Herald Photo / Dean Hockney
UPGRADE  — Cathy Mclain sells smoothies, cookies, and yogurt parfaits to Central Middle International School students at the juice bar.
Herald Photo / Dean Hockney UPGRADE — Cathy Mclain sells smoothies, cookies, and yogurt parfaits to Central Middle International School students at the juice bar.
When the topic of a school lunch is brought up in most homes, the discussion typically turns negative as the child describes the contents of what was plopped on the tray. 

But not at Central Middle International School in downtown Kokomo. Thanks to a state-of-the-art makeover, lunches on campus now feature an international flair in a brand new “train depot” themed environment.

“This is wonderful for the students,” said assistant principal Jenny Mygrant. “Having a selection and a nice setting makes a world of difference. We are also seeing less food waste. It has dramatically changed the culture of the lunch room.”

The makeover, which included a construction project that stripped the old facility to the support beams for cosmetic purposes, also brought in new kitchen equipment. From chicken with pesto to curry chicken, hamburgers to spicy chicken sandwiches and subs to fresh salads, the selection is broad and fresh. 

Jack Lazar, director of food service for the Kokomo School Corporation, said the improved setting includes comfortable tables, a well-lit “train depot” themed environment, and a lounge area where students can sit, talk, and relax during the 30-minute lunch.

“The five-compartment trays are gone,” said Lazar, noting the trays previously would separate the food as it was dished out by employees. Now, food is dished just prior to students arriving in line, making it a grab-and-go concept. “They pick up a regular tray, a fresh fruit and vegetable, a main entree, and a drink. It is a quick process, which gives students more time to relax and eat.”

Lazar said that the main entree is a choice for students: it can be the main food item on the line, a hot sandwich (typically hamburgers or chicken), a fresh salad (vegetarian, Caesar, or chef), a sub-style sandwich, or the international entree. The menu is posted so students can have an idea of what they want before they get in line. There is also an a la carte section. 

“They get seven or eight choices per day now,” said Lazar, who noted Wallace and Maple Crest schools also have undergone the same style of renovations. “Previously, they would get one or two. There are no long lines, and the kids know what they want.”

Outside of the main cafeteria is a dessert stand where students can purchase cookies, yogurt parfaits, and smoothies. The menu shifts based on students’ preferences. For a time, Jell-O was a hot commodity, but once sales slimmed, they temporarily discontinued Jell-O until warmer temperatures return.

“Again, everything is made fresh right here at Central,” said Lazar. “The smoothies and yogurts are made just before the kids get in here for lunch, so they are cold and ready.”

A second stage of the makeover involved a new kitchen, which includes state-of-the-art cooking equipment and two walk-in coolers. This also allows Central food service manager Nancy Hall and her team the opportunity to prepare food on site. Lazar and Mygrant both praised the hard work of the cafeteria team in ensuring the changes were effective.

“I can tell a change in the students. Instead of asking, ‘What are we having today?’ they ask, ‘What can I have?’ They love it,” said Hall. “It was hard at first for the staff. We did have to teach our staff how to use the new equipment, but they love it too.”

One of the components of the KSC Student Nutrition Wellness Policy states, “Schools will encourage socializing among students, and between students and adults.” With the new “train depot” theme, which ties into the International Baccalaureate program the school offers, students sit around tables or lounge on long benches that simulate an international experience. A large, in-laid compass in the middle of the floor points to such international destinations as San Jose, Costa Rica (3,408 kilometers from Kokomo), and Bangkok, Thailand (13,960 kilometers). There is also a stage on one end that could be utilized for lunchtime concerts.

Mygrant said there is an educational concept to the change. The new lunch facility not only offers nutritious food and has a comfortable feel, but the entire concept also fits perfectly into the goal of the IB program at Central. Now, the school can theme a meal toward what students are learning in the classroom.

“It blends really nicely here at Central because of the IB program,” said Mygrant. “It is what we are asking the students to do in the classroom. We want them to look at choices, take risks, and try new things in a cultural environment. It is a whole new thing. The kids really do come in and choose individually. They love it.”

“It is a radical concept,” added Lazar. “The food is healthier with more fresh fruits and vegetables. They are getting more choices. Sometimes the choices are hard for the kids, and I guess that is a good thing.”