A couple of blocks from Paint Branch High School, in Maryland’s Montgomery County, there's a strip mall with a 7-Eleven, a Pizza Hut and a Chinese restaurant. And every day around 11 a.m., the students from Paint Branch start rolling in. Kelvinesha Palmer, 18, in braids and a baseball cap, emerges from 7-Eleven with a drink and some chicken wings. Price tag: $7.77.
That’s a lot more than the $0.40 she would have paid for lunch at school. Palmer qualifies for reduced-price meals because her mom earns less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. But since Kelvinesha has a part-time job, serving food at a retirement home, she skipped the cafeteria and splurged.
"I just didn’t like what they were having today," Palmer says. What was on the menu? "I think it was mozzarella sticks or the Beefaroni spaghetti thing."
Judging from the crowd at the strip mall, a lot of kids didn’t like what was on the menu. At Paint Branch, just a quarter of the 2,000 students eat the school meal.
"It’s not just students that are eligible for free and reduced-price meals," says Marla Caplon, head of the Division of Food and Nutrition Services at Montgomery County Public Schools. "As they get older, it’s cooler to go to 7-Eleven and get a meal than it is to go into your school cafeteria. It’s just the way kids are."
That’s a problem, Caplon says, because those chicken wings and hot dogs they’re eating instead are more expensive and less nutritious than what schools are required to serve.
So, schools are fighting back.
In Montgomery County, they’ve put kiosks with burgers and fruit in the dining area -- or even outside in the hallway -- so students never have to enter the dreaded cafeteria. They're also sneaking some nutrition into what looks like fast food.
Take the chicken nugget. "It’s baked -- it’s not fried -- it’s got a whole grain crust," says Caplon, "but these are also things children will eat."
It seems some schools have also been watching the Food Network. This year, rural Washington County west of Baltimore, started serving salad in black plastic bowls, instead of paper trays.
"For two reasons: one, to get the color pop out of the black plastic," says Jeffrey Proulx, who runs the school meals program for Washington County Public Schools. "Second, was to protect the integrity of the lettuce."
Proulx says moisture would leach through the paper tray, causing the lettuce to wilt faster. Turns out when the salad looks better, more kids want to eat it.
"You have to give them a reason to partake in the program," he says. "It’s got to look good, it’s got to taste good, it’s got to be healthy."
And it can’t make you feel like an outcast. In some schools stigma is a bigger problem than the food.
"In the lunch line, who’s participating in free and reduced-price lunch is supposed to be invisible," says Jim Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center. "But schools often do things that make it visible, accidentally or not, and kids sometimes know."
If cash changes hands, for example, it’s easy to see who pays and who doesn’t. So more schools are switching to cashless electronic systems, where students enter PIN numbers and only the cafeteria manager knows their status.
At breakfast, which is now on the menu at most schools, Weill says things can get even stickier.
"Fewer kids eat breakfast, so there’s a sense in some schools, particularly as kids get older, that breakfast is, quote, for the poor kids, and the more affluent kids don’t eat it," he says.
To get around that, more schools are serving breakfast in the hallway -- so kids can grab it on the way to class -- or even in the classroom.
In a classroom at Smothers Elementary School in Washington, D.C., third graders grab egg sandwiches, cups of juice and milk and take them back to their desks to eat. In this high-poverty school skipping breakfast wasn’t about stigma. All kids qualify for free meals.
When breakfast was served in the cafeteria before class, Principal Shannon Feinblatt says students just weren’t getting to school early enough.
"Now kids are coming on time," she says. "We don’t have a high truancy rate and we don’t have a high lateness rate, which is really great."
The links between nutrition and learning are well-known. Even by a third-grader named Leville, who raved about the egg sandwich and juice.
It’s important to eat breakfast, he says, "so you can pay attention in class and you don’t have to raise your hand and say I’m hungry."
The trick is how to keep kids that excited about eating at school when they get older and the 7-Eleven starts calling.