The pizza is greasy.
The fries are cold.
And there's mystery meat on the bun.
Those are just some of the reasons Margaret Stone, 15, doesn't eat school lunch.
"It's nasty. It's gross," the rising junior at Aiken High School said. "I just don't like cafeteria food. I try to prevent (eating) it. Only if I'm really, really hungry will I eat it."
For Margaret, that means about once a week, she'll venture through the lunch line and pick up something that, to her, looks less than appetizing and tastes less than edible.
She's not the only person in her school who opts out of eating. And even as school districts across the country work to make meals tastier and more appealing, there are a lot of students like Margaret who don't pick up a tray.
In Georgia, the Department of Education serves 1.5 million meals each day and has started to monitor student participation in school lunch programs, said Annette Hopgood, the director of the school nutrition division.
Specific goals, which are divided by grade grouping and economic status, show that the group with the lowest participation percentage are those in high school.
"Participation declines as students get older," Ms. Hopgood said. "That seems to be a trend statewide, and those numbers are holding steady."
State Department of Education data for the 2005 school year shows that only 79 percent of those receiving free lunch actually ate it; the goal is 90 percent. Those with reduced lunch have a goal of 85 percent but only 71 percent did. Only 43 percent of students who pay full price to eat lunch ate, although the goal is 60 percent.
Though there have been gains in the full-price category, the results are enough to put a focus on the participation rates of high school students. School districts are to begin trying to figure out why the older students just aren't eating, Ms. Hopgood said.
While no official reports are in, Ms. Hopgood said there are some factors to students not eating school lunches that seem easily identifiable.
"A lot of that is attributable to having other options at school to the reimbursable (school) meals," she said. "It's due to competitive foods: those things that the school sells in lieu of the regular meal."
Those alternatives, she explained, include vending machine products or a la carte offerings, such as sandwiches and entrees from local eateries that are brought in for student purchase. Schools in the area and beyond offer them to students every day.
Margaret and her friends prefer the vending machine.
"A lot of my friends don't eat because they don't like the food either. We just hang out at the table, and we get things out of the snack machines," she said. "It gets you fat, but it's a snack and better than eating school food."
To win back students and protect their health, educators are working to give students more choices for lunch and include more items that are appealing.
"We try to do more innovative, creative meals," Ms. Hopgood said.
"The trend is to take popular items and make them healthier. For example, the pizza in the school cafeteria has only a third of the fat found in commercial pizza. The chicken nugget products are baked and not fried."
Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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