Let’s dish about lunch regulations


Grace Tasel

Many Patterson Mill students are missing things on their plates. This student for example is missing the fruits. Harford County strives to provide vegetables and fruits in a new way. Such as having specific days like bean day and potato day.


In Harford County, Patterson Mill students are required to receive a nutritious lunch. Nutrition affects mood, attention span, and activity level. Therefore, it is very important to have proper nutrients in school lunches. Harford County has already set regulations on what is required in a school lunch. Each meal must contain specific amounts of fruits, vegetables, milk, grains and some type of meat. However, the nutritionists must decide how to make these into meals that students will want to eat. Not only must the meals meet the requirements, they have to taste good, too.

“[Providing healthy meals] is the definition of what we do,” says Karen Olson, who is the food and nutrition dietitian for Harford County. Olson pulled out a 5-inch binder full of all the rules and regulations used for school lunches. These requirements are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and are created to ensure that the food is safe and nutritious, according to schoolnutrition.org. These regulations came around 2010, however Harford County don’t need to adapt their meals very much. Since they were already going above and beyond with their nutrition. Patterson Mill’s cafeteria always has bowls of fruit out and tries to create new ways to serve them. Dietitians also go for whole grain blonde wheat, no dyes, and reduced sodium, explains Olson. There are also requirements for serving sizes. The serving size must stay within a certain calorie range, but price is also another factor. Dr. Abel, Patterson Mill’s principal, states: “I like that if a student eats a school lunch, they will be following good nutritional markers for what is healthy and needed for an adolescent.” Harford County goes by the MyPlate standard, which assures that a student will receive each food group to make the meal nutritious. To reach proper calorie and sodium counts, manufacturers have also created new foods to please the school regulations.

Manufacturers have been changing the products they provide to the school lunch communities, too. By creating more nutritious options that haven’t been available ever before. “Manufacturers produce with two things in mind: what [students] want and what [students and counties] will actually pay for,” Olson vocalized. 2010 was the start of a school lunch regulation change, in which healthier options were pushed. According to CNN, things like packaged fruits and vegetables were never available twenty years ago, though manufacturers have adapted to these healthier times. An increase in whole grain products has also occurred. At least half of the grains given to students must be whole grain. However, making the food taste good is a whole other challenge. To combat this, food tastings are held regularly to test new foods. Many nutritionists go to national food shows. Giving children healthier foods and teaching them to make the correct choice will hopefully teach them to eat better in the future. “We are trying to use the school market to wag the tail of making better food decisions,” Olson explains. It is very important for nutritionist like Karen to know what is in these lunches in order to determine if it fits the students need and or allergies

Food allergies are at an all-time high, and it is an absolute must that cafeterias cater to them. A reaction can be the difference between life and death for the 3,000-3,500 people in the county with allergies. 10% of the county has medically diagnosed allergies. Olson mainly deals with “The Big Eight”: soy, eggs, milk, peanut, shellfish, fish, wheat, and tree nuts. Olson also deals with disease such as diabetes, meaning that all of these meals have to not only meet the state guidelines for nutrition, but also students’ allergies. However, allergies are not the only other thing the cafeteria caters to: there is also financial aid. Harford County has one of the cheapest lunches in the state of Maryland. “[Our goal] is to provide the most affordable meals as possible to the most kids,” Olson proudly exclaims. There are 20.1 million free lunches distributed to students in the United States, says schoolnutrition.org. Finding healthy lunches that keep cost lows are a challenge, but with the right manufacturers, the job is a lot easier. Regulations make sure that workers are being sanitary and that the food is consistent.

“There is no way to tell how long it will take [to make the food], it’s like an elegant ballet of prep work,” Olson explains. She also explained how chefs have specific rules given to direct how they must make the food, clean the cafeteria and the tools, what to put on the menu board, and what temperature to cook the food. Schools have these requirements to assure that children are getting the healthiest food made in the safest way possible. Meal content and quality are the most important things to watch out for, according to USDA.org. At Patterson Mill there are oven steamers, fridges, and freezers, but no deep fryers or stoves. The goal is to make the most food, in the most efficient way. For example, spatulas and pots are hung up from the ceiling in order to move quickly when preparing food. There is a laundry room to wash towels and a walk-in freezer and fridge. Both the fridge and freezer have fans to move the air around more evenly. Patterson Mill also serves as a storage zone for schools such as William S. James, who don’t have the same appliances. All employees take classes to learn how to make the cafeteria the most sanitary it can be. Chefs come in as early as 6:30 am to make the lunches and breakfasts. The chefs are required to make the healthy food; however, it is up to the student to make the healthiest choice.

“All the schools can do is offer the right things: the individual student [or teacher] has to make the right decisions,” explains Principal Dr. Abel. Harford County is required to give the proper nutrition to students. However, many students opt out of the intended full meal. In order to be eating a healthy meal, a student should get the milk, the entrée, and the fruit or vegetable on the side. According to Olson, “A snack is just that: a snack, it’s not healthy.” Snacks are needed based on activity level or how much exercise a person is getting; otherwise, they are junk. Olson explains that packed lunches are about 50/50 in terms of being healthy; many students are not packing healthy foods. Either because they don’t have access to the healthy foods or that students are just not making the correct choice, it’s taking a toll on the health of lunch-packing students. The strict guidelines for food are given for a reason; they are made for students to learn to make those healthy choices.

Using proper guidelines, Patterson Mill is working to create new and healthy meals inspired by today’s modern market place. Manufacturers and nutritionists have adapted to students’ wants, allergies, and budgets. “We want to make sure everyone has a healthy lunch.” (Karen Olson)