It’s all about freedom for 16-year-old Taylor Morrow.
On days when the Hickman High School junior has a few extra dollars in his pocket, he and his friends spend their 40-minute lunch break not in the Hickman cafeteria, but at the Sonic or Subway a few hundred feet from the school doors.
“The food here at school is fine, but it’s more of a freedom thing,” Morrow said.
It’s also a taste thing. Sonic, Subway, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen and Taco Bell are within walking distance of Hickman. Similar restaurants are within driving distance of Rock Bridge and Douglass high schools. For students who choose to eat at those establishments, burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, nachos and sodas are all on the lunch menu.
Food served in the cafeteria is healthier but similar to items on fast-food menus. But if students have the opportunity to leave campus and eat elsewhere, they will, Morrow said.
“We definitely compete with nearby fast-food places,” said Pat Brooks, director of Columbia Public Schools’ food services. “With an open campus, students go everywhere. We have students that do stay, but we have a great number of students that choose to leave. The students are our customers, and they won’t eat what they don’t like.”
Food services feeds 15 percent to 20 percent of the students at Hickman. The number fed at Rock Bridge is higher because the cafeteria is open throughout the day, Brooks said.
Public-school food service is bound by the Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines. According to the USDA Web site, the organization recommends that meals contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, no more than 10 percent from saturated fat and one-third of daily nutrients.
The nearby Sonic’s No. 1 Sonic Burger contains 577 calories, more than half of which come from fat, according to the restaurant’s nutritional guide. Dairy Queen’s Homestyle Hamburger contains 290 calories, 38 percent of which come from fat.
“Everything we serve is part of a USDA program, so when you read the word hamburger on the lunch menu, that’s not a bad thing,” Brooks said. “It is a very lean hamburger.”
Among daily items such as milk, salad bar, fruit and vegetables, the school lunch offerings include such fast-food look-alikes as chicken nuggets, super nachos, pizza and sandwiches.
“We do serve many healthy choices every day,” Brooks said. “This year we have a Mandarin chicken salad as a choice for everyday, as well as a chicken Caesar salad and chef salad.”
D. Paul Robinson, a specialist in adolescent medicine, said the school system is in a rut because the food industry is so competitive.
“The school knows if they serve something really healthy, the kids aren’t going to stay and eat if they can leave campus,” Robinson said. “I don’t know what anyone can do until the food industry backs off a little. They have so much power.”
If Columbia public high schools had closed lunches, they would have the option of serving healthier food because there would be no immediate competition from fast-food chains, he said.
“I am sure that the dieticians in the school system hate serving what they serve because eating this kind of food is just going to continue to drive obesity,” he said. “If I ate that way, I would weigh 500 pounds.”
The Hickman PTSA board thinks the best and safest place to eat lunch is on campus, said Linda Thiele, president of the Hickman PTSA. But there are no immediate plans to close open lunch. Instead, the group’sgoal is to make eating on campus appealing to students.
The number of students staying on campus has increased at Hickman, due in part to a recent $4,100 investment the PTSA board made to provide outdoor and indoor seating in the school’s common area.