagram posts could be sporadic, she wants to post more frequently this year. During her summer internship with the school system, she picked up photography techniques from local food influencer Simone Phillips (who posts under the handle @charmcitytable), and explored the behind-the-scenes world of school lunches with tours of cafeterias and the city schools food truck.
She has the support of food and nutrition services staff like Cynthia Shea, the district’s central kitchen manager, who plans to work with West to come up with a social media strategy so that she can pass the account to a younger student after she graduates.
But Shea said she doesn’t filter West’s school lunch takes. Like any student, the senior has her likes and dislikes. She’s not a fan of tomatoes on Caesar salad or most cafeteria bread, which she says often has a “super grainy” texture. On the other hand, West is enthusiastic about the cafeteria’s beans and the mashed potatoes, which are “not super creamy but not super chunky.”
The school district’s data shows that enduring favorites like pizza and peanut butter are among the most popular school meals. A city schools audit found proteins are the least-wasted cafeteria item, whereas milk is the item most likely to be thrown in the trash.
Food and nutrition services staff are always on the hunt for a winning new menu item. This year, they’re test-driving chicken Caesar salads and sweet and spicy broccoli tossed in chili sauce, among other additions.
To be reimbursable, school meals must meet the USDA’s nutrition standards, so any change to the menu sets off a balancing act. “It’s like a puzzle piece if something shifts,” said Monique Rolle, the school system’s manager of menu planning and procurement.
The nutritional standards mean french fries are baked, not fried; bread is multigrain, and higher-calorie items like packets of Ken’s Caesar salad dressing are restricted to one per student. Cafeteria staff like Katherine Carter are stationed in the busy lunch lines to pass out condiments and take notes on each meal.
“Today was hectic,” Carter said at the end of a recent Mervo lunch period during which the Caesar salad was introduced.
“The kids went nuts,” said Latoya Roberson, a cafeteria manager at the high school. “They always like new things when we introduce them.”
School meals on wheels
The allure of novelty is also the strategy behind the school system’s food truck, the Str/EATS Cafe.
Launched as a pilot program two years ago, the truck became a regular part of school lunch service this summer, serving meals to children and adults alike through a grant from Giant Food’s “Nourishing Our Youth” campaign.
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During the academic year, the Str/EATS truck will serve breakfast to students on their way into the school building. Rather than being served on a tray, food is packaged in clear containers with deli paper, emulating restaurant takeout. Marchetta hopes the presentation, as well as the colorful truck with art designed by students, will encourage some kids to take a meal.
“We really recognize the way in which students are receiving their food plays into it,” she said. “And so for us, it was very much a marketing thing. It’ll get students excited.”
Back in the Mervo cafeteria, West was getting ready to taste the food she had just photographed. She finished all of her chicken Caesar salad — a vote of confidence. The bigger test was the garlic knot, another new menu item.
West took a bite and chewed thoughtfully.
“It’s kind of sweet,” she said. “I like my garlic bread more on the savory side.”
Still, she reflected, the texture was good. She would have another bite. That was a win in Shea’s book.
Whether it’s at the food truck or on Instagram, the goal is to “change minds and engage students where they are,” she said. “This is where they are.”