The pursuit of edible lunch

The Baltimore Sun

The cafeteria pizza at Hamilton Elementary/Middle might not seem like anything special to the students there. But to Morgan Dean, it's heavenly.

Biting into her piece of the pie yesterday, the 12-year-old noted the warm, soft crust and the fact that the cheese on top was fully melted. At City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore, where she is in seventh grade, "the cheese tastes kinda like plastic," she said.

Morgan and her City Neighbors classmates are on a mission for better cafeteria food.

They've complained. They've protested. Students of the U.S. Constitution, they've drawn up a Cafeteria Bill of Rights, saying they deserve to have fresh fruits and vegetables and more than one meal selection a day.

Yesterday, six kids piled into their social studies teacher's minivan and traveled to two neighboring schools - another in Baltimore City and one in Baltimore County - to see whether those lunchrooms had anything better to offer.

As a charter school, City Neighbors operates independently from much of the Baltimore school system's central bureaucracy, but it's still stuck with regular school system food. And as a small school, operating in a church with only 120 students, City Neighbors isn't big enough for a full-fledged cafeteria kitchen. It's one of 57 city schools that receive all food frozen and prepackaged.

The food quality has been a problem ever since City Neighbors opened in 2005. In January 2006, a group of students brought one of their meals to a school board meeting to show officials how "nasty" it was. They talked that night about how their meatloaf stuck to the plastic and their milk was sometimes frozen solid.

Time went by, and nothing changed. Then a few months ago, the sixth- and seventh-graders in Peter French's social studies classes started studying the Constitution. They talked about how they could exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for better cafeteria food - not only for themselves, but for all 57 schools with pre-made food.

And so a cafeteria committee was born. The six members (the children who went on the trip yesterday) have been meeting almost every day during lunch in French's classroom.

They're gathering menus and information about school meals around the region. They've met with Kathleen Wilson, the head of food services for the city schools, and with a food services official in Baltimore County.

They've e-mailed city schools chief Andres Alonso to request a meeting (or tried to, anyway; Alonso's office says he didn't get the message).

The committee is calling for every school to get its own cafeteria and kitchen staff so that "pre-plate" meals can be abolished - a request that officials suggest might not be particularly realistic, given that the school system will face $50 million in budget cuts for the next academic year.

Although Wilson has corresponded with the students by e-mail, she declined their invitation to the cafeteria tours yesterday. So at 10:20 a.m., they were on their own as they climbed into a turquoise Toyota Previa.

The first stop was Hamilton Elementary/Middle, two miles away. Though Hamilton is also a city school, it has more than 600 students and therefore is large enough for a cafeteria that makes at least some of its own food.

In the office, French met Hamilton Principal Bill Murphy, who escorted the group to the cafeteria. The kids dropped their coats and backpacks at a table and got into line, the only ones not wearing school uniforms.

The first item on the counter was 1 percent milk: regular, chocolate or strawberry. It's the same milk that's offered at City Neighbors, but the students admired the expiration dates. "We get this, but sometimes the dates are a little off," said Morgan, who wore brown fuzzy boots and had not had time to eat breakfast.

The best parts of the lunch were deemed to be the crispness of the tater tots, the crust and cheese on the pizza, and the fruit option: cinnamon apples.

At 10:55, the first lunch of the day was done. The students were thanking their hosts and talking about how full they were.

That wouldn't stop them all from eating two more meals over the next hour.

Next, it was back to City Neighbors for their own school lunch. The choice of the day was also pizza, but this pizza came in a box. Some friends of the committee members started making a list of all the kids who have thrown up after eating fish nuggets.

"The mashed potatoes don't move, and the bread is sometimes moldy," said Ethan Maszczenski, 12. To prove his point, a classmate peeled the plastic wrap off the top of a dish of mashed potatoes and turned the container upside down. Nothing happened. The potatoes were solid.

At 11:20, the minivan was on its way to the four-star cafeteria of the day: Elmwood Elementary in Baltimore County. Morgan was looking forward to trying her first fish hoagie.

In line, the kids couldn't believe their eyes when they saw, not only fresh orange slices, but also peaches (granted, peaches from a can) with whipped cream on top.

They were also impressed that an extra 50 cents would get them a double Popsicle stick. French was paying, so why not? City Neighbors has no desserts.

The hoagie didn't disappoint, particularly because the roll it was served on was nice and fluffy.

The meal was particularly satisfying for Ryan Becker, 13, who used to attend Elmwood and dashed through the halls to say hi to his old teachers.

But the others on the committee agreed with his ratings of the three meals: Hamilton, good. City Neighbors, bad. Elmwood, excellent.

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