School lunches have changed - well, sort of

Thursday was the first time I'd been in a school cafeteria in many years. I'd been invited to Osborne Middle School in Hoschton to discuss persuasive writing with Michael McIntyre's seventh-grade class. I met the class in the lunchroom.

My first thought was, "Wow. It hasn't changed a lot."

For the most part it was like the lunchroom in my school when I was in the seventh grade - same folding tables with bolted-on metal seats, same lines, same plastic trays, and still louder than the deck of an aircraft carrier. I was already going down memory lane when one of the teachers had to remind the kids who were eating at the silent table that a silent lunch meant just that, no laughing, no giggling, no anything unless you wanted a week of eating at that table.

And that did it. A flash of light, and I was back at Atherton Elementary School in DeKalb County, and one of the teachers had just turned on the dreaded red light.

Two lights hung on the wall of the cafeteria at Atherton - a yellow light and a red light. The red light meant no talking. Period. Not a whimper, a whisper, not a loud breath. Violators were whisked away, often never to be heard from again.

I don't know what the yellow light was supposed to signal. Nobody ever turned it on. We just went straight to red. I suspect the yellow light probably didn't even work.

Back to the present and now I notice it seems some things have changed. Twenty-five minutes for lunch now as opposed to an hour when I was a kid, and "God help you if you're late" as one teacher said. And I can see why. There are more students in this one middle school than my elementary school and high school had combined. That's 2,000 mouths to feed, every day.

It seems they have the process down though. The groups rotate shifts with military precision. As soon as our group left another came right behind us to take our place, just like teeth in a shark's mouth.

Some other things are different as well. Salads, nachos, fresh fruit, ice cream - all are available for purchase, depending on how much you have in your account, which can be refilled online, which is a long way from the shoebox Mrs. Cole used to keep our 50 cents in back at Atherton.

Milk is different now, too. At Atherton you got a whole milk or a chocolate. Extras were 15 cents.

At Osborne you can get whole milk, 1 percent, 2 percent, chocolate or strawberry, and that's just the types I remember. They're a little more than 15 cents now though.

After lunch I gave my presentation, gave away some Gwinnett Daily Post stuff, and then, as much for my own amusement as theirs, I gave the students the task of deciding what I would write my column about today. School lunch was the overwhelming choice, and that's when I found out one thing hasn't changed a bit: Student complaints about the food.

Since time immemorial, the quality of school food has been one of life's great debates, up there with who killed Kennedy, who the greatest boxer is and Less Filling vs. Tastes Great.

The debate rages at Osborne, just like at every other school in the world.

The detractors' reasons are varied. (I've dropped some of the last names to protect the innocent.)

Health: "They should be healthy, but some of them aren't," said one student named Lauryn. And Alyssa said, "They had better meals last year than they have this year," something that several people, both students and teachers, attributed to a move to more frozen dinners.

No variety: "They have pizza every single day," said Jude.

No breakfast in the morning also was universally derided, but summed up best by Carlie Teschner: "I'm a girl and I take an hour and a half to get ready. I don't have time to eat breakfast (at home)."

And of course, taste: "(Some of) the food tastes like plastic," said one student. That particular complaint has been around since the invention of plastic.

But the folks in the lunchroom have their fans as well.

Some kids were quite pleased with the quality and quantity, the value, the variety of choices, and many agreed that most of the meals are much healthier than they used to be.

And everyone appreciates the effort the people in the cafeteria make.

"They start really early in the morning, so I think they put a lot of work into it," said Stephanie Marra.

I don't have to eat school food anymore, so I can't really attest to whether it's better or worse than what I had when I was a student. What I do know is there are a lot more choices and lot less time to eat. Some things have definitely changed.

But no matter the year or the school, the setting, it seems, will always remain the same.

(A big thank you to all the students in Mr. McIntyre's Language Arts class. Next time I'll bring more Frisbees.)

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.

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