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Lunch at Horace Mann Middle School on Jan. 3, 2019 consisted of chicken and noodles, a biscuit, seasoned peas, diced potatoes, sliced peaches, salad and chocolate milk.

Lunch. At school, it’s not just a meal — it’s a social opportunity, a gathering place, a break from work… and a chance for kids to complain about the food they are served.

Food tastes processed, it’s undercooked, it’s overcooked, the portions are too big, they’re way too small… To get an update on current cafeteria food, fact and fiction, I talked to several random public school students. In talking to these people, I’ve heard all the above complaints and more. And, for many kids, grousing about cafeteria food is as ingrained in the school experience as doing homework and playing sports.

However, though they may love to complain, most of these kids will generally choose to eat school lunches regularly, as you can easily see from the full tables and long lines in a cafeteria.

The rest claim to avoid doing so for reasons such as the food being unhealthy, or simply “gross.” They also generally agreed that the pepperoni roll is the best item on the menu, with the meat sandwiches as the worst.

The main problem that I heard with cafeteria food was a “processed” taste, and meat that is generally undercooked and fatty. However, this last claim is something on which a school cook whom I spoke with seem to disagree.

I talked to the head cook at a local middle school, and she said that the menu has actually become healthier of late, with the salad bar and other improvements introduced by the new Head of Child Nutrition at the school board, Dianne Miller.

In addition, the cook said that a big part of the often processed taste of the food is simply its manner of preparation — it is shipped from US Standard Foods’ farms in Hurricane, after which it is precooked and then reheated at schools, to be prepared in the various cooks’ own ways. It’s really the only financially sane way to prepare food on such a massive scale.

School food often lacks much sugar and salt, the cook said, and differences in methods of raising livestock can contribute to the meat having an odd taste. But she also firmly stated that any belief in too-big portion sizes or unhealthy foods is flat-out untrue. In fact, the opposite is often so, with foods that are healthy yet in portion sizes that are too small. And she also commented that she constantly wished that she could cook whatever she wanted; she, and I think most cooks, really like kids, and she said that it makes her very sad when someone complains. They don’t have much control, she said.

I asked a couple of questions to the person who does have control — Miller, from the school board. She said that the task of feeding schools countywide is an enormous endeavor, requiring meal planners, purchasers, servers, deliverers, and on-site monitors to confirm upheld regulations, both financial and nutritional.

Her reasons for following this path are much the same as the cook’s; a liking for kids, and a passion for helping keep away hunger. She and her department believe that school lunch is filling and nutritious, but that there is always room for improvement, and variety. They are always testing new items and recipes throughout the school year, and checking on quality and nutrition.

This year, you might have noticed new items such as smoothies and pretzel buns. However, she disagreed on the notion of meals being often undercooked, which was odd, because that one of the most common complaints that I found.

This last discrepancy is very telling. What I feel that it means is that some of what I found was slightly exaggerated and dramatized, as I felt teens and children may often do to things. And, the funny thing is, though kids will complain often, we still see that most of them still take cafeteria food and eat it.

Also, and more importantly, given the methods of preparation that I found are used, and perhaps required to get the job done, I think that there might be no other way school lunch could turn out. Sure, there’s room for improvement, and we always need to keep improving. That is an agreed upon fact. But, I think it might just be an agreed upon fact of kids that school lunch is, and always will be, not quite what we would like it to be.