It's 11:30 a.m., and the lunchtime pick-up window is open.
Students line up on the sidewalk and give their name to a teacher who doles out boxes stocked with chicken fingers, corn dogs or burgers. Lunch in hand, they file to the courtyard at St. John Greek Orthodox Day School to dive in.
Does this school menu make you cringe?
It shouldn't. This is no greasy, calorie-laden school lunch – it's fast food. And before you think that sounds even worse, know that the lunches contain
less fat, are baked instead of fried and have no nitrates, hormones or antibiotics.
St. John has partnered with EVOS for the restaurant's "Healthy Kids Lunches" program. Parents with children in the South Tampa school can order hot lunches from EVOS three days a week.
"It tastes like normal food, and it's good," says seventh-grader Reid Wichman.
EVOS, along with newcomer Wholesome Tummies, has found a middle ground between relying on traditional hot school lunches and brown bagging it.
School lunches get a bad rap – just watch Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" on television; the show put a spotlight on the abundance of processed foods and lack of fresh choices in many cafeterias. Public school districts are working to offer more healthy choices but still struggle with getting students to eat them.
The solution for many families is to pack their own lunches, where they can control what goes in the bag and if their child gets organic fruits or whole grains. The problem is that planning, shopping and packing take time out of an busy day, and despite those good intentions, it's easier to just pay for a meal at school.
That's where EVOS and Wholesome Tummies come in.
The EVOS lunch program grew out of the Tampa-based fast-food chain two years ago. Wholesome Tummies started four years ago in Orlando, but only recently became a franchise; Tampa mom Kelly McGary opened hers in Hillsborough County this school year.
McGary had a corporate job in finance and two young sons. Although she wanted them to have healthy meals, she hated spending precious free time assembling meals to go.
"I remember thinking, 'I want to be doing a puzzle with my son right now. I don't want to be packing his lunches,'" she says. "I thought there were a lot of other parents like me, and families like me, who wanted another option."
EVOS and Wholesome Tummies work similarly. Schools – locally it's only private or charter schools for now – partner with the business that provides lunches. Parents create an account online, view menus, and select the days they want to buy lunch and the entrée the child wants. Meals can be canceled if the child has to miss school.
Costs vary, but it's about $5 for the private meals versus less than $3 for a basic public school lunch.
EVOS lunchboxes include one entree, a fruit or vegetable, a snack, bottled water and condiments. The main courses mirror the restaurant menu with kid-friendly items such as hot dogs, chicken strips, burgers and wraps, as well as some vegetarian options.
The difference, spokeswoman Jackie Macaluso points out, is how the foods are prepared. They're never fried, she says, and they're full of "awesome flavor and no junk." The EVOS hot dog, for example, is all beef with no nitrates or hormones.
"We know what's in our hot dog," Macaluso says. "It's a great, clean hot dog."
Wholesome Tummies gets more adventurous. Entrees range from children's favorites of macaroni and cheese, pizza or sandwiches. Or kids can branch out with herb-baked chicken with ratatouille and orzo, roasted vegetables with couscous or yogurt bento boxes.
Nut-free, gluten-free and vegetarian choices are available, too, and Mondays are meatless for everyone.
Students might be wary of the different meals, but often they like them after they try them, McGary says. Most children avoided the vegetables and couscous in favor of the "safe" item the first day, she says, but they perked up when they tried samples.
"We really have the opportunity to change the way kids eat," she says.
The deliveries are a plus for private and charter schools, many of which do not have large kitchens and a cafeteria staff like the public schools.
The companies would like to stretch into the traditional public schools, and had worked with at least one Hillsborough County school, MacFarlane Park Elementary, at the parents' request -- until the district ended the partnership last month.
Mary Kate Harrison, the school district's manager of student nutrition, says the county has to meet strict nutrition and sanitation guidelines and document them to receive federal funding. Bringing in outside vendors gets complicated, because the district can't ensure they meet the same standards.
That doesn't mean kids don't have options, Harrison says.
Children are welcome to bring any lunch they want from home. Parents also can buy meals – even fast food – and bring it to the cafeteria to eat with their child. And schools are taking steps to reduce sodium in the meals they serve, and increase the amount of whole grains and fresh produce.
Families can make arrangements for special meals to meet dietary requirements, such as allergies or gluten-free needs.
"We try to do our best in providing healthy meals to kids," Harrison says.
McGary says she would love for Wholesome Tummies to return to public schools, but she doesn't want to expand too fast and have quality suffer, either. Tampa's Wholesome Tummies franchise serves about 300 meals daily in two private schools and a large preschool.
EVOS has dozens of partner schools throughout its markets, about twice as many as last year.
St. John Head of School Cindy Strickland says the program went so well last year that the school increased its EVOS days from two to three. She likes that the meals are easy to distribute and that EVOS donates 10 percent of the sales back to the schools.
But the real selling point for her is that the children are getting something good.
"A lot have PE after lunch or sports after school," Strickland says. "They really need to have a healthy lunch to do all the activities they need to do."
Bailey Rumbley, a seventh-grader, brings a packed lunch with a sandwich, fruit and granola bar on the non-EVOS days. She was skeptical of EVOS' "healthy fast food" pitch at first.
"I was like, 'Oh, no,' because my mom's really healthy, so I get a lot of that at home," the 13-year-old says.
Then she tasted the meals and liked them, especially the chicken and hot dog. Her mother approves, too, and enjoys not having to worry about packing a lunch every day.
"She can kind of relax," Bailey says.
Pack a lunch with a healthy punch
In a lunch rut? If you’re brown-bagging it or your school doesn’t offer EVOS or Wholesome Tummies, here are some ideas for meals that are nutritious and still appeal to kids.
The standby sandwich can get a nutritious makeover by serving it on whole grain bread and using deli meat that is free of nitrates and additives, says Wholesome Tummies Tampa owner Kelly McGary. If peanuts are prohibited or you just want a change, try "sun butter," a sunflower-seed spread.
And don’t forget to include sides, such as orange sections or edamame, and snacks like sunflower seeds or whole grain crackers with low-fat cheese.
The PBS Parents blog, "Kitchen Explorers," is stocked with recipes and ideas for lunch and beyond. Some of the packables mentioned include black beans and rice; tuna salad on crackers; cheese and tomato sandwiches (put the tomato between two slices of cheese so the bread doesn’t get soggy); or peanut butter with apples, honey or raisins on whole wheat.
Using a bento box – those adorable lunchboxes with compartments for everything – gives you portion control along with a fun display. Fill the compartments with small sandwiches, low-fat string cheese, baby carrots, grape tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, dry cereal, hummus, trail mix.
Find the blog at www.pbs.org/parents/kitchenexplorers