CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the kitchen at Kennedy-Longfellow Elementary School, staff hurriedly prepared to serve that day’s “breakfast-for-lunch” menu: egg and cheese sandwich on croissant, hash browns, turkey sausage patty, selections from the salad bar and a side of fruit.
It was just after 10:40 a.m. and the day’s first lunch period, serving kindergarten students, had begun.
Armed with hair nets, visors, plastic gloves and, above all, a mission to keep students fed, Cambridge’s school nutrition workers work daily to craft a school lunch that can both meet nutrition standards and please students.
“I bring them up to 160 degrees, then take them out and put them in the warmer, ” said David Gardner, base kitchen supervisor at Kennedy-Longfellow, sliding a baking sheet of individually wrapped croissant sandwiches out of an oven. “So when the line needs them, they’ll pull them from here and restock their stations.”
The cafeteria serves students from both Kennedy-Longfellow Elementary and Putnam Avenue Upper School, a connected school for grades 6-8 on the same campus. The two schools house around 480 students. Over 60 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Gardner and staff prepare, on average, 305 meals a day for students.
Mary McKearney, a cafeteria helper and cashier, runs the cafeteria’s salad bar.
“Everything is cut when I come in in the morning. Some people start at 6:30, I don’t start until 10,” McKearney said. “I set it up and then I keep it plenished until the end of the day, until one o’clock when the last groups come through.”
McKearney said the elementary school students respond well to the salad bar, an option that she did not have when she was a student.
“They even eat tofu, they’ve been brought up on it,” McKearney said. “They’re good eaters.”
School meal programs have undergone a good deal of change over the past few years, largely driven by national push for more nutritious school lunches. In 2012, a set of federal health standards mandated new minimum fruit, vegetable and whole grain servings as well as maximum sodium, sugar and fat contents for school meals.
While school districts have the option to dictate the specific foods that they serve, the meals must comply with federal health standards in order for the school to receive funds that allow students from low-income families to qualify for free and reduced lunches.
A recent study of Massachusetts schoolchildren found that since the federal regulations were implemented, schoolchildren ate healthier meals when the food was chosen by their school rather than their parents.
Yet how students respond to the healthier options varies.
A 2014 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that following the implementation of the new standards, students choosing fruit in lunch lines increased by 23 percent. But there was no change in students choosing vegetable dishes. However, the students that did choose vegetables ate 16 percent more of the dish than before the guidelines.
Nationally, students throw away less food now than before the food regulations came into effect. In 2014, students ate 84 percent of their entrees, up from 71 percent before the rules were in place.
In addition to more widely available healthy options, McKearny said the most apparent change since she was a student is in the cafeteria culture itself.
“You never even saw the people that served you, you only saw arms coming out from behind the counter. That’s all you saw,” said McKearney. “This makes it more personal and personable. They’re not afraid to talk to you. If they don’t like something they’ll tell you and if the want more they’ll ask.”
Recently, Cambridge school lunches topped a ranking of best public school cafeteria food in American public schools by Niche.com, a website that ranks and reviews U.S. school districts, colleges and neighborhoods. Niche’s list ranked school lunches based on school spending statistics, opinion-based survey responses and various government and public data sets.
Mellissa Honeywood, director of Food Nutrition Services for Cambridge Public Schools, has an office that is connected to the kitchen at Kennedy-Longfellow Elementary.
Honeywood, also a chef and registered dietitian, is in charge of creating the district’s menu and making sure school meals meet federal standards.
“Essentially I play menu Tetris,” Honeywood said, referring to the video game of fitting moving blocks. “I come up with ideas for menu items based on student feedback, staff feedback, item sales showing which particular recipes are popular. Then I create a template, a six-week menu template, that I can adjust throughout the year.”
Cambridge Public Schools solicits quotes from food vendors on a weekly basis to determine who has produce for the best price, giving the district the ability to move between vendors and to utilize local produce whenever possible.
“The tofu that we use for our tomato, scallion and tofu stir fry comes from 21st Century Foods in Jamaica Plain,” said Honeywood. “You wouldn’t imagine that it would be a tremendous tofu producer, but we are sourcing our tofu that is fewer than 10 miles away from the district.”
Although immersed in nutrition and food, Honeywood and her kitchen staff all point to the students as the reason their jobs are worthwhile. In order to support students and their education, Honeywood has chosen food as her tool of choice.
“A hungry student doesn’t learn as well as a student that is well-nourished,” said Honeywood. “That is my job as a food services director to not just put food on a plate, but put well-nourished students in front of a teacher, ready to learn.”