When the lunch bell rings at East High School, students scatter like ants.
Some rush to a second-floor hallway where the girls’ basketball team is selling slices of pizza. Some buy cups of noodle soup from another club fundraiser.
Some gather with friends and plop down on the hallway floor – backs against lockers – and unpack lunches from home. Others race outside to buy lunch from food trucks or nearby fast-food joints.
Fewer than one in four heads to the cafeteria to buy a school lunch.
“For me, it’s kind of a mystery what they serve there,” said Tess Diec, a senior.
Diec said she usually packs her lunch – a sandwich and salad – and eats with friends in the senior hallway. Has she ever been inside the East High cafeteria?
“Maybe once or twice, for prom,” Diec said. “Not to eat.”
The Wichita district wants more high school students to reconsider school lunches, in part to make sure they eat healthy meals. Officials recently hired a consulting firm to study possible improvements that could increase traffic flow, decrease wait times and enhance the overall function of cafeterias. And they plan to spend up to $250,000 on the effort.
At East High, the district’s oldest and largest high school, only 24 percent of students regularly get a school lunch, even though nearly 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals as part of the federally funded school lunch program.
Other city high schools are similar. At West, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, fewer than half get a school lunch. At North, about 83 percent qualify for the program, but only about 43 percent regularly eat the lunch.
Northeast Magnet, a new high school at 53rd Street North and Rock Road with few nearby lunch options for students who leave campus, boasts the highest lunch participation rate, at 54.5 percent.
“If participation rates are low, we can look deeper at the program to determine if changes or improvements are necessary,” said Darren Muci, the district’s director of operations. “What is driving this is the responsibility of providing nutritious meals to the students.”
On a recent day at East High, two lines leading into the lunchroom stretched down the hallway and around a corner.
Once inside, students grabbed trays with chicken nuggets or breaded steak fingers and mashed potatoes and gravy. At another station, they selected fresh apples, bananas and other fruit or vegetable options.
Lauren Plowman, a freshman, said she eats the school lunch “because it’s free.”
That was senior Salvador Escalera’s reason, too. Two friends at his table nodded in agreement.
“The only days we have something good are, like, delivery pizza,” Escalera said. “The chicken nuggets are good, and the hamburgers. But everything else is not that good.
“I eat because I’m hungry and it’s free,” he added. “I don’t think anyone would want to spend $2 on this food if they could get something else.”
On a second-floor hallway, junior Hannah Al-Khub ate a lunch she brought from home. Her friend Abbie Jaso, a senior, unwrapped a Subway sandwich.
“My mom told me I should try” the cafeteria, Al-Khub said. She said she bought a school lunch one day during her freshman year, and “it was disgusting.”
“It was a frozen pizza thing, but it wasn’t even cooked,” she said. “I never went back.”
Not all students who avoid the cafeteria complained about the food. Many said they just prefer to eat what they want, where they want – a long-held tradition at East. A school rule intended to reduce trash in the hallways requires school lunches to stay in the cafeteria.
On an average day, you can find students meeting in study groups over lunch, reviewing material with teachers or tutors, working on computers in the library, playing basketball or talking with friends. Juniors and seniors are allowed to leave campus for lunch.
And lunchtime is the lifeblood of the school’s network of more than 50 student clubs, which usually meet during the lunch period.
“We pretty much open up the building and go, ‘Where do you want to hang out?’ ” said Ken Thiessen, principal at East. More than a dozen teachers and administrators monitor the building and lawn during lunch, he said.
“From my point of view, it’s not a concern. The kids aren’t telling me it’s a concern. … If a kid wants food, there’s food available” in the cafeteria and elsewhere, he said.
“Kids are going to buy what they want and eat what they want. They’re not going to buy what they don’t want.”
Unfortunately, say district officials, many don’t eat what they should. For Vivian Navarro and her friends in the East High library, a typical lunch is a bag of Doritos and a can of pop.
Thomas Burton, a junior and an athlete, often buys chips or cookies from a vendor that parks outside the school.
“It’s not healthy,” Burton admitted. “But it’s quick.”
Superintendent John Allison told school board members he recommended the cafeteria study not to improve the appearance or decor of school lunch rooms – though that could help, he said – but because nutrition affects learning.
“If you’re not eating lunch, later in the day, you’re not firing on all cylinders,” Allison said.
Recent changes to the government-subsidized school meal program, which encourage schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, won’t mean much if students opt to forgo cafeterias altogether, Allison said.
One day last week at East, Burton bought a tray of hummus, pita bread and vegetables from a school vending machine. The machines, which dispense sandwiches, salads and other cold meals that meet federal nutrition requirements, are another lunch option at most Wichita high schools.
Burton might have bought chicken nuggets at the cafeteria, he said, but he lost his school ID, and “the lines are super long.”
Allison said adding grab-and-go lines, kiosks or similar strategies in cafeterias could increase participation and make school lunches an option for more students.
Ryan Lampton, a sophomore, said he usually packs a lunch and eats with friends near their lockers. What might prompt him to try the cafeteria?
“First off, probably (reduce) the wait time to get in,” he said. “And then, I don’t know, maybe better food?”
Vicki Hoffman, director of nutrition services for Wichita schools, said the district continually reviews its menus, listens to requests and tests new options. New entrees at elementary schools this year include chicken alfredo, teriyaki chicken on brown rice, fish sticks and garlic cheese bread.
New items at secondary schools include a chicken soft taco, General Tso chicken and a yogurt, string cheese and pretzel plate.
Getting high school students to rethink school lunches could be a challenge, particularly at East, where, for most students, the cafeteria-free life is both preference and habit.
“Maybe they could make the lunches sound more appealing when they’re announcing it on the intercom,” said Heather Silveira, a senior. “We’ve heard that the food’s not that good, but we’re not sure.”