School lunch used to be an event—the sound of running students excitedly lining up, waiting eagerly for sizable helpings of orange chicken.
But that was nearly five years ago, when the lunch program was managed in-house by former employee Jennifer Porteous.
Junior Serajh Esmail said that the food back then was “delicious” and “off-the-chain.”
“The cooks were incredible, and it was like a five-course meal,” he said.
“Almost three-fourths of the class would get lunch from (school).”
Sophomore Aidan Cunningham remembers those days with just as much enthusiasm. “There would be a whole table of cartons full of orange chicken, and they’d all be gone,” he said.
But orange chicken wasn’t the only attraction.
“(The pizza) was the greatest thing ever, and if we had it in the high school, I’d definitely order it again,” Cunningham said.
Nowadays it’s completely different. Only six of 112 high-school students have ordered a school lunch in the past month, according to a recent Octagon poll.
The reason, Esmail said, is that with the old in-house lunch program, there was a greater variety of choices, with different fruits and entrees. “(After the in-house program stopped), the food quality went downhill,” Esmail said.
According to school business manager Bill Petchauer, the in-house lunch program wasn’t “financially sustainable,” so the school outsourced to Lunchmasters, a school-lunch provider, in 2010-11.
However, the Lunchmasters program was short-lived, lasting less than two years.
Esmail, who ordered Lunchmasters for a year, said that while that program offered a good selection of entrees, the food quality didn’t compare to Porteous’s program.
In its place, GoodFellas4Kids was contracted in 2012 to “improve the service and quality” of the lunch program, Petchauer said.
Including the lower school, Petchauer says that students order 40-50 meals a day, which is only 10 percent of the entire student body.
In the high school, some students even responded to the poll questions with, “I didn’t know (the lunch program) existed,” or “School lunch exists?”
Senior Michael Wong, who tried buying from GoodFellas last year, described the pizza as “wet
“The crust was really soft, and it tasted bland,” Wong said.
And Wong isn’t alone – 44 percent of students who hadn’t ordered lunch in the past month cited the food’s low quality as a reason.
“(GoodFellas would) show a nice picture of food online, but when you got it, it was very underwhelming,” junior David Liu said.
“(Once), the chicken nuggets were in a soggy bag, which kind of disgusted me.”
Liu admitted that some lunches were better.
“The pasta was okay, and the one time they had ravioli was all right. But 75 to 80 percent of the dishes were bad,” Liu said.
Liu, who transferred from Mira Loma High School, said the school lunches were better there. But apart from the poor food quality, 25 percent of students say they don’t order from Goodfellas because the portions are too small.
“(One meal) was just two pieces of bread with one piece of ham and a side of fruit,” junior America Lopez said.
And like Liu and Wong, Lopez complained about the quality, describing other lunches as “gross,” “cold” and “disgusting.”
But those weren’t the only complaints. Additionally, 33 percent of high schoolers polled said
that the GoodFellas program was inconvenient. The company requires students to order a day before, while Porteous’s program didn’t require advance ordering.
Despite the many complaints, GoodFellas owner George Baratta said he hasn’t received any negative
feedback from the school. “We would love to hear complaints and suggestions, because if we don’t know, we won’t grow,” Baratta said.
Baratta suggested that students call him directly (his number can be found on the GoodFellas website), or send the company an email.
And although Baratta said that he has seen a small decline in GoodFellas orders, he said that it’s typical for only 10-12 percent of a student body to buy lunch.
But, at St. Francis High School, this isn’t true.
Both former St. Francis students sophomore Elizabeth Brownridge and freshman Evann Rudek said that they miss their old school’s Epicurean Group lunch program.
And at least half of St. Francis’s student body (about 500 students) ordered, Brownridge said.
“They had grilled cheese and breakfast burritos in the morning, and they had their own ice cream freezer with Big Spoon Yogurt,” Brownridge said.
The St. Francis menu includes a large variety of items from free-range tarragon chicken breast over brown rice ($5) to grilled organic tofu ($3.50).
And for dessert, the Epicurean Group offers cookies, parfaits and smoothies (all $1-4).
This menu at St. Francis rotates daily with nine options, while GoodFellas offers only four.
“I remember on the last day (at St. Francis), I loaded up on everything,” Rudek said. “(That day), I ordered french toast, bacon, muffins, a taco bowl, a smoothie, a brownie and a cookie.
“When it was taco day, everyone would order because it was so good.”
On top of the good food, Epicurean Group doesn’t require students to pre-order, and they can use cash or charge their personal lunch accounts.
But now, after coming to Country Day, Rudek said she makes her lunch at home. Unlike GoodFellas, the Epicurean Group cooks nearly all of its food at St. Francis in the school’s new professional-grade kitchen and cafe.
Jim Julian, Epicurean Group’s Sacramento district manager, says that Epicurean prefers to have
its own on-site kitchen.
“It’s just very hard to keep food fresh if it’s been sitting in a box for one or two hours,” Julian said.
“(At St. Francis) we have an executive chef and cafe manager on site.”
Julian explained that to use their service, Country Day would most likely need a kitchen upgrade.
However, Petchauer said it’s unlikely that SCDS could afford to upgrade or modify the kitchen. But if a makeover is too expensive, there’s another option.
Local businesses, such as Chipotle and Noodles & Company, say they could also provide school lunches. And in the Octagon poll, 93 percent of high-school students say that they would order lunch from Chipotle.
Chipotle, which offers a “burritos by the box” option, could provide burritos for the entire high school at $8.75 per person. However, the restaurant doesn’t deliver, and burritos would have to be ordered one to two days in advance.
Similarly, 85 percent of students polled said they would purchase school lunch if it were provided by Noodles & Company.
Jonathan Snyder, Noodles & Company’s general manager, proposed an $8 per lunch catering option, including two entrees, two sides and one dessert. And since Noodles & Company is nearby, they would deliver for free, he said.
Petchauer says that the school is open to these new ideas, and he will be contacting both Noodles & Company and Epicurean Group.
And after meeting with the administrative team, Petchauer said he will also look into hiring a mobile food truck. But for now, Country Day is left with a lunch program that feeds only 10 percent of its student body.
And sack lunches remain in style.
Previously published in the print edition on Feb. 17, 2015.