“Disgusting” food being served to Baltimore County’s school children, 10 year old testifies to school board

Baltimore County School officials say the coronavirus pandemic is making it more difficult to feed students.

The school board recently got an earful from a fourth grader about inedible, innutritious, and sometimes unrecognizable school lunches.

When 10-year-old Matthew Reedholm spoke to the board last week, he came armed with a homemade poster that looked like it could have come straight from a science fair project.

The poster had 19 photos of school lunches served in county cafeterias.

“At first glance the food doesn’t look very good to eat,” Reedholm told the board. “With closer inspection they don’t look good at all. There’s mold, sometimes expired and unhealthy ingredients. Does this look like a lunch to you? Would you eat this? I’m going to guess your answer was ‘no.’”

Matthew Reedholm is a fourth grader in Baltimore County Public Schools concerned about the quality of food in the cafeteria.

The pictures have captions like “moldy bread,” “meat not sure what,” “soggy old, bagged apples” and “snacks for a lunch.”

In an interview, Matthew said he brings his lunch from home but he saw what his fellow students were being served.

“I noticed people were going home starving, not even eating any lunch,” he said.

The reason?

“It was so disgusting.”

Matthew said he confirmed that by trying some meals himself. Then he started taking photos of the lunches alongside his sister, who is in middle school.

School Board Chair Julie Henn said she’s familiar with the issue. Her daughter, a rising high school senior, has complained.

Henn said the board has been asking the leaders of the school system’s nutrition services about the quality of the food they are buying and if they are asking students to weigh in.

“So I know they are working towards finding more appetizing options, more variety of options,” Henn said.

But that might not be easy.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association which represents more than 50,000 people in the school cafeteria business, said nearly every school system in the country is struggling with supply chain problems.

“Schools order their food and supplies well in advance to secure the best possible price, but they are seeing their orders canceled and shorted at the very last minute and then have to scramble to purchase whatever they can get for their students to eat, and that’s usually at a much higher price,” Pratt-Heavner said.

Jaime Hetzler, the director of food and nutrition services for the school system declined a request for an interview.

County schools spokesperson Charles Herndon said supply chain disruptions did prevent the district from getting some food.

“On the positive side however, students also likely saw a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables in the school cafeterias,” Herndon said.

He added the school system serves about 100,000 meals daily with a staff of approximately 900. But just like teachers and bus drivers, there has been an ongoing shortage of cafeteria workers.

Meanwhile, a federal pandemic waiver expires at the end of this month that has provided free meals for all children. School systems will have to go back to determining which students qualify for free and reduced price meals.

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, the president of the Baltimore County Student Support Network, said that means some children will no longer qualify and may be falling through the cracks. Often, that leads to what she calls “lunch-shaming.”

“We found out about one little girl. She went every day with her lunchbox but her lunchbox was always empty. And she pretended to eat but she didn’t have any food,” Taylor-Mitchell said. “Kids hoarding food for the weekends in their lockers. All of these things are going to start to happen again because breakfast and lunch is not going to be offered to all of the kids.”

In an effort to combat obesity, federal guidelines limit the number of calories a school meal can contain.

Taylor-Mitchell said, “That caloric content may not be adequate, especially for older children who either are in growth spurts or they’re athletes and they’re competing.”

Taylor-Mitchell said the school lunch program is based on an assumption, often incorrect, that children are getting enough to eat at home.

She said at least 30 percent of the county’s secondary school students live with food insecurity. So those school meals may be the best, most nutritious food they will get all day.

School may no longer be in session for the summer but one fourth grader’s memories of dry tacos, moldy bread and mystery lunch meat will likely remain.

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