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Catholic schools cook up different ways to put lunch on the cafeteria table

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“School lunches are kind of legendary,” said David Morris, CEO of the school catering company Smart Lunches — and not in a good way. For many, a greasy hamburger and curly fries under heat lamps, or canned vegetables and Tater Tots on a plastic plate come to mind when they think of school lunches past.

Today, creating the perfect school lunch means taking into account parents’ concerns, government guidelines, the budget and, of course, the child’s tastes. It’s no easy task. “We have to have a happy, fed child at the end of the lunch period,” said Morris. “That's what we’re moving heaven and earth to do.”

In-house creations

During the first full week of school, students who buy lunch at Holy Cross Academy in Fredericksburg will munch on French bread pizza, chicken and cheese burritos, salad, and fish sticks. All meals come with a choice of fresh fruit and a carton of milk. It’s part of Cafeteria Manager Mary Beall’s six-week rotation of tried-and-true recipes.

Beall worked for 10 years in Stafford County schools, where she learned what it takes to run a kitchen. She’s worked for five years at Holy Cross, a school with more than 450 students, many of whom buy lunch.

Beall loves to cook food that looks as good as it tastes. “If the tray doesn't look appetizing, the kids aren’t going to eat it,” she said. “My trays are beautiful.”

Every weekday, Beall is in the school kitchen by 6:30 a.m. preparing for lunch. A group of full-time and part-time employees, and often volunteers, help her put it all together. “My ladies come here at 8 a.m. and that's when they do their magic,” said Beall. Much of the food is made from scratch, even the salad dressings and their famous tomato soup.

“Last year, kids didn't eat tomato soup,” she said. “Now, parents ask me, ‘What are you putting in your tomato soup?’ ”

To follow USDA school lunch guidelines, every calorie and milligram of sodium must be counted. Students receive a certain amount of vegetables and fruit based on their age. The meals also stay clear of common food allergy triggers, such as nuts and eggs.

The federal government financially supports the program and around 20 children qualify for the free and reduced-price lunches. Still, it took her four years to have the kitchen turn a profit. The success came from finding what the students like best. Sometimes, they’ll tell her.

Once, a young student approached her and asked, “Why don’t you have Taco Tuesday?” So she began putting tacos on the menu every other Tuesday. “The first- and second-graders will come in singing, ‘Taco Tuesday, Taco Tuesday,’ ” said Beall.

Smart Lunches

Not all diocesan schools have the space or resources to have lunch made on-site. St. Ann School in Arlington, which has around 235 students, is one of them. “In order for us to run a hot lunch program, we’d have to have a certified food handler and the kitchen would have to be upgraded,” said Mary Therell, principal. Instead, she looked at options outside the school.

Some schools rely on fast-food such as Chick-fil-A, Subway and Baja Fresh or school catering companies, such as Smart Lunches, based in Boston, or School House Grill in Herndon.

St. Ann has a special pizza or Chick-fil-A lunch twice a month, but day-to-day they rely on Smart Lunches. “It's been pretty convenient for us and the kids seem to like the food,” said Therell.

As with Holy Cross kitchen, Smart Lunches is careful to pack the meals with nutritional value. “We’re taking a hard look at those USDA guidelines and making sure there’s no high fructose or trans-fat. We use organic food whenever possible,” said Morris.

According to Morris, about 10 diocesan schools use Smart Lunches, in addition to hundreds more around the country. Parents go on the website and order what their kids want. The food is delivered to the school mid-morning in heat-trapping bags and given to the students at lunchtime.

“(Lunch) can be a big administrative burden on the schools,” said Morris. “We try and step in to be the best partner we can for the parents and the kids.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017