When the lunch bell rang, students at Maple Crest STEM Middle School were surprised when they were welcomed back by a brand-new, modernized cafeteria.

The renovations, which took place over the summer, were more than a new look. They came as a creative solution to the issues the corporation was seeing with food being wasted and students leaving school hungry.

One week into the new school year, Maple Crest Principal Thomas Hughes said the benefit of the new system already was apparent.

“The kids are happier. They’re eating more food. They have more nutrition in their bodies to continue on the day. As sad as it is, that’s probably the biggest meal a lot of them get throughout the day, and when they don’t like the option and are only eating one-third or half their lunch and not eating fruits and vegetables, they’re going without nutrition,” he said.

The renovations include a restructuring of how a school lunch system typically is set up. This one falls more along the lines of the look and feel of a college campus with a grab-and-go concept. As students enter the area to pick up lunch, they’re able to choose the options they want.

While the main course offerings vary, a constant is that students always get to pick one serving of fresh-cut fruit of their choice and up to two servings of vegetables. The students also can opt for other offerings, such as a wrap, a sandwich, or a salad.

With the students able to choose the options they want, Hughes said they’re more likely to eat it—and that seems to be the case so far. With the old system, Hughes said there was a huge amount of food wasted every day.

“The way things were, unfortunately there was a lot of food wasted. It was get your tray, let me put some food on it, eat what you want, throw the rest away. Kids were still hungry. They would have a lot of issues with sneaking in chips,” he said. “Just in the first day of the new cafeteria and food options they were presented with, the kids felt a sense of responsibility and had some ownership in it. I didn’t see the food wasted that I saw last year.”

One of the reasons the lunch options weren’t always appealing to students before, according to Mike Wade, director of operations for Kokomo Schools, was due to the “tough” state and federal guidelines and trying to adhere to those.

Now with a variety of options put before the students, Wade acknowledged that it will take much more work and preparation by the kitchen staff, but that the outcome is worth the effort.

“People don’t know how much work and time it’s going to take to do this, but the staff is stepping up to make it happen. It’s not easy. It doesn’t come out of a can. It takes prep work, so compliments to the crew that’s going to be doing that. But in turn, if it makes the kids eat more and like the choices and maybe not bring as much from home, then that’s a win-win,” he said.

Wade said thought goes into everything that’s part of the lunch display—from the colors to the placement to how many students are in the area at a time.

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“We’re setting it up in a way that’s good to the eye, that’s fun. The old days of when I grew up with a tray … are gone,” he said. “We don’t have the long lines snaking around. It’s not congested and crowded.”

Student Correll Heath went through the cafeteria and chose watermelon and broccoli and carrots with ranch to go with her lunch. With the new system, she said it’s much more appetizing.

“I didn’t really like the other food because we didn’t get to choose it. You get to pick the better one now, and they’re actually pretty good,” she said.

Student Jordan Horton, who opted for pizza, grapes, and carrots, said he’ll be eating healthier this year.

“With the fruits and vegetables, that’s a good way to eat, so I think that’s why they’re doing it. They didn’t do it last year, and I like this way better,” he said.

Cafeteria manager Bonnie Smith said the new system is a relief not only to the students but also to her and the rest of the cafeteria staff.

“It was just all the negativity we were getting, and we tried our hardest. But with the guidelines we had to follow, it made it difficult. Now you get to choose anything you want in here, and they’re just so excited,” she said.

In addition, the kitchen got all new modernized equipment, replacing the outdated stoves, ovens, and refrigerators they previously were using.

According to Wade, the corporation’s goal is to eventually rollout this new system in all of the buildings.

“That’s the goal: eventually trying to go across the district with it,” he said. “Some places it’s hard to do that now because you don’t have the serving areas, the refrigerated areas. My guess is as more people hear about it, the more they’re going to want it to come to their schools.”

The cafeteria renovation at Maple Crest was the first to be completed, and renovations currently are in the finishing stages at Wallace School of Integrated Arts and Central Middle International School.

The Maple Crest cafeteria was designed by Scott Reitano of Reitano Design Group. Reitano, a veteran of the food service industry, is known for his reputation of innovative designs and creative solutions.