School Lunch


Annie Eason

Robinson’s sweet and sour chicken with pineapples and grapes.

School lunch has always been treated as a joke by students, acting as a conversation starter for many lunch tables. Many people are often repulsed by the food, but eat it anyway for many different reasons. When school abruptly closed in 2020, school lunch was made free for pickup and was available at school during the 2021-22 school year so that students who didn’t have access to lunch could still eat. FCPS provided meal kits and everyone, regardless of income, could receive the meals. At the start of the 2022-23 school year, school food reverted back to its original cost and has since stopped providing meal kits. Has the quality of the food changed since then?

Why was the school food free?

During the school years of 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22, lunches and breakfasts were free. According to FCPS, on March 13th, 2020, they stated, “FCPS will be providing grab and go meals at no cost for students at five sites. There are plans to expand to additional schools next week.” FCPS and other county students were able to get free meals and adults had to pay two dollars for a meal. Curbside pickup and walk-ups were also available in many stations, including one in front of London Towne Elementary school in Centerville, between 8:00am and 1200pm, as well as food trucks and pop-ups. When school reopened in 2021, breakfast and lunch were free, as Robinson cafeteria workers handed out breakfast to anyone who wanted it in the morning. Food was also available during the summer after the 2021-2022 school year. In 2021, meal kits were also available. However, at the start of the 2022-2023 school year, lunch stopped being free- at least for those who didn’t qualify to receive free lunch, according to FCPS. If one were to buy lunch every day in the school year in Robinson, it would cost $625.50 (not including milk) and if one were to buy breakfast every day of the year, it would cost $313.25. Milk every day is $107.40. If one were to buy breakfast, milk and lunch everyday, it would cost $1,046.15.

The coronavirus pandemic led to massive unemployment and an increase of poverty, as many were laid off. Parents who lost their jobs due to the pandemic who already relied on school lunch for their children were struggling even more, and still to this day. Because of this, it’s likely that Robinson made their food free to all people last year.

So what does school lunch taste like?

Robinson has a couple of options when it comes to school lunch. For breakfast, Robinson sells many processed baked goods, from banana bread to frosted blueberry pop-tarts. For lunch, Robinson also sells many different types of food, like corn dog bites and suspicious-looking tacos. Robinson students had a lot to say about their lunches. Two anonymous sophomores said, “The only thing that’s good is the chicken tenders and there’s a whole line for that.” Regarding last year’s lunch, they said, “there’s a few differences but a lot of it remains the same- they added the chicken tenders and kept changing the chocolate milks”. They also believed the food wasn’t healthy, nor safe- “I heard people got food poisoning [from it].” Another group of anonymous students were interviewed. They also didn’t like the lunch this year, saying “No… [but] I like some of it”. They didn’t like it when it was free either, saying, “I liked that it was free but I didn’t like the food.” The students also said, regarding the quality change, “I think [the quality] has improved- but sometimes they’re just missing parts of it”. Another person said, “a part of the meal is just not there and some of it’s mad gooey for no reason”. Someone also said, “The sweet and sour chicken was just sweet, there’s no sour.” Some also had some suspicions about the food, as one said, “Is it safe- I don’t know, there might be some radioactive material in there I don’t know to be honest.” However, some of the interviewees did like the breakfast. “It’s scrumptious- it is good.” One student also said they received the meal kits, saying, “they were good- they were pretty average.”

The Robinson cafeteria manager declined to be interviewed on the subject of the school food due to public relations concerns. 

So, where is it made? 

Lisa Diapoulis, acting Assistant Director for Food and Nutrition Services in Fairfax County said in an interview that school food was prepared on-site. The food is delivered from a third-party, frozen or fresh and they’re cooked in either ovens or combis. The process of making school food was also the same as it was last year when school lunch was free. Diapoulis said, “especially during Covid, we weren’t able to get a lot of things because of the supply chain so we’re trying to get back to some of the menu items that we had before Covid, like the old ones, the orange chicken and things like that… We tried to get back to some of the other items and then try some new items if it was possible and it [the new menu] was the main difference between Covid and now…” Diapoulis also mentioned that Keany Produce, located in Maryland, and Dori Foods, owned by GoodSource, supplies the frozen and fresh food in Robinson with many other corporations. Diapoulis also mentioned, “Food and nutrition services are always looking to innovate and serve new products and meals, and we used to do student taste ups. Actually we did this with the Supervisory Council at Robinson. I did a couple of them there and there we test new items and let the students try them and see which ones we try to put on the menu. We are in the process of looking at the salad bar at the elementary levels and we’re looking at different models for the middle and high right now.” In a follow-up email, Diapoulis also said that the student taste ups may come back next fall for the “Taste Parties.” 

However, the quality of the school food is still alarming, even when it was free. Compared to other first world countries, such as Japan, school food is not only handmade and freshly made, but is also cheaper, selling at $2.50, according to the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center. Even in Brazil, in 2016, Rhitu Chatterjee reported clean kitchens with fresh ingredients in a public school with majority low-income students. Serving fresh, clean food is definitely possible, not just in Robinson, but nationwide. Serving fresh and clean food is also important for children in general. According to a scholarly article written by Marcus B. Weaver-Hightower, “other studies have shown that nutritional programs improve the behaviors that are associated with improved learning. The School Food Trust (2009), for example, found that English students in intervention schools were more on-task than control group students after implementation of food standards and improvements to dining environments.” While the only difference in the free food last year seems to be the menu, school food still remains below average. Quality school food is not only good for learning, but also just good for students overall and should be pursued, especially at a low cost or even free.