Wednesday was a good day for kindergartner Michael Doherty at table 2E in the Catonsville Elementary School cafeteria.
It was pizza day, his favorite. He got to his seat with a tray of food — the pizza, apple slices, a juice box and an ice pop in his favorite color, red.
He's a fan of the school lunch.
"That can really fill up your belly," the 5-year-old said.
At another table later in the day, 7-year-old Colette Manger said she looks forward to Fridays — chicken nugget day — but she was happy with what was on her tray that day: a corn dog, watermelon and strawberry milk.
"They always make them good," she said.
In the kitchen, Audrey Jones runs the show. Lunch goes from about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. When she and her staff are not serving food, they are replenishing shelves and trays and preparing for the next round of students.
"It's pretty steady all day," said Jones, who has worked in the school system since 1995. "It's 1 o'clock before you know it because you're consistently moving all the time. There's always something for you to do."
As the Person in Charge, her formal title, Jones handles the money that's exchanged and deals with parents who call with questions or concerns about a child's account, money that was spent or what the child is eating, which the school system tracks. She can also be seen convincing students to pick up a portion of fruits or vegetables.
For the students, lunch is one of the few times of day they can socialize. For the school system, the goal of the school lunch isn't just to feed the students, but it's to give them an education on healthy eating.
In the 2015-16 school year, an average of 48,766 lunches were served each day in the 111,000-student county school system, an increase from the 47,608 meals served a year earlier, the system reports.
Nationally, the trend goes the other way, according to a report from the School Nutrition Association conducted in June and July 2016. The group, which surveyed 960 school districts, reports the average daily lunch participation rates for a typical district has declined to 61 percent, from 68 percent in 2011 and 64 percent in 2014.
Across the country, there has been an increased effort to promote healthy eating, according to the association.
Nationally, 66.5 percent of participating school districts offer salad or produce bars, an increase from 62.9 percent in 2014, while 57 percent of districts offer locally sourced fruits and vegetables, the group reported.
More than half the school districts surveyed offer pre-packaged salads and vegetarian meals, while nearly 50 percent of districts have implemented farm-to-school initiatives, an increase from 37.5 percent in 2014.
At Lansdowne Middle School, eighth-grader Armoni Allen gave the cafeteria's ravioli a try for the first time. She said the lunches have improved since she was in sixth grade.
"We used to have the same things over and over again, but now we have a variety of stuff," she said. "Sometimes I get tired of one thing and I'd want something else."
Baltimore County's menus are planned by a team led by Karen Levenstein, a dietitian who has been the director of the school district's Office of Food and Nutrition Services for 15 years.
The school system uses federal nutrition standards set in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
The regulations include set amounts for milk, meat, fruit, grains and vegetables, broken down to dark green, red and orange, legumes and starchy subgroups. It also includes limits for saturated fat and sodium and a calorie range. For kindergartners through fifth-graders, the calorie range for lunch is 550 to 650 calories, while sixth through eighth grades is 600 to 700 and grades nine through 12 is 750 to 850.
The menus are planned in four-week cycles, Levenstein said, with changes based on holidays and the school calendar.
Carol Hall manages the kitchen at Lansdowne Middle School, which prepares about 550 lunches for students there, along with 500 at Baltimore Highlands Elementary School and more than 300 at Lansdowne Elementary School nearby.
In recent years, she has seen more vegetarian and vegan options become available to students. Last school year, the school system developed new recipes based on student input in a program that is expanding this year, which includes entree salads.
Nearly three of four school districts surveyed in the SNA report employ student taste tests or sampling, which is done in Baltimore County.
Eye appeal is also considered when making menu combinations, Levenstein said.
"I don't want corn and a chicken patty and pineapple," she said. "The color of that would not be appealing to the youngster. Chicken patty, green beans and peaches, that balances out."
Menus, complete with nutritional facts, are made available in advance through the school system's website.
For students, lunch costs $2.90 at elementary schools and $3 at secondary schools. Reduced price meals are 40 cents. Lunch for staff costs $3.25.
For the 2015-16 school year, 46.8 percent of students in Baltimore County were enrolled for free or reduced price meals. Eligibility is determined by household income.
Snacks, such as chips, ice cream or cookies, are available for 75 cents or less, while beverages, such as bottled water, Capri Sun and milk — including lactose free and soy varieties — are $1.50 or less.
"It's an easy, inexpensive option," said Frank B. Dunlap III, principal of Lansdowne Middle, who was carrying a tray for himself with a spicy chicken wrap and fresh-cut vegetables.
Dunlap, who has led the school since January and worked for the school system for 15 years, believes the quality has remained over the years, but there have been changes for the better.
"We've always had decent product, but the creativity now," he said. "On the menu is a chicken teriyaki salad. Awesome. It's something different, it's something creative, it's something new and I like that."
At the secondary schools, students get more options, said Bettina Applewhite, an area assistant covering schools in southwest Baltimore County for the Office of Food and Nutrition Services.
On a recent Monday, eighth-graders had the choice of cheese steaks, barbecue chicken sandwiches and ravioli, along with a side of seasoned fries or a roll.
It's the goal of cafeteria worker Peggy Sewell to get them on trays.
When she worked at elementary schools, she'd come up with rhymes — such as "keep your eyes on the fries" — to not only try to make things fun, but to help convince students to select items.
"You got to think in your mind that you are here to sell this stuff," said Sewell, who is in her first year at the school and has been with the school district since 1994. "I want everything gone. If every single thing's not gone, to me I've failed. I want nothing left. Nothing."
For kitchen staff, their job is beyond serving food and cleaning. If they are serving breakfast, they may be the first face students see once then enter the school. Jones said she often talks to students about eating healthy and how their day is going.
"All kids need a lot of love," she said. "Whether you're in pre-K or you're going to college, you have to be kind and respectful to everyone."
Cheese pizza galaxy round
(Served at Catonsville Elementary School Sept. 28)
12 g fat
6 g saturated fat
30 mg cholesterol
510 mg sodium
32 g total carbs
3 g fiber
16 g protein
300 IU Vitamin A
250 mg calcium
0 mg Vitamin C
1.8 mg iron
Seasoned potato wedges
(Served at Lansdowne Middle School Sept. 26)
4 g fat
1.5 g saturated fat
4 mg cholesterol
150 mg sodium
21 g total carbs
2 g fiber
2 g protein
100 IU Vitamin A
0 mg calcium
3.6 mg Vitamin C
0.4 mg Iron
Source: Baltimore County Public Schools