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Ideas

School Lunches: It’s About More than Food

Could Chartwells, the district’s school lunch provider, be getting the boot after their first year as the Montclair Board of Education looks for alternatives? Despite the dramatically improved offerings to the lunch program, students continue to shy away from the cafeteria. But is it really Chartwells’ fault? I think the district should save the $10,000 consulting fee and look at some of the significant lunchtime factors at MHS.

As a student, I recognize several reasons why lunch provided by Chartwells may not be as desirable or profitable as the district expected. The first reason is something that no school food provider can change: students don’t like the confines of a cafeteria. They want to take a break from school during the day; to get a breather. Leaving school grounds and going out with friends help students deal with stress and boredom experienced during the day. Even a trip to Quick Check on a $3 budget can be fun and set the mind at ease during the 45 minutes allotted for lunch. Walking around, getting some fresh air, and having a change of scenery does wonders for students ands helps to get them through the end of the day. The beauty of an open campus is that once a student leaves school grounds, they are free to use a cell phone, talk and laugh loudly and freely, and eat and drink anything while on the go.

Food mobility is another issue. MHS students are constantly on the move. In the lunch line, meals are served on lighweight syrofoam trays. Most of the time the lunch items served require a student to sit down and eat with fork and knife. Lunch time is not just for eating, but running errands like going to guidance offices, seeing teachers, making up quizzes and tests, going to the library, etc. Food needs to be mobile! Even if lunch is not spent doing academic things, unless you and your friends commit to sitting in one spot in the cafeteria for the entire period, it’s inconvenient to be that kid with the pasta extravaganza plate of food when everyone decides to go to the ice cream truck. The food trucks draw business away from the cafeteria partially because they offer food in little paper to-go containers that are really easy to carry around and eat from while crossing the street to and from buildings.

Although you can’t change a student’s longing for freedom during lunch, you can make it more appealing to stay in the cafeteria. One might say the MHS cafeteria lacks the “fun factor”. There is a certain novelty to going out to Valley Road or Ruthie’s that just doesn’t exist in the cafeteria. At Quick Chek alone there is a huge variety of snacks, sandwiches, and drinks. At Valley Road, you aren’t just tied down to one set meal, you can grab a drink at Krauser’s, or a slice of pizza at Nauna’s with multiple toppings, or a bagel from Bagels Abroad. A trip to Plato Cubano offers a whole Cuban buffet for a higher price of $5 a plate. The array of ethnic food offerings ranges from the Aroy-D Thai truck to the Italian-themed Bella’s truck. Having all of those options and walking from one store or truck to the next is more interesting than going through a lunch line and being tied down to one well-balanced meal, where each day there is a single style of food (like pasta and meat balls with Italian bread and a salad, or chicken quesedillas with a vegetable). Why not mix Thai chicken satay with veggie chips from the vending machine? It’s more fun!

I think the most important areas to focus on to increase student participation in the cafeteria are mobility, variety, and the “fun factor”. Although regulations for healthy choices cannot be overlooked, there must be ways to deliver inexpensive and tasty food options that meet school lunch requirements. The students would respond. Even serving food in individual paper to-go dishes like Aroy-D offers would make busy students more willing to buy from the cafeteria. To re-create the interest Valley Road and Watchung Plaza offer, the school might consider a food court style format for the cafeteria, with multiple stands offering a variety of tasty ethnic food items. Eliminating the lunch line would draw students like me who don’t like waiting in a long line just to get to front to see the daily offerings; that takes too much time. Think of the food court at the Willowbrook Mall, with different menus all around; a huge variety, only healthier.

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