Upon entering, I hear the familiar sound that pervades every school cafeteria during lunch.  It is “second lunch” at Coral Shores, and the room is filled with rowdy discussion and laughing, as students get in line for a meal, find friends and take a seat at a table.  I had expected an olfactory flash back of sorts, but there is nothing extraordinarily familiar about the smell of the room.

Soon the beep is heard over the speakers. And everyone leaves, bound for classes far and wide.  The exit is sudden and surprisingly orderly.  Wrapping up a quick update from a student I mentor, I grab a tray and get in the now empty lunch line myself.  Deciding I have a good idea what the pizza and tater tots will taste like, I go instead for today’s hot lunch option: Beef-a-Roni—a pasta concoction that combines macaroni, ground beef, tomatoes and cheddar cheese baked on top.  I also choose green beans, an orange, and chocolate milk. 

We all have our preconceptions about institutional cafeteria food, and what we are likely to encounter based on our sometimes decades old experience.  Finishing my meal, I get a chance to talk to Dawn Tucci who both manages the cafeteria at CSHS and plans menus and manages staff for the entire county school system.  A graduate of Key West High school herself as well as FIU while she was managing the Key Largo School cafeteria, she has been with the school system since 1996.  I learn that a lot of thought has gone into what is available for lunch.  What emerges is a story about getting kids to make healthy choices.

“Our objective is to feed students a nutritional well balanced meal.  Standards are set by the state, and a meal consists of five components: Milk, Fruit, Vegetable, Grain, and Protein. “Though there are state recipes for some entrees, like the Beef-a-Roni I just ate, with quantifiable nutritional value, she has considerable latitude to meet these standards creatively.

“We offer a lot more choice now than we did a decade ago, with more choices at the high school level”  than elementary.  Fresh fruit is nearly always available, as is a salad with meat or cheese. Vegetables are frozen, not canned, and of the foods that need preparation about half are made on site (not just warmed up) like the Beef-a-Roni.  They incentivize smart choices too.  For example, it is $2.25 -$2.50 for a balanced hot meal like the one I ordered.  To order a la carte is more expensive. Cookies and the like are available but kids are steered toward the balanced meal.

A varied menu published though December, changes daily with popular hot meals repeating every three weeks.  Vegetarian items are starred, and on a request basis, they even try to accommodate allergies by say, providing soymilk

There is such a thing as a free lunch: Act Now
“One of our biggest challenges at he beginning of the year is to get parents to complete an application for free or Reduced Price meal.  “This reduces the meal cost to 40 cents or free.  Parents have to fill out the form before October 6th and submit it to the school front desk.

We as parents have an ally in the struggle to keep our kids fed sensibly. For lots more information, menus, or even to arrange for online payment that lets kids eat cash free while parents track what is purchased, go to www.keysschools.com and click on “departments” then “food service”.

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