Lunch menus in public schools have changed significantly over the past several years. There is an increased national concern about the alarming number of school age children who suffer from obesity. Federal and state requirements have been difficult to achieve due to the complexity in satisfying the palette as well as public health concerns. Howard County, Maryland has joined with other areas to find a compromise between public policies and student satisfaction. John-John Williams, IV in his article, “Having a Say on What They Eat,” examines the efforts of the Howard County Public Schools in Ellicott City, Maryland.
In response to a 2006 “wellness” policy, high school administrators were required to reduce the amount of high fat foods offered to students. Items such as french fries or anything resembling fast foods were excluded as suitable choices. In response, students protested with their pocketbooks by refusing to purchase certain cafeteria items. Howard County high schools lost thousands of dollars in much needed revenue and were forced to include student-consumers in the decision making process. Students enrolled in the Culinary Arts Program are making their voices heard at Oakland Mills, a high school in Howard County.
The young male and female chefs hope to create dishes suitable for next fall’s menu. Students enrolled in the cooking class, much like many restaurant owners and professional chefs, are faced with the challenges of providing foods that meet national nutritional guidelines and at the same time manage cost and taste appeal. Students participating in the taste-test were required to prepare dishes that would meet the national guidelines of 750 total calories (110 of which could derive from fat), and150 grams of sodium at the cost of $1. 22.
On April1, just a few days away, judges will select recipes from twelve high schools in five counties including Howard. One of the major problems for high school administrators has been student awareness regarding food preparation and nutrition. They explain the students’ culinary wisdom in terms of cable food networks and celebrity chefs. High school students’ tastes in foods have clashed with administrative obligations yet culinary program participants have found a productive means of influencing systemic and institutional change.
There are a variety of sociological issues imbedded in the Howard County challenge. The context of the struggle is the public high school, a social and political institutional space that operates under certain federal guidelines and state budgets. The question of community and culture is a dominant theme as Howard County explores how best to address the concerns of multiple and diverse constituents. While the primary goal is to meet public health and nutritional guidelines, the underlying impediments to meeting these objectives have been both economic and cultural.
In order for Howard County to be in compliance they must not only answer the question of health but must also find a way to establish a form of nutritional wellness that is both affordable and acceptable to students. For example, Erika Henderson, a senior from Oakland Mills High enrolled in the Culinary Arts class, stated that the food was distasteful because it was “cheap food with no seasoning” (Williams, IV 10). As a result, Erika decided to bring her lunch each day. Erika’s choice to pass on the cafeteria foods raises issues about class.
Students from lower incomes may not have items to bring from home and, in many instances, rely on the cafeteria cuisine. At the same time, Erika appears to have been quite comfortable with preparing her own food. She had a particular notion about ingredients suggesting that the culture of her home allowed and encouraged food preparation and experimentation. In addition, the Culinary Arts Program created a subculture; a cohort of students who, perhaps, were more aware of the nuances of food preparation and trends than their peers.
The culinary arts students were the most vocal in demanding that their recipes be taste-tested and, if successful, placed on the menu. Laurie Collins, Instructional Facilitator at Oakland Mills, insisted that “they will try something that [has been] prepared by their peers” (Williams, IV 10). With just days away from a decision, over seventeen-thousand students at Oakland may have a chance to have their way in terms of affordable, healthy, appetizing, and appealing choices for lunch whether it is the baked onion rings or apple slices.
Realizing that it will be difficult to please everyone, all parties are optimistic about the fall menu. Howard County and the Oakland students have taken matters into their own hands by offering a realistic solution to what is a national and institutional problem. The students, through hard work and creativity, are cooking up their own taste of “wellness. ” Works Cited Williams IV, John-John. “Having A Say On What They Eat: Howard Students Taste- Test, Prepare Own Candidate for Cafeteria Menu” The Baltimore Sun 22 March 2009: 1, 10.